Excerpts - Scroll down for photos
India Travel Journal
29 December 2005 – 12 January 2006
I - American 293 Chicago to New Delhi
Night has fallen. The flight is
completely full and we
are already late departing, but not by a lot. This is a direct flight
from Chicago to New Delhi, and about fifteen hours, total.
There was a well-dressed couple in the
check-in line going home to
Mexico City. They had four huge suitcases and assorted carry-ons. The
woman was very friendly, looked at our shoulder bags and asked, “Is
that all you are taking to India?” When we said yes, she did a double
take at our bags and asked, “So, are going to do some meditating?” I
guess she thought if we had so few belongings we must be some kind of
ascetics or something.
II - Over the Aral Sea
A customer comes to buy some.
The vendor grabs two big handfuls of the murmura krispies, tossing them
into a pot, followed by a baseball-sized, all-you-can-grab handful of
the onions. Big pinches of cilantro, tomatoes and peppers, some corn
flakes, a couple of selections from the other nuts and krispies,
squeeze in half a tiny lemon and add a pinch of salt.
The Palika Bazaar is a couple of large, concentric, oval tracks of numbered merchant stalls, all indoor and underground. There are some crafts and electronics, jewelry, etc., but the main thing is clothes, pretty much aimed at locals.
I followed Jenny around as she cased all the shops (200-some in all), and then we went in one. They displayed the equivalent of party dresses, but Jenny explained that she wanted non-fancy, everyday clothes. The style of shop keeping was positively old-world. The merchant pulled considerations off the shelf one after another, immediately tossing aside any that were met with “nah” sounds. Jenny explained her color preferences and things began to narrow down. This was the best of that kind of sales-ship—no pressure. He liked what she liked. She picked a couple of beautifully colored and subtly decorated sets of salwar kamiz and dupatta. She looks beautiful in them, and she declares that despite their exotic beauty to us, they are extremely comfortable and practical and she feels good in them.
They come sleeveless and we followed an assistant to the loft of another stall so a tailor could measure Jenny for altering the waist on one, and adding the basted-on optional short sleeves to both. She bought a third set at another shop, and picked out some earrings, bangles, and a hippie bag.
Back at the hotel she tried on the clothes while I wrote about the outcome of our hotel woes, and then she put on one to wear, hiding the creases where it had been folded with the way she wore the dupatta. She will wear these for the rest of the trip.
We set out on foot again, this time to the Janpath market, which seems largely dedicated to Tibetan crafts. It was such a pleasant late-afternoon walk. We bought what are basically curry potato stuffed turnovers with chili sauce, and munched while we walked. I was noticing the way Jenny was regarded in her Indian clothes.
At the market I bought a small, heavy, lidded brass bowl for Dave’s (my late brother’s) ashes. A tout outside said “Hello! Chess set!” Jenny said, “Did he just say ‘Hello cheese pants?’” Around the corner on a perpendicular side of the market I photographed sellers of ornate, Tibetan throw pillow shams, table runners, bedspreads, etc.—all women. (It is getting light and we are nearing Agra.) More later.
VIII - Table in the garden, Hotel Sheela, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
After the Janpath market we strolled back toward the hotel. As we were making our way back around the inner circle of Connaught Place, I saw another masala bhel vendor and decided to sample some. I pointed, nodded and smiled. He smiled back with a hopeful look and made a stirring motion. I nodded again. In went the krispies, the astonishing wad of onion, and all the rest. My newspaper envelope was made of four-color ads. Its contents were delicious. The tomatoes (unpeeled) and fresh cilantro both broke a cardinal rule of street-vendor grazing, but they were in small amounts and I was just sampling. Jenny reminded me about this, and then sampled a bite herself.
We strolled and I munched. Vendors were hawking these large, foil-covered, conical cardboard horns that made a loud, low sound, sort of like a party horn on steroids. Of course! It was New Years Eve. It occurred to me that it was not going to be a quiet night on the street below. Jenny reminded me again not to eat too much of the bhel.
Once inside the hotel we bought thirty minutes of internet access and e-mailed home that we were fine, and with an explanation of our itinerary change. After that we went to the room, changed into pajamas, ordered the Indian room service mentioned above, ate it, got organized, and fell into bed. It was about 8:30. Happy New Year.
Well, I learned to distinguish between the party horns and car horns as I dropped off to sleep. The party horns had a slightly quieter, somewhat remote sound, and reminded me of continuously honking geese, but stationary geese, spread curiously throughout the city, both near and far. This was punctuated by the car horns, which were both closer and louder in their electrified power. With the roar of motor traffic in the background, it made for a fairly unified and interesting overall texture. Cage would have been pleased. So, too, any Dadaist worth his salt.
We managed to sleep fairly well, though. Better than the night before, anyway. The jetlag was actually a plus, given that we would have to rise at some ungodly hours, for the train to Agra, for the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and for boating on the Ganges at dawn.
We felt fairly alert at 4:30 when the
travel alarm beeped. We checked out and the elder, turbaned,
mustachioed Sikh taxi driver got us to the station in short order.
and breakfast described above came and
went. For some reason the two-hour trip took three. The train was very
evocative of China for me. Only the Indian faces and Hindi words on the
ad boards were indicative of India.
It was another bright, sunny morning. I
got us a prepaid taxi at the outdoor booth. To cut acid rain
damage to the Taj Mahal, no new industrial development has been allowed
in Agra since 1994 and all three or four-wheeled IC motor traffic is
banned in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal. The driver dropped us at the
perimeter and we transferred to a pedal-rickshaw. There were also
electric busses operating in the area.
The hotel is outstanding, even though it is a bottom-end place selected for location. A large, red sandstone paved plaza enclosed deep within a quiet, pleasant garden far from the noisy traffic. We sat with our backs to the morning sun sipping tea and waiting for checkout time so we could check in. Well-tended ficus, palms, cypress, bougainvillea. Later we watched parrots out in the garden.
Because the hotel falls well within the
low-budget option for those hailing
from industrialized nations, the funkiness factor is very high in
the rooms; but this is more than compensated by the pleasantness
outside where everyone hangs out, and the quiet day and night. More
expensive options include the din of motors and motorcycle horns day
and night. The elderly Sikh gardener gave Jenny a tiny,
string-wound bouquet with a little piece of juniper and a single
When we reached the plinth, we decided to stroll around it and save going up on it and inside for the next day. The plinth itself is a couple of stories high. Along the backside of the court below it is a very low balustrade where there is a drop-off three or four stories high along the foundation, down to the riverbank below. Dangerous and scary.
Though there were respectable crowds there, few people walked to the plazas on either side and around behind the plinth. It was a singular stroll, looking up at the Taj Mahal from there as we walked. It was also impossible to compose photos that could convey the experience. The human mind can compose any number of well-framed details and then compile them into the whole field of vision at once, while still maintaining singular comprehension of each detail. No photograph can do that. All we could do was try and capture a few details. Jenny and I have a saying about consciously creating a memory of something both compelling and passing: “Take a picture.”
There were people in a park across the river getting the identical rear view from there. It is the same from all four directions, minarets included. The only difference is in the Arabic scripts inlaid in black marble framing the large central entrances. Surely they are Quranic, though I do not know what they say. There is something to research.
After strolling around the backside, we walked back along the wide, red sandstone path on the east side of the central garden and pools. There are other well-tended gardens outside there to the east and west, with a variety of trees, all catalogued and labeled. Dark was falling and it was so pleasant.
