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Cruising the Ganges

An early morning boat ride in Varanasi

sunny 80 °F

In Varanasi, the quintessential tourist attraction is a morning boat ride on the Ganges River.

The army of tourists (including us) boarded boats at the Dasashwamedh Ghat. Even a group of Buddhist monks (likely visiting Sarnath) could not pass up the chance to see this holy Hindu city from the river's view. There was still activity at this popular ghat, as priests and pilgrims worshipped throughout the night. The fleet of boats of varying shapes and sizes launched off in both directions.


The sunrise over the Ganges River is not only beautiful, but also peaceful and relaxing (especially since someone else is rowing).


These ghats (steps) that line the shoreline of the Ganges River are some of the holiest places in Varanasi. Each ghat is unique in architecture and color. The Scindia Ghat is so heavy it has partially sunk into the river.


Some of the most common sites are the throngs of people taking their early morning baths in the Ganges River. The river is sacred to Hindu's, so many make pilgrimages from around the world to soak in the holy water. Occasionally, some foreigners will also take a dip.


To die in Varanasi is salvation for a Hindu as it allows an escape from the cycle of reincarnation. It is rare that the two burning ghats (Manikarnika and Harishchandra) are not in use, as funeral pyres are constanly burning. Firewood is stacked stories high to supply the high demand. It is odd to see animals (and sometimes humans) poking around in the funeral remains.


The river is also important for everyday life. We saw many doing their laundry at the water's edge. I don't care if somebody crapped in their pants. Those clothes were cleaner BEFORE they went into that filthy river. Although it may be holy, the Ganges is still one of the dirtiest waterways around. Not only is there trash along the banks, but there are also dead bodies sunken in the water too.


Not all the activity is in the water. People often meditate or pray on the ghats. We saw some foreigners doing yoga while wearing M.C. Hammer pants. These abominations of fashion are not worn by the local Indians nor by the tourists in their home countries. I can't explain why folks feel compelled to come all the way over to India and start dressing like they are "too legit to quit." We also spotted the "Space Invaders" mosaic that some French artist created. It seems to be fading badly nowadays.


We saw many Sannyasin's dressed in orange. They are older men who have renounced their possesions in order to spend the remainder of their lives in spiritual pursuits. Even more devout were the sadhu's or holy men who live an ascetic lifestyle. More conventional was a nearby Hindu temple where a priest and several followers worshipped. I loved their statue of a lion humping an elephant. There is also very old well called the Manikarnika Kund that was said to have been formed by an earring of one of the Hindu gods.


Overall, we enjoyed the scenic two hour boat ride. We were intrigued to see how important the Ganges River is for both life and death. We were certainly glad to have made the voyage to Varanasi, because there are so many remarkable sights to see that just have to be experienced in person.


Posted by evilnoah 16:43 Archived in India Tagged india varanasi Comments (0)

The Ancient Version of the Internet

The erotic temples of Khajuraho

sunny 80 °F

There seems to be two types of foreign visitors to Varanasi--those who can spend months immersed in the spirituality of the city and those who just want to get a glimpse of what all the hype is about. We are the latter, so we were ready to move along after just one day. We took a hour-long flight to Khajuraho. Being that Air India is government-run, it has a poor reputation. The Jet Airways flight to the same destination that left 10 minutes before ours was packed with a huge tour group from Taiwan. We literally had only six passengers on our large Airbus. We landed safely, and that is all that matters.

We had an issue with our reservation with the Khajuraho Radisson Hotel. Although we had booked with them months in advance, they decided to bump our reservation at the last minute so that they could accommodate a large tour group. Likely the Taiwanese. Unlike the high marks given to other Radisson Hotels throughout India, this one has received tepid reviews from tripadvisor and Frommer's especially on account of their service. Pulling crap like this does not help their reputation.

Although it was not their fault, our travel agency (once again, DELHIMAGIC.COM) arranged for lodging at another place at no extra cost. The five-star Lalit Temple View Hotel! By far the best show in town, the Lalit was a welcoming change to our accommodations in Varanasi. The room was spacious and modern, the shower had great water pressure and maintained hot water, the pool area was relaxing with views of the tops of the temples in the background. The service was excellent whether it be the tall doorman impeccably dressed and topped with a red turban or the helpful waiters or busboys.