The electricity in ordinary Agra (like, not the Sheraton) is undependable, as with many such parts of the world. The electricity at the hotel goes off every so often. If that lasts for more than a few minutes, they start a generator, but it seems to just stay off much of the afternoon. We sat at a table under a steel awning outside for dinner. It was dark, and the lights kept going off, but we had a candle. I was feeling a little travel bug coming on, so I tried to eat modestly.
As we were going to try getting up
early to see the Taj Mahal at dawn, we switched off the extremely dim
fluorescent light in the room (it is like moonlight, to put it in a
positive way), and crawled into bed. We asked for extra woolen
blankets, so we stayed warm enough in that dark, dank, thinly
veneered little concrete box of a room. I am sure during the dry season
having a room ten or fifteen degrees cooler than outside is a real
plus. This is the only budget hotel on our trip. All the rest are
It was still dark when we rose. I
checked at the desk for breakfast at the time we had been told, but
except for the lone, watching attendant, everything was dark and there
were some workers sleeping on the floor of the reception room.
The attendant named a time an hour later. Jenny always needs breakfast,
and going back to the Taj Mahal without it would have made her ill. On
the other hand, I wanted to be there at dawn.
After hanging out in the room for a
while (in the “moonlight”), we decided I would go to the Taj Mahal
then, while Jenny ate breakfast, then she would come in and meet me
there later. I set off right away.
Going in, I was as moved as the day
before. It was getting lighter, but it was a hazy morning, so the light
was just a gray color turning slightly more golden as the minutes
passed. I am convinced that Lonely
Planet photographer used an orange
and purple gradient filter for the picture on that plate in the book.
Halfway down the garden on the north
side of the raised marble platform at midway, a friendly Dutch guy took
our picture with our camera for us. He asked some Japanese tourists in
Japanese to please move. He was composing the shot well, and we knew
that he knew what he was doing. We saw him again later up on the plinth
around on the backside taking photos of details. Later, on the way
back, we asked this European woman to take our picture again. She
actually cut off the dome in the picture. Jenny said, “Everyone has
When we saw the Dutch guy the second
time we struck up a conversation. His Dad had been in a Japanese POW
camp, and taught his son what Japanese he had learned. Later on, here
came the guy walking into the garden of the hotel. After that, here
came the woman who had taken the bad picture and the woman with her.
Best place in town. (There is a bright blue kingfisher with an orange
breast, black head, and yellow beak sitting in the tree.)
We walked on to the Taj Mahal. On the
plaza below the plinth we were given blue surgical booties to put on
over our shoes, to protect the solid white marble up on the plinth and
inside. The sun had come up and it was beautiful up there.
I took macro shots of the floral design
dura inlays on the porch: carnelian (red-orange), malachite
lapis lazuli (blue), abalone (pearly), jasper (dull yellow), and black
marble. Precious stones of the ancient world, and of St. John’s
Inside, the inlays on the styles and
rails of the octagonal marble filigree screen were different from those
on the outside, and I liked one of the patterns (little bunches of
vase-shaped carnelian blossoms with tiny inlaid stamens), but photos
were prohibited and I could not manage one without getting caught at
it—made me think of Jenny at the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an; but her
treachery was an unqualified success. No matter—it was dark in there,
time I looked up, the Taj Mahal had changed appreciably with the
Every time I looked up, the Taj Mahal had changed appreciably with the approaching sunrise.
Her white, inlaid sarcophagus is in the
center on an inlaid platform. His—larger—is to one side on a slightly
higher platform. The actual bones are supposed to be in the basement. A
railing kept people away from the screen, but one could walk all the
way around it and see the sarcophagi through the door of the
screen. The reverberation was spectrally full and long. Someone was
singing something loudly as we walked back out.
We walked around the building the
opposite way we had walked round the plinth the day before and we saw
the Dutch guy the second time. We came down
and back through the front garden. I took photos and the woman
the bad picture of us. We walked backwards a little, looking at the
thing. As we walked out, I remarked how lucky we were to have
After a riot of Indian food, I am
appreciating the merits of plain toast and plain tea in my delicate
condition. That is what I had for breakfast back in the hotel garden.
After a while, Jenny set off on foot to find a post office for stamps
to send post cards, and other things we might need. I stayed in the
sunshine of the garden and wrote. After a while she came back with two
gray, army-like wool blankets for the rough-class overnight train trip.
This on the way to find the post office.
She had walked alongside a bull in the
narrow street, which had sort of lightly butted at her as she had
passed. A man called to her from across another narrow street. “Where
did you get your earrings?” Jenny ignored him, so he said, “What, you
don’t talk to Indians?” Up went the dupatta.
He said, “I see you are
covering your hair, but I am still going to follow you.” That was the
end of it.
She stopped at a place with a woman
working at it and asked for bindhi (tiny,
adhesive, jewel-like forehead decorations). The woman asked, “How many
do you need?” “Oh, just one.” “One bindhi?”
she asked flatly. “Oh, maybe five or six.” I suggested
later that they must come packaged multiply, like matches in a box, and
that if you replace “bindhi”
with “matches,” you can see the woman’s perspective. “How many matches
do you need?” “Oh, just one.” “One match?” “Oh, maybe five or six.” We
have laughed about that several times today. The woman told Jenny to
come back later.
I had coffee with my toast at lunch.
After lunch we walked out again. We went back to the place Jenny had
bought the blankets and she got a cardigan. Women wear them over their kamiz. It is cool at night, and we
will be on the drafty train. I bought a fleece vest. We walked the
narrow, open sewer lined streets. The shops were more like stalls, as
The woman still did not have the bindhi, but she said to come back.
At that point I was feeling kind of weak, so I headed back to the hotel
and left Jenny to her “third-world, dusty-donkey adventure trip,” a
phrase I had uttered at lunch and we had laughed about.
Back at the hotel, I lay down and
thought about details of the committal of part of Dave’s ashes at
Varanasi and Bodhgaya. As I thought about reading the scriptures and
prayers we had prepared, I began to cry. I felt better after a while,
both emotionally and physically, so I went out to the garden to sit and
Jenny came back
with a bindhi stuck on her
forehead, and mendhi on her
left hand and wrist (intricate designs painted on with henna). I
thought if left to her own devices something like this might happen. It
It is dusk now, and we have been
sitting here at a table in the garden, Jenny reading and I writing. I
think I will skip dinner. The gentle, friendly server/food manager
Anil has brought us a candle.
I slept well and felt much better this
morning. It was probably that masala
bhel, after all. I have been meaning to write that we hear calls
to prayer coming over a loudspeaker from the mosque inside the Taj
Mahal. The day we arrived, there was also what sounded like Hindu
chanting coming from a loudspeaker somewhere.
We had a leisurely breakfast. I am
expanding on the theme of plain toast. This morning I had the Indian
version of French toast with some honey. Also, a fruit lassi. That is a glass of small
mixed fruit chunks (papaya, apple, sultanas) with sweetened drinkable
yogurt poured over. Yum!
A mixed-nationality tour group came in
last night, waking us briefly. They were all sitting in the garden this
morning listening to a lecture about what they were about to see,
having been adorned every one with a garland of marigolds. Their guide
was a slick-looking, gregarious Indian fellow. Group tours. No, thanks,
all the same.
We checked out. The bill for two
nights’ stay, seven or eight meals, and laundry, was astonishing in its
modesty—about forty-seven dollars, total.
After paying up, we packed
up. After having acquired a blanket and a sweater each, it was time for
the hand-roll vacuum bags. Our clothes had come back from the
laundry-wallahs, pressed boxer shorts and all, and we compressed them
to make room for the other stuff.
We stowed our bags for the day and
went to buy some gem-inlaid marble items. From a design standpoint, I
can understand Vicki’s (my sister’s) interest in the Taj
Mahal (she is a commercial interior designer). Apparently, the
aesthetic and craft are Persian in origin. We are going to need an
extra bag sooner or later if we keep buying loot.
Shah Jahan began to turn it into a
palace during his reign, planting gardens, installing palatial
buildings made of his personally preferred white marble, and plastering
over existing red sandstone structures to make them white. He also
built a high-perched overlook from which he could gaze upon the
monumental tomb of his dear departed down the river. The haze was way
too thick to see it today. The whole thing became his gilded prison for
the last thirteen years of his life, after his son deposed him. Junior
was kind enough to inter Dad in the Taj Mahal, next to Mom.
Various invaders have occupied and/or
plundered the fort over the years, the last being the British, who used
it as a garrison. The hall for receiving dignitaries had contained the
solid gold peacock throne. The Persians carted it off at some point,
and it was last seen at the coronation of the Shah of Iran.
Jenny looked stunning in her pale blue salwar kamiz against the white
marble. A group of Chinese tourists passed by, and a woman remarked of
Jenny (in Chinese), “Very pretty.” Here is this blonde, blue-eyed woman
in a strikingly blue Indian garment with her head covered in a dupatta and a sparkly thing on her
forehead. Jenny then thanked the woman in Chinese. That slowed them all
up a little bit, and then Jenny said in her perfect Mandarin, “So, you
all are Chinese?” Talk about messing with someone’s head. They were
perfectly gobsmacked. The woman sputtered, “Are you Chinese?” Then a
man was saying, “So, this is a sa-li
(sari)?” Jenny said, “It is salwar
kamiz.” They all looked puzzled, then I said in my perfect Mandarin, “This kind has
pants and a shirt.” That got them again. The man said, “You, too?” They
were from Shanghai, and clearly having fun.
We had the auto-rickshaw driver drop us
off short of the hotel, near some shops, and set off to find a bag for
the extra stuff we are buying. Jenny bought a garland of roses to give
to the owner of the hotel. He seemed genuinely pleased.
I had a toasted chicken sandwich for
lunch. The chicken was chopped and fried with onions and curry. The
French fries (“potato chips”) were tasty, too. I have been sitting here
ever since, writing and chatting with Jenny. She went out once to get
some tikka powder (for
forehead dots) and these wooden tea boxes we had seen, but scored on
neither. The sun is going down on this cool, hazy day, and it is
getting cooler. We have about two and half hours to veg. out here, but
part of that will be for dinner.
We vegged out. I ate a light dinner of
some naan (roasted flatbread)
and the equivalent of egg-drop tomato soup. We gave Anil a big tip—hope
that was okay. It got cool enough outside that we moved to one of the
tables inside the reception area. There were goofy (to us) Indian music
videos and commercials, the latter of which were as goofy as any,
The train tickets indicated which
station, but the same train stops at all four stations in Agra. We had
lots of advice from hotel staff about which station to go to, but we
decided to stick with the instructions. One staffer was really nervous
and kept asking if we should not leave.
There was but one auto-rickshaw there
in the dark street. The driver was a little wilder than some with his
driving, so the commute bordered on harrowing. The departure
station was tiny for a city the size of Agra, and few people were
there. Included among them was an Australian hippie backpacker couple,
and an old man with withered and twisted, but still useable legs,
walking with a stick.
The train arrived more or less on time, and is now approaching its final destination this morning, it is only about an hour and a half late. It is like a Chinese hard sleeper in every way, except that the people look and behave differently. I took the upper of the longwise, aisle-side berths we had been assigned. The turquoise-blue vinyl of my berth was encrusted with silty dust. I managed to wipe it fairly clean with some damp toilet paper.
I could not figure out how to turn off the glaring fluorescent light, so I just covered my head along with the rest of myself. That is how all the people around us were sleeping. After about an hour of sleep the conductor came around. After he checked the tickets, I heard the snap of a switch and the light went out. The berths are a little hard on hips and shoulders, but I managed to turn often enough to make it through the night without waking for very long.
The berth was too short to stretch out on my back, so my bent knees had to lean against the wall. The wall would shudder and rumble loudly with the sudden wind and noise of a passing train, and give me a rude awakening. The windows tended not stay all the way down, so the car was breezy and cold, but we stayed warm enough in layered clothes, covered over with blankets, under which the warmth of our breath stayed. At some point, the person on the lowest of the longer, crosswise berths adjacent to us got off, and I moved there so I could stretch out. Jenny noted that the man down there had a blanket just like ours, and that the top of his head looked like mine, before she realized it was I.
We are organized and ready to
disembark. We are looking forward to a
hot shower and some clean clothes, and then to striking out along the
ghats. I bought two tiny, steaming cups of chai from the roving vendor,
and we got into the beef jerky again. Jenny reads that the rooms at our
midrange hotel have mini-bars.
We ate a hearty breakfast in the lobby
and took hot showers (the neighbors were gone). I felt just
squeaky afterwards. We unpacked some laundered clothes and put them on.
We took an auto-rickshaw toward Dasaswamedh Ghat. No motor traffic is
allowed in the old city, so he had to drop us at some distance. We
strolled slowly and looked the all the interesting color. Jenny bought
a couple packets of tikka
powder (dry forehead-dot paint) from a vendor
whose intensely colored piles of the stuff were laid out on a cart. She
chose colors to match her outfits, which is typical, save the reds and
oranges, which are more traditional and indicate religious devotion.
Back in Agra we had chatted with the
people in the
big, mixed tour group. One of them was a funny, young
Australian woman. As she was
walking out toward the gate of the hotel garden waving a twenty-rupee
note, she said of the group, “I’ve turned them on to samosas, so now I
have to make a samosa run.” Jenny had chatted with a young Irish man in
the group (whose accent was almost American) about their travels, and
found out they were also headed to Varanasi. That evening they were
piling their packs up in the garden plaza for a trip to the train
station around the time we were waiting to depart, but we found out
they were going on a different train, from a different station in Agra.
We alit at the end of a lane at the top
Dasaswamedh Ghat, and the last vendor in the lane was a woman selling
beauty notions. Jenny bought a couple of cards of bindhi from her, and
she adorned Jenny’s forehead and hairline with spots of deep red tikka
powder. A spot at the hairline (a line in the part, if the hair is
parted) indicates a married woman.
We walked down the long, long steps of
Dasaswamedh Ghat (it is perhaps thirty or forty yards
wide). The first thing I noticed to the left was the
huge, orange-painted sikhara
(Hindu spire indicating a temple) at the adjoining ghat to the north.
The ghat we were on opened out wider to the south, below the buildings
facing the river. We strolled in that direction and saw a priest
sitting beneath one of the round, reed-woven umbrellas where they sit.
There were some musicians there, an older man playing a harmonium,
and a younger woman playing tabla
(drums) and singing for all she was worth. We sat down with the others
who were hanging out there and listening.