While the hotel is great, the only real reason any tourist comes to Khajuraho is to see the temple complexes. Built by the Chandela dynasty between 900 to 1100 A.D., they were lost to the world for about 400 years before being discovered by the British in 1838. Of the original 85 temples, only 24 survive to this day.

We first visited the Western Group of temples which towered over the small neighboring village.


There are thousands of figures on these monuments, intricately carved from sandstone with amazing detail. Some are individual statues...


Others depict soldiers on campaign...


There are a wide variety of animals or beasts...


But always, the women are voluptuous. The double D's don't seem to hurt.


What really makes the Temples of Khajuraho so famous are the depictions of the Kama Sutra. There are carvings of hand jobs, fellatio, and doggy-style...


There's also the reverse cowgirl and 69 positions...


Menage-a-trois and menage-a-four are also represented...


And despite what Ricky Bobby's friend said, Americans did not invent the missionary position...


Of course, the most shocking are the bestiality scenes. Sometimes the animals just watch...


Other times, the animals join in the festivities. One damaged relief shows the Queen secretly getting pounded by a bull behind a tree as the King and his soldiers look the other way.


Another fresco depicts a group of soldiers on campaign. Since they didn't have a wagon train of prostitutes following them a la General Joseph Hooker, they would do the next best thing--go Catherine the Great on their horses.


As a UNESCO site, the area is beautiful with perfectly trimmed lawns and large blooming dahlia's in a rainbow of colors. There was even a large pack of langurs frolicking along the grounds.

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We also visited the Eastern Group of temples devoted to the Jain religion. Those temples are also impressive but nowhere as magnificent as the more popular Western Group.


As fitting for the Jains, there was also wildlife there.


They also have a nighttime laser light show and folk dance presentation in the town, but we decided to skip both so that we could better enjoy our hotel. We spent the last part of the afternoon at the large clover-shaped pool. It was eerily quiet, as there seemed to be nobody around. We dined at Lalit's Panna restaurant. The large flat-screen TV blasting a cricket match assured us that casual attire was fine. We ordered a soup of roasted Bengal prawns in saffron and tomato soup to start. It tasted like a good tomato soup with rubbery shrimp. We then had doi machh (east India fish curry), matkewala chicken (country style dish cooked in an earthenware pot), and aloo ki nazakat (potatoes stuffed with sesame seed). Those dishes were really good with prices very reasonable for a hotel of this caliber.


Overall, we really enjoyed visiting Khahurajo. The hotel was great. The gardens around the Western Temples are so beautiful and organized when compared to the rest of the country. It is amazing how much skill and labor was involved in carving those temples, especially considering that they were done over a millennium ago. Although we knew we were going to see some erotic sculptures, we were still shocked at the extent of the vivid depictions of the various sex acts. It is good to know that 1000 years ago, people were just as depraved as they are today.

Posted by evilnoah 16:12 Archived in India Tagged india khajuraho Comments (0)

Ordinary Orchha

A brief sojourn on the road to Agra

sunny 82 °F

Poverty exists everywhere. It manifests as the the small dirt-floor huts in hamlets across Vietnam, crumbling adobe houses in Peru, and the rusted tin shacks in the backroads of Mississippi. India is no exception. The journey from Khajuraho to Orchha was a small glimpse into the everyday struggles that Indians face in one of the poorer areas of the country.

We passed several anachronistic wooden carts carriages still driven by horses and water buffaloes,


Petite women adorned in colorful sari's performed heavy labor in the hot sun. Many of them trudged along the road with heavy loads supported on their heads.


We saw trash heaped on the sides of the road including the areas where food is sold.


The landscape is dotted with cow patty farms (dried dung is used for fuel) and often, small dirt-covered children happily played in hazardous areas like construction sites.


Cars and trucks are routinely overloaded with people and goods. It is not uncommon to see the "Indian family car" (motorcycle) being ridde by 3-5 people. As many as 15-20 people can be seen crammed in one little tuk-tuk.


While the roads are not as densely packed like Delhi or Varanasi, travel between the two cities was slow because the poor infrastructure. At many areas, the asphalt road was more cobbled than cobblestone. The sheer number of potholes turned the two-lane road into a single one. India's lack of strictly enforced traffic laws meant that might is right. Vehicles yielded to the bigger or faster guy. Unless of course cows were involved. Everybody yields to the cows.