As we sat, we noticed men going to the
priest (a fairly young one) to be blessed and have marks painted on
their foreheads, after which they made a small donation. Jenny
encouraged me to participate (she was right—when would such a chance
come again?), but I was resistant. As we sat there, I decided on my own
to risk making a fool of myself in exchange for an experience I would
I ventured to the platform and under
the umbrella. The priest was peaceful and welcoming with his smile, and
the singing, drumming woman was clearly pleased. I had seen a couple of
different types of applications, and when the priest gestured, asking
if I wanted tilak (a kind of
three-stripe pattern painted clear across the foreheads of devout Hindu
men), I indicated “no” and made a gesture for “little.” He understood,
and I squatted down. He dipped his finger in some deep orange liquid tikka, followed by some intense
yellow. He touched my forehead with it and held it there while he
chanted quietly. It certainly had a blessed feeling to it. He offered a
mirror. The result on my forehead was a deep orange, finger-sized spot
rimmed in yellow.
I bid him namasté and gave him a few
rupees baksheesh, and also
the musicians. The woman laughed delightedly, made a beckoning motion
with her fingers and teased, “More!” so I obliged. As we walked back
the other way I remarked to Jenny, either it was a blessing or he sent
me back as a dog, and we chuckled.
There are over eighty ghats
along the river. Dasaswamedh is about the most central, and those
around it, especially to the south, are brightly painted and stand out,
as seen from the river. The plan, after consulting descriptions in the
guidebook, was to start there and stroll north until we felt we had
seen enough. Little did we know how that would culminate.
Boys have been flying
small, paper kites all over Varanasi since we arrived. ‘Tis the season,
and apparently that season ends in nine more days with some local
festival. As I sit here in the rooftop garden of the hotel, I can see
three or four every direction I turn my head. They are being flown from
the rooftops around and below me.
So, there were also boys
running along the ghats, flying them where we strolled. They could get
the little things airborne rapidly, keep them there, and manipulate
them. It seemed like they were impishly conducting them in our
direction, by their behavior and the looks they were giving us.
I bought a sack of glass beads from a woman selling them, and Jenny took a picture of her sitting with her layout. In areas where there was more foot traffic and things being sold, the ghats were being hosed off and swept down with water pumped up from the river, but in other areas the cow shit and urine and general slime were rather off-putting. Jenny remarked that to slip and fall in it was not a memory she would like to make.
Finally, we came to Manikarnika Ghat, not too far upriver from where we had started. We knew about it, but were not concentrating on the nature of the ghats we saw, or which ones we were at. We just rounded a structure and it was upon us.
It is the main cremation, or “burning” ghat. It is disrespectful to take photographs, and everyone we saw, both on the bank, and later in boats on the river, kept their cameras down. Wood was stacked everywhere, according to type, ten and twenty feet high, and the air was thick with smoke. A sense of sacredness, awe, reflection, and consternation came over me. Our own taboos were challenged by something I otherwise knew to be both deeply sacred and superlatively ordinary.
We sat down on the ghat for a moment, as others had done upon arriving. I was aware of the nature of the activity, but without an orienting perspective on it, just yet. The work was being carried out on large, stone or concrete platforms built across the lower portion of the ghat, and I was conscious that we would have to climb higher to circle past.
- Platform 6, Varanasi Junction (continued)
Looking down on the stacks of wood,
they were distinguishable as having been sorted into different types by
their contrasting shapes, sizes, colors and textures. They were not cut
cord, rick, fireplace or stove length as is familiar to us, but in five
or six-foot lengths, which were more naturally curved and twisted, as
Planet says this: “Huge piles of firewood are stacked along the
top of the ghat, each log carefully weighed on giant scales so that the
price of cremation can be calculated. Each type of wood has its own
price, and sandalwood is the most expensive. There is an art to using
just enough wood to completely incinerate a corpse.”
On the surface of the platform below us to the right were three active pyres, the fires and contents of which were being actively tended using long, thick, green bamboo poles. Observing the details closely would not be for the faint-hearted. Jenny, who has seen more than I, gravely and gently observed some.
Bodies were carried on stretchers,
swathed in intensely colored, brightly glittering cloth and garlands. I
understand colors indicate sex and relative age of the deceased. Bodies
were carried right down to the water and doused in the Ganges, then
placed on the platforms where pyres were assembled over each. (Bodies
are handled by outcasts known as doms.)
Groups of people stood by, presumably family members.
I read that only male members of the
family stand vigil as the body is consumed. Females fulfill other
ritual roles elsewhere during that time. It is also considered
imperative that the family members present remain there until the
process is completed in its entirety. Ashes are gathered into red
earthen jars rounded into a spherical fishbowl shape. I saw these
stacked up by one of the outbuildings we had passed. Ashes are then
scattered out in the Ganges.
(The train should be here in about
fifteen. Bag of potato chips and a package of biscuits [cookies] on the
platform for dinner. Jenny arranged for someone from the hotel in
Bodhgaya to meet us at the station when she called from Agra to make a
Being at the burning ghats was intense, and mentally and emotionally exhausting. We decided we had enough of the ghats for one day. We worked our way back down them, over the cow slick, and back toward where we had come in. As we moved away from Manikarnika Ghat, the air was thick with the aroma of sandalwood smoke.
Jenny properly discerned a shortcut, and we made our way up a backstreet to the road by which we had come. We caught a cycle-rickshaw to get back to where the auto-rickshaws waited. The cyclist wanted to take us all the way back to the hotel, but I felt pretty wasted and thought it might take forever.
Back at the hotel we slaked our thirst with a liter of water, retired to the hotel’s extremely pleasant rooftop garden, and dined on a very encouraging dinner of chicken tikka and rice, fresh lemon soda, and chai.
We regrouped and headed out to Assi Ghat (the southernmost), and to the hotel’s sister establishment for a tabla, sitar and flute concert. The other hotel was hot inside, hopping and noisy with Euro-American tourists. It turned out for some reason that the concerts were off for three nights, including that one.
The electricity in Varanasi was rather more dependable than in Agra. The two or three times it did go out, there was no more than a minute’s lag between either its return or the hotel’s generator kicking in. That was good, considering you could not see your hand in front of your face in the windowless room. On the way to the hotel where the concert was supposed to be, I noticed a portion of the city through which we passed was without power. A few shops/stalls had generators and a few lights, but most had kerosene lamps or candles going. The other hotel shone like a beacon.
We decided to try that hotel’s rooftop restaurant for a snack, but it was partially under construction, lit sparsely and garishly with bare bulbs, and would have been generally unpleasant. Back outside in the dark, the lone auto-rickshaw driver quoted us a fivefold price, so we laughed and walked off toward where there would be others. In another minute he caught up with us, quoting a customary price.
Back at the hotel, we saw through the big window between the lobby and restaurant that the large, mixed tour group from Agra had come there to eat dinner. The funny Australian woman hollered and jumped up and we stepped into the restaurant to their acclamation. The Irish guy said, “There’s the guy that’s been stalking me.” I said to the woman, “The samosas are just down the road, in case you were wondering.”
We came back down there to have dinner, ourselves. The group was going around the table hearing testimonies about what their trip had meant to each one of them. Some kind of saucy, spicy chicken biryani (seasoned rice) and more aloo paratha for me, and it was time to hit the hay.
That afternoon after the ghats, I asked
at the hotel front desk about buying offering candles to float on the
Ganges, and the best time to start a pre-dawn boat trip, explaining our
intentions in addition to a tour of the ghats from the river. A tour
guide with the hotel set it all up for us. It was a real load off my
mind after the stress of the ghats.
We were retiring late and getting up early again, but after the chilly room in Agra and the hard berths on the train, that soft, warm, clean bed looked like heaven. We were not disappointed, and slept well.
During the precious snooze of the travel alarm, the phone rang with the wake-up call the guide had promised, even though we had told him not to bother. When we found him in the lobby wearing a down coat and furry hat, I thought my fleece vest might not be enough. Confirmation came when we stepped outside. Jenny waited while I ran up to get more layers. It was chilly, but we were okay. The guide slipped in next to the driver of the auto-rickshaw.
We put in at Shivala Ghat, quite away south of the ghats we had been at the day before. The boatman rowed northward three or four ghats until we were opposite Harischandra Ghat and a little way out from shore. We stopped there, as arranged.
When we had walked down Shivala Ghat
toward the boat, we were met by a cheerful little boy in an open-faced
ski mask with a basket of the candles we had asked about—about a dozen
of them. We bought the lot from him and he accompanied us out onto the
boat to assist, carrying the basket of votives with him. The guide had
been sweetly affectionate with him, tweaking his cheeks and patting his
were in your memory, Dave.
were in your memory, Dave.
The votives each consisted of a small
bowl shaped much as a small, paper picnic bowl would be, except molded
of some kind of broad, brownish-green, dry leaves (betel leaves, I
Each bowl served as a little boat. In the center was something
like a tea candle, surrounded by a ring of marigold blossoms.
When we boarded the boat, the
little boy began taking something soft and white from a small plastic
container and forming it around each wick. I have no idea what it was
(yak butter is a possibility), but perhaps it fueled the wicks in the
breeze until the
wax began to melt and wick to the flame. He began lighting them, until
the guide explained that we would be putting them into the river
When we stopped opposite Harischandra
Ghat, the boy began lighting the candles and handing them to Jenny and
me, and we, in turn, laid them on the water. They floated away behind
us and Jenny took photos. They were in your memory, Dave.
I took the cardstock with a scripture
from the Upanishads and a blessing from
the Book of Common Prayer printed on it out of the yarn bag I bought
from Uighurs in China; and, I also
brought out the lidded brass bowl from the Janpath market in Delhi, now
containing half the portion of Dave’s ashes we had brought along. As we
untied the piece of selvage holding on the lid, the guide commented
admiringly on the bowl.
As I emptied the bowl and brought it
back toward me, the guide kindly suggested that the vessel must go,
too. I appreciated the wisdom in this. I dipped the bowl beneath the
water and watched it tumble away, briefly reflecting the morning light,
then did the same with the lid. They looked bright and pretty held
beneath the clear surface, and then faded from view. As the
boat slowly drifted along, a beautiful line of sinking ashes stretched
out beside it.
boat slowly drifted along, a beautiful line of sinking ashes stretched
out beside it.
I took the card and read the committal
blessing I had chosen from the Book of Common Prayer. Jenny had wept
while I read the Upanishad and sprinkled the ashes. I choked up a
little when I got to the part in the blessing, “The Lord bless him and
keep him; the Lord make his face to shine upon him…”
When I finished, the guide explained
that it would be appropriate for us to dip our hands in the water and
up so it would fall on us as a blessing, so we did, the guide included.
It felt right. As we
were being rowed back toward Shivala Ghat to drop off the boy, he asked
about whose ashes, how I found the text, etc.
The moment the sun appeared above the
horizon, the boatman let go of the oars and bid namasté to it. I
thought he must be a devout Hindu; he had a streak of deep yellow tikka on his forehead, and seemed
genuinely interested in what we were doing. He had a cropped, white
beard and a gentle countenance. He worked hard rowing that boat, too.
No sooner had we gotten underway than
he had shed the white shawl wrapped around his head and body against
the chill. He was clearly poor, and the guide seemed pleased that at
the end of the journey I had given him twenty rupees as baksheesh. He
remarked on the man’s poverty and said that kind of direct remuneration
was a good thing.
As we were rowed on back, what should
appear but a larger boat with that familiar tour group aboard it! They
laughed and the Irish guy called out, “Will you stop stalking me?” I
said I could not help it, I was obsessed.
After the boy disembarked and the
boatman had gone ashore for a moment, we set off again to see more of
the ghats. We were rowed south, all the way to Assi Ghat, then turned
and headed back. Along the way, the guide told, among other things, the
myth of the origin of the Ganges, involving water from Shiva twirling
his untied hair round and round (if I understand correctly). We took
pictures of the ghats along the way.
While we languished on the platform, I got up the courage to try some sweet paan. The paan-wallah spread various pastes on the betel leaf, added a variety of unusual-looking ingredients to the chunks of betel nut, shaking in other mystery ingredients from little cylindrical tins before folding it all up. I think it is okay to swallow when you chew the stuff, but I was not courageous enough not to treat it like chewing tobacco. Indian men certainly spit a lot with it.
The pieces of betel nut were woody in
texture until they began to soften and chew a little, and the whole
thing had a kind of mild camphor-like taste without being fumy. I
walked along the platform chewing it and spitting between train cars. I
swallowed a little, but it did not seem to have much of any effect. It
is supposed to be mildly narcotic. With hindsight I think all that
spitting was probably unnecessary. I finally got bored with it and spat
it all out. At least my curiosity is satisfied. I bought some bananas
and we ate some on the platform.
Back to the ghats this morning. When we
got back to where we had started, the guide got off and let us continue
alone with the boatman to the northernmost ghats and back. It was a
long trip. He
worked hard rowing that boat.
He worked hard rowing that boat.
Further north, we came toward Dasaswamedh Ghat where we had begun our walk the day before, with all the brightly painted structures around it. We also came to Manikarnika Ghat where we had watched the cremations. They did not appear to have started for the day.
The rest of the journey was long and
taxing. There were groups of men
having morning baths and socializing; there were men bathing and making
repetitive chants; there were dobi-wallahs swinging wet laundry around
and beating it on stone slabs; there were holy men sitting on the ghats
meditating in the morning sun. At one spot there was a young holy man
sitting in a balcony above the ghat chanting aloud. His lone song
carried out over the water with no electric amplification. Further
north, we came toward Dasaswamedh Ghat, with the brightly painted
structures around it.
north, we came toward Dasaswamedh Ghat, with the brightly painted
structures around it.
The guide had us climb into cycle-rickshaws and we set off through where Jenny and I had gone the day before. I assumed we would be conveyed to where the auto-rickshaws were waiting at the edge of the old city. After we passed that spot I realized what was happening. Cycle-rickshaws all the way back to the hotel! At least sqeezed in with Jenny and raised up to the morning sun I was beginning to get warm.
At some point during the leisurely if
bumpy poke-along, the cyclist got separated from his colleague ahead,
who was carrying the guide. Then the chain came off the sprockets. It
turned out upon successful return of chain to sprockets after multiple
tries, we went up another street for a block or so and were at the
- Room 205, Hotel Tathagat, Bodhgaya, Bihar
It was lovely sitting in the warm sun
with that very pleasant roof garden café all to myself. The time
flew by, and Jenny did not come up to meet me by the time we had
agreed. We had to get to the train station. Little did we know the
train would be six hours late.
Descending the stairs I met Jenny
coming up. She had a woven string of saffron yarn tied around her neck
in good Hindu fashion and a two-inch long smudge of yellow and orange
tikka down the middle of her brow. She had bought her red tikka powder, four such neck
strings for herself and the family, and had gone to see a guru to get
them blessed. He had performed an elaborate ritual over her so she
could be the bearer of the strings’ blessings for the rest of us.
The strings are associated with Shiva
the Destroyer, so all the bad stuff that comes our way will sort of
head for the strings, instead. That seems practical, talismanically
speaking. She said it was fun, and the only time she felt uncomfortable
was when he had to stick a bundle of peacock feathers in her navel. But
she said he was otherwise a nice guy.
Not wearing her watch during this trip,
Jenny did not know how late it had become, but we were still okay. We
got the bags and took an auto-rickshaw to the train station.
We needed a snack to take along, but
there was nothing being sold outside the station except paan, Ayurvedic
medicine and shoeshines. I found a signboard painted in English with
the platform numbers of all the trains through Varanasi, including the
one we were taking. Along the platform there were urchins, disabled
people and old
women begging. We found some empty seats and sat down for what we
thought would be a short afternoon wait, not knowing it would hold the
experiences described above. I did manage to buy those bananas for us.
We were pretty beat when we finally
boarded the train. There was a father with two grown sons who boarded
with us and sat in the same berth across from us. There was a young
blind man sitting there who was apparently in the wrong place, and the
younger men spoke to him in an unkind manner and then laughed about it
as he was leaving. They all took their time eating the meal they had
brought along and rubbing herbal medicine in their palms, but we
finally converted the seat backs to middle berths and turned in.
I wrote for a long while. The train was
dark and dusty and cold, and the elder of the two sons, across from me
on the lower berth, snored like a chain saw. The passenger in the very
top berth got off at some point, so I moved up there, above Jenny and
wrote some more, taking the camera bag with me. I finally set the alarm
and managed to sleep for an hour or so. Jenny woke before I did, and
was a little worried to find the camera bag and me missing from where
we were supposed to be.
The hotel was called Hotel Tathagat.
walked right up to a large, white, enclosed jeep with “TATHAGAT” across
the top of the windshield in block letters. Two young men jumped out
and started taking the bags for us. I doubt they had waited the entire
time, but they had been doing some serious smoking inside that car.
Now, we have gone dodging and careening
about in all manner of motor transport in all kinds of places, but this
tended toward the memorable end of the spectrum. Even though it was
such an early hour, there were a lot of very large transport trucks
with blazing headlamps on the narrow, shoulder-less highway. The road
was barely wide enough for two of these to pass, and it was fairly
uncomfortable passing one even in the jeep.
A tape of a female Indian singer blared
in the cab. The driver would run right up on the back of a
cycle-rickshaw or auto-rickshaw and then careen out to pass without
slowing. As long as there was time enough to shoot the gap without
going head-on with a speeding, glaring transport, our rather impressive
speed was seldom reduced.
Jenny was nodding drowsily, and I
thought how her torpor at such a time was something of a blessing. When
your auto-rickshaw is the biggest chicken in the game, it is no big
deal, but with these vehicles the stakes were higher.
The hotel staff alternately wished us
good night and good morning, depending on their grasp of our situation.
The room was as expected, and falling into the otherwise comparatively
hard beds was a welcome experience. We slept from about 5:00 to 10:30
After a hot shower (geysers are the
best!) we went next door to the mostly outdoor Om Restaurant, sat in
one of the long rows of umbrella tables in the paved plaza set back
from the dusty, ditchy road, and had some lunch. It was the first
decent food we had eaten in twenty-four hours, and we ate a lot.
Tellingly, there were Chinese, Japanese, European, Indian and Tibetan
selections on the menu.
In addition to various beggars, there
were Buddhist monks and nuns in all combinations of skin and robe
colors, passing by and sitting to relax or eat. There seemed to be a
preponderance of Tibetan monks, and we would soon find out why.
There is a kind of paved court outside
the Mahabodhi Temple with vendor stalls and spreads selling all manner
of religious articles. The large gateway to that area is at one end,
near the front corner of the complex. Vendors spilled around the
gateway and along the road for fifty meters or so, back to the area of
Inside the gateway are places to pay a
camera tax and
check one’s shoes. After we dispatched those items of business, we
noticed that people were lining up along wide stripes of white marble
in the pavement on either side of a path running to the gate of the
temple proper. There was a red carpet rolled out the length of the path.
Many of the people lining up were
Tibetan monks of all ages, but there were also laypeople and
tourists from around the world. We got in line to see the parade. It
was peaceful and orderly. A lot of people were holding a kata (a
small silk prayer shawl that is held in the presence of, or presented
to a lama when he arrives), so we knew it must be someone important.
We chatted with a friendly young woman
from the Irish Republic who informed us that the one arriving was none
other than the Karmapa, who heads a major sect of Tibetan Buddhism
other than the one led by
H.H. the XIV Dalai Lama, and enjoys the latter’s support and approval
poorly received competitor put forward by the Chinese government. How
lucky for us to be there just then!
He is only twenty or so, but tall, lovely, in training since a small
child, and already revered by Tibetan Buddhists everywhere. That
explained the current breakdown of nationalities in town.
We did not have long to wait. Presently
we saw a procession coming and heard the tenor drone of a pair of reed
horns. Someone was carrying a dark red parasol for the Karmapa, and in
front of him was a monk carrying a length of yellow cloth and a kind of
mace similar to a large mala.
They proceeded into the temple proper,
and down the terrace steps into the broad, sunken garden, and we all
followed. The official delegation entered the temple structure and
Karmapa’s voice, amplified into the garden, began chanting. That did
not last long, and soon they all came out and passed by us again.
We went right inside and had a look at
the large golden sitting Buddha, then went around the outside to the
back where the bodhi tree is
located. The building itself forms the
base of a fifty-meter high (about twelve stories) pyramidal stone spire
with a great number of niches built into it. It was covered in
scaffolding, not having had a major restoration since 1882.
The tree out back is growing from a
very large concrete or stone planter box a few feet from the building,
which is surrounded on three sides by ventilated walls abutting the
building and having gold-painted iron gates on either side. The gates
were shut. Inside them, between the planter and the building, is a
richly decorated golden platform and canopy—the Vajrayana, or Diamond
Throne, marking the spot where Siddhartha supposedly sat when he
The walled area sits on a foot-high
platform surrounding the building. Out around the platform is a walk
perhaps another ten feet across, and then a ventilated wall surrounding
the whole on three sides. The platform and walk are paved with gray
XX - Sealdah Rajdhani Express en route to New Delhi (continued)
Atop the platform along the north side of the temple is another table-high stone platform with round, lotus-carved stone discs supposedly marking the footsteps of the Buddha where he walked in meditation. Each one was piled with marigold and rose blossoms, and all along was a row of new yak butter candles, each decorated with two large, pastel-colored yak-butter rosettes, along with rice and incense. We followed around that way to find the tree in back.
Looking in at a gate of the wall
surrounding it, one can see that the trunk is about five or six feet in
diameter. Its massive branches spread out over the wall around the
planter, forming a canopy over the marble walk, and extending over and
far beyond the outer wall of the walk.
There is a marble seat along the walk
inside the wall, and sit we did. It was beautiful, peaceful, and very
meaningful. There was a Tibetan woman sitting by one of the gates
spinning a prayer wheel. Facing the other gate was a group
of monks, nuns and laypeople sitting in meditation.
Indian tourists—clearly Hindu—were
walking by, some with hands held in an attitude of prayerful respect.
Some would touch the gate or wall around the tree and touch their
forehead or over their heart in blessing. Fascinating. When will a
majority of Christians and Muslims develop that kind of openness?
The wall surrounding the tree was
draped across with a long yellow piece of cloth and multi-colored
prayer flags. At the back there is a window-like opening in the wall
with something like brass balusters just inside it. One can peek
between them and see the trunk and a bit of the earth out of which it
grows. That made me think of what we might do with the rest of Dave’s
After we sat for a bit, some of the U.S.Americans we had met on the platform at Varanasi Junction came by. Jenny and I walked up the terrace steps, back up out of the garden, and strolled along the perimeter walk above the terrace. On the south side is a grassy area set aside as a meditation garden. Beyond it is a small lake with a large painted concrete sitting Buddha in the center, protected from the storm under the cobra-hood of the snake king. I will forbear writing the whole legend.
There was not a Buddhist in sight. The only people by the water were a large group of Hindus doing a Ganges thing—reaching down and flicking handfuls of water up into the air so it fell on them in blessing. How very interesting.
As we strolled along, an amplified
public-address call to prayer came out of nowhere, “Allah wu akhbar…” I walked to the
far side of the meditation garden, and there were the dome and minarets
of a fairly large mosque kitty-corner from the temple! How do they feel
about these idolatrous infidels?
XXI - Sealdah Rajdhani Express (continued)
Walking to the temple, I had scanned the vendors for singing bowls. I was in the market for one. I had only seen one vendor with them. I stood under his makeshift awning and rang several, but thought I would wait.
After we came out of the temple, we continued to look around. I saw another vendor selling them and rang every bell he had. I found one I really liked about eight inches in diameter. I bargained him down and bought it. I feel pretty good about it, given what they run in a Dharma Crafts catalog. I will get some brocade and sew a cushion for it myself.
I was also scanning for something that would work for the rest of Dave’s ashes, trying to be open-minded and creative about what to do. Among the wares spread out on her blanket, one woman had some thin jade rice bowls. I was thinking of something that might smash easily. I moved on so I could think about it some more.
We went back to Om Restaurant. What a great place to hang out! I can actually say I have met someone from Mauritius. He kept joking about how his country’s only claim to fame is the extinct dodo bird.
I went to an internet shop right by where we sat and e-mailed my sister Vicki with the time we would be remembering Dave. The young man working there said, “Connection not fast in Bodhgaya.” He was right.
After eating some dinner we poked around in shops looking at books and clothes. The power went out—only outdoor lights remained, so we moved out to the tent stalls along the road where they used generators. Jenny bought a painting on cloth of an elephant for her Mom. Great colors. I bought a sparkly brooch with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it.
It was dark, but we decided to walk around town over by the temples representing various Asian nations with significant Buddhist populations. These were built by Buddhist groups to represent the nations from which they came; so, there is the Thai temple, the Japanese temple, the Bhutanese temple, etc. It was dark, they were closed, but we could see the Thai temple—a great, ornate wat—glittering in the ambient light.
Chai from roadside vendors is sometimes served in what look to me like thin clay bowls. I was thinking something earthen and fragile like that would be good for what I had in mind for Dave’s ashes. We went so far as to buy some chai from a man selling food by the roadside, but he served it in “disposable” plastic cups.
We headed back over by the Mahabodhi Temple to look for something that would work. I was seeing little stone bowls, but I was not sure they would break easily. We went back to where the jade bowls had been, but the woman and her wares were gone.
At the court alongside the temple, I looked in a shop that had caught Jenny’s eye. The man asked what I wanted. I explained. He said to come back in the morning and he would have a small clay pot. We decided we could make time to check back and/or look around some more in the morning.
A few shops down, there was a photocopy and IDD place, so we decided to stop and call the kids. It was fun to talk to them. As we were paying for the call, the man from the other shop appeared, beaming, holding a small, hastily washed, round clay pot. Perfect! We bought it from him for what to us was a pittance, and to him was probably a steal on what might have otherwise been considered a piece of junk; but all concerned were happy.
We walked over by the hotel, the Om Restaurant, and other shops. The lights were back on so we looked back in a shop with clothes and tee shirts, me carrying the little pot along. We bought several items for the kids and ourselves, and Jenny bought a book by Chogyam Trungpa.
We headed back to the room and ordered a snack and some tea from room service. Jenny read her new book and I wrote, and we turned in after about an hour.
The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Back in the room, we placed the rest of Dave’s ashes into the little pot. Jenny carried it discreetly under her shawl as we walked to the Mahabodhi Temple. Once inside, she handed it to me and I held it next to me as we began to carry Dave’s ashes above the garden terrace, clockwise around the entire temple.
What a surprise we had in store. It was more right than either of us could have made it. As we began to walk, I chanted over and over slowly and very softly, “Om mani padme hum.” But then we looked down into the garden below and saw that there were hundreds of monks and nuns—they had come to town from everywhere and filled every hotel to see the Karmapa and hear his teaching that evening. A riot of colors from maroon through orange and on to bright yellow. They were all sitting, facing the temple all around.
As we reached the first corner, about one-eighth of the way around, they all began to chant! Sometimes, sometimes, things work out in such an unexpected way. Jenny remarked that it was not our karma that brought all this together, but Dave’s.
We slowly walked all the way around
carrying Dave’s ashes, and the monks and nuns chanted the entire time.
They continued as we descended the terrace steps and went around again
on the walk below the terrace at the perimeter of the garden. Finally,
we went into the center and started on the walk around the great stone
spire of the temple itself. At that point, all the monks and nuns were
facing us and the sound was amazing.
The second time around we stopped at the tree. Jenny took the pot, extended it through the window-like opening in the back wall, between the brass balusters, and flung the ashes at the base of the tree, the chanting continuing all the while.
We carried the empty pot to a spot I
had chosen at the northeast corner of the garden. I raised it and
smashed it on the base of an old stupa, then gently pounded the largest
shards into smaller. We started around the garden one more time, and I
flung the little potsherds into the garden as we slowly walked.
It would not be right to omit the next part. About one-fourth of the way around again, I really, really needed to go to the bathroom. Jenny said she would wait. We both stepped out the gate and Jenny sat down. The monks finished chanting as we exited. Jenny took the handful of potsherds and I walked on out, grabbed my boots (they had been Dave’s boots), headed the block or so back to the hotel, and returned as quickly as I could. No sooner had we walked back into the temple than the chanting started again!
We walked on around with me flinging
the little potsherds. Jenny took some and did the same. When we got
back around to the stupa where I had smashed the little pot, I pulled
out the card with the sutras and committal blessing I had prepared to
read. For some reason, it just did not feel right to read them out
loud, so we stood still and I read them silently as Jenny stood near.
It felt good for everything to have worked out so well.
On the way back toward the hotel we
bought some incense and prayer flags for ourselves and as gifts. We
headed back to Om for something like brunch. It did not matter what
time of day it was or what to call it. Finish doing what you are dong,
then go eat some various things—whatever strikes your fancy from the
rambling, creatively spelled menu.
You could get a plate of momo (Tibetan dumplings) with meat, but it was called “mution” rather than mutton. One dish featured “boonless chicken”. And if you were in an Italian mood, there was a variety of “Kilzone.” Hindi words were also rendered with some variation. “Parata,” “paratha,” “parantha,” “pratha,” all in the same menu.
The food was generally good, though, outrageously so by turns. We would order a whole list of a la carte items and they would just come as they came. Munch on what you have; see what comes next.
I decided to stay and write, but with so many interesting travelers in close proximity it was hard not to dip into others’ conversations. I chatted with a Hong Kong Chinese woman who grew up in L.A. and still lived there; she visited family in Hong Kong from time to time. Soon I found myself absorbed by a group of half a dozen New Zealanders sitting around me, chatting about trains and whatnot. I think we all had fun talking together about the similarities of our travel experiences.
I sat in the pleasantness and wrote. Jenny came back after her nap. We decided to go temple spotting again, this time by the light of day.
We started with a Tibetan monastery near the hotel. Jenny seemed especially interested in photographing its decorative design. And we peeked in at the Chinese (Taiwan) temple.
It was hazy, and the sun was at a bad
angle for photographing the Thai temple from the central walk to which
we were restricted; so, after walking around to the back wall trying to
find a way to sneak into the garden, we came back and slipped into a
corner gate at the front. We walked meditatively like we belonged there
and made our way around the back of the temple where the sun would be
At Om, we had spoken with a young couple from California staying at that temple for a month-long meditation retreat. We took our photos of the Thai temple—now a great, ornate wat glittering in the sunlight—and sauntered out the gate at the other front corner.
Down a long dusty road lined with
various temples and guesthouses is an eighty-foot-high, stone sitting
Buddha built by a Japanese sect, its hands posed in the meditation mudra. It was quite impressive. The
high-voltage power lines behind it were a bit of a minus, but they were
easy to overlook.
After our walkabout, we ate yet again.
The “boonless chicken chilli” Chinese dish was delicious. We had our
clean laundry brought up to the room, and we packed up.
After we checked out, the taxi driver
was waiting outside. There were no big trucks on the road, so the ride
was less harrowing. We did pass a long line of them pulled over to the
side of the road.
The one-hour wait at the station was a
breeze compared with our experience on the platform at Varanasi. The
trains were running on time. This higher-class sleeping compartment
(that I occupy as I write) has been far more comfortable. We were
provided bed linens, water, tea, and breakfast this morning, and we
both slept fairly well, one loud snorer across from us notwithstanding.
We are pulling into Delhi now.
XXII - Second floor terrace, Jukaso Inn, New Delhi
We did nothing so much as rest and recuperate in Delhi. We went back to the same hotel in Connaught Place. We had asked for a quiet room, but with a window, so he gave us one in back with a window that opened onto a terrace full of potted plants. It was terribly pleasant with the small, white-painted, hinged sashes open and the afternoon sun and breeze coming in. We crashed for a good two or three hours. It was delicious.
The hot water in the bathroom was a lukewarm trickle, even after leaving the tap open for several minutes, as instructed. A young man came to “check it out” by turning it off, turning it back on, and leaving, not to be seen again. Well, so what. We each took a cool, bracing shower.
The unseasonably cool weather has been all over the papers and in small talk. It got down into the thirties f in Delhi one night, so the schools were closed for three days. Not healthy for children to be out in such cold, mind you. It has still been sunny and around seventy during the day.
We bought a copy of First City, a monthly magazine with listings for cultural events in Delhi, hoping to find a music concert somewhere, but that turned out to be a wash.
We decided to try a Chinese restaurant
in Connaught Place called “Zen,” instead, and it turned out to be a
fancy one, with a very comfortable atmosphere. They put us in the front
window. Connaught Place was full of strolling Sunday shoppers and was
festive, brightly lit with strings of lights. The cavernous main dining
room was maybe twenty feet high, with huge bronze wall sculptures and
slick-looking halogen fixtures.
The food was plentiful and scrumptious,
and we polished off most of it. A couple of large bottles of Kingfisher
beer rounded it off, and I felt very content when we re-emerged. Jenny
bought a picture and a map from a vendor while I strolled back and
forth along the colonnade. We stopped at a sweet shop run by East
Asians for a brownie and some chocolate.
The long night’s sleep was only
interrupted by a phone call sometime early this morning to ask how the
hot water was for us this morning. I suppose “service” can be as much
about form as substance.
During breakfast we chatted with a
woman—I presume an owner of the hotel. Her brother had studied business
at Purdue and she had visited, so there was no question about “where is
Indiana?” She named West Lafayette herself and seemed delighted to
learn we live there.
We caught an auto-rickshaw over to see
Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. It was Shah Jahan’s last act
of architectural extravagance. After seeing the Agra Fort, we did not
feel the need to see the Red Fort here in Delhi. It has many of the
same features as the one at Agra. It would have been an “another bloody
fort” kind of experience. We may catch the “sound and light” show there
this evening before we head off for the late-night flight home.
The auto-rickshaw driver dropped us at
the end of a long bazaar leading up to the central gate of the mosque.
It was absolutely thronged with men and goats, the former buying and
selling the latter, straw and filth underfoot. There were almost no
women around, and even with her head covered Jenny got a number of
catcalls as we pushed our way through the crowd and up the street.
Looking down on it from the steps of
the mosque, one could see a veritable city of white tents to one side.
A Muslim festival is coming up; I think Eid al-Adha, the Festival of
Sacrifice at the beginning of the Hajj.
The mosque itself was a sooty, red
sandstone and white marble, vertically striped affair with two
minarets. The great courtyard was paint-striped for rows of worshipers,
and is purported to hold twenty-five thousand for prayer. There were
not very many people there this morning. The building itself has no
interior to speak of, just a deep colonnade with white marble floors
having black inlays to delineate rows of individual prayer spots.
There were rows of dusty prayer rugs
laid horizontally along the front-most rows. There were many long,
stainless steel speaker horns pointing this way and that, but they did
not come to life while we were there, perhaps mercifully.
We caught an auto-rickshaw back to the
hotel, and Jenny hopped on another to go to a certain market nearby
for a box of conical tubes of instant mendhi
henna and a pattern book
(the mendhi on her hand and
wrist has faded almost completely away). In
the meantime, I bought a small, conical paper packet of biri, and have been sitting at a
table in the sun on this terrace, writing.
Jenny came back, and has been reading
her Chogyam Trungpa book. We are going to walk back to the Janpath
market nearby for some gifts for my colleagues in the Music Department.
We got everything packed up, checked
out, booked a taxi and stowed the bags; then, we headed back to the
Janpath market for more gifts. Jenny got some pillow covers for her
Mom, for throw pillows, to add to the painting she had bought her. We
bought a couple of glossy Kashmiri papier
mâché pencil boxes for the kids and Jenny got some
abalone inlaid bangles for our ten-year-old daughter.
Walking back around Connaught Circus,
Jenny bought a beaded, embroidered purse. I noticed a vendor had toy
auto-rickshaws—with yellow tops just like in Delhi. I went to buy one
for my desk at work to remind me of the fun we had tooling around
in them; and, thinking our seven-year-old boy might be jealous, I got
him one, too, so we designated the hippie bag from Palika Bazaar for
We carried the little bagsful back to the hotel and I stuffed them in my bag in the storage room. For the final act of adventure, we headed to McDonald’s where I got a “McVeggie Burger” and a “McAloo Tikka Burger.” Vegetarian McDonalds. Imagine that.
The taxi ride to the airport was uneventful. We waited in the long check-in line by a nerdy but friendly electrical engineer from San Jose. She had been in Delhi for four solid days of meetings and had seen nothing of India outside her hotel. We first arrived in Delhi around midnight, and now we are waiting to depart at about the same time.
XXIV - O’Hare International Airport
Immigration and customs were easy, and we stopped for a bagel and some coffee with our malaria pills. The shuttle home does not leave for another two hours, so we are stuck here in a state of jetlag until then. My eyes and face hurt from being awake. Jenny went to wash her face. A good face washing and some ibuprofen sound like a good combination.
XXV - Home
I made it through my first day teaching with only minimal mental fatigue, gave my colleagues their gifts, and got partially caught up on work. The toy auto-rickshaw is already on my desk, and a soapstone Ganesh I bought in Agra is on the windowsill.
I am glad I got all this down. The
writing is bad—disorganized
and shallow, but I want to be able to recall details later. This trip
in so many ways, as has the twenty years of marriage it was meant to