Many of the driving tours from Khajurajo stop in Ochha in order to break up the 8 to 11 hour journey to Agra. The biggest tourist attraction here is the palace-fortress complex built in the 16th century by the Bundela kings, allies of the Mughal emperors. Built on a high island of ground amid the Betwa River (seemed more like a glorified stream), the complex consisted of two main structures built by different rulers (technically there is a third much smaller building there too). Entrance fee was 250 Rs/person. We decided to forego a hired guide (as did most others) to explore on our own.

The older of the two palace-forts is the Raj Mahal. It was in a relatively poor state of repair, with occasional graffiti on the walls and several of the back rooms littered with trash.


Inside the some of the larger rooms, faded frescos hinted at the former beauty of the palace. Unfortunately, of the hundred rooms or so, there are only a handful which still have any paintings remaining. One roped-off room did have some beautiful, well-preserved fresco's. However, visualization was hampered by the lack of significant lighting.


We then headed to the adjacent palace, the Jahangir Mahal, which has much more ornate architecture. It was built in 1626 and named after the fourth Mughal emperor who spent one night there.


Figures of elephants perch atop the pillars, chatris line the ramparts, and domed towers peek above the walls.


The wall carvings are more ornate than those at the Raj Mahal. Lapis lazuli is embedded in the walls to create blue flowers. Intricate screens called Jali's and niches are carved into the rock walls. In contrast, the frescos are not as vibrant and detailed as those in the other fortress. Furthermore, the palace too is in a state of disrepair which detracts from its beauty.


From the top floors, we saw some very nice views of the old temples within the town and the cenotaphs nestled along the banks of the Betwa River.


We crossed the bridge back into town to see the Chaturbujl Mandir, a large temple that loomed over the town. Along the way there, we passed many pitful-looking elderly beggars surrounded by buzzing flies. Once we got to the temple, things didn't look much better. There was a good amount of trash and graffiti near the entrance. Despite reportedly having a great view of the surrounding countryside from atop of the seven story spires, we decided to instead beat a hasty retreat back to the car.


With the sightseeing completed, we checked into the Bundelkhand Riverside Hotel. Built by the Maharaja of Orchha last century, the place seems worn down and in need of better upkeep. The place was covered in cobwebs. A nice swim would have been nice in the sweltering weather, but the pool was empty! The nearby river didn't look any better.


The room was not modern by any standards--the A/C unit could not keep the area cool, the fans are extremely noisy, and there is no TV.


Despite these drawbacks, the place is fairly relaxing. The property is spacious with a rustic atmosphere. There are beautiful plants and flowers, and the balcony and terrace provided a nice view of the nearby river and countryside. We took a nice long nap out on some tented beds in the main courtyard.


For dinner we tried the Bundelkhand chicken, lauki masala ("white pumpkin Indian style"), and peas and mushroom curry. The food was light but not very tasty.


Overall, we really didn't enjoy visiting this area of India. In fact, the poverty is somewhat depressing. Hopefully, the remainder of the trip will be more cheerful and interesting.

Posted by evilnoah 17:09 Archived in India Tagged india orchha Comments (0)

Fear and Loafing in India

Our visit to Agra and the Amarvilas Hotel

sunny 78 °F

I live in constant terror in India. It's not what you think. Despite the 2008 Mumbai Attack, the train wrecks in Bengal caused by Maoist rebels, or the continued threat of war with Pakistan, India seems safe. There have been armed security personnel at most major tourist attractions or popular places. It's also not the fear of contracting malaria, dengue fever, or rabies either. Chances of getting those in the cities is pretty low unless you are dumb enough to pet those wild dogs or monkeys.

I'm afraid of the constant tipping. Somebody holds a door open for you. Ten rupees. Wheels your luggage 15 feet. Ten rupees. Hands you a towel to wipe your hands at the sink. Ten rupees. Wipes your bottom after you poop. Ten rupees. Brings you a pillow on the overnight train. Ten rupees. Allows you to take their photo. Ten rupees. Watch my shoes while I visit a temple. Ten rupees. Okay, I made up the fourth one. I'm sure that's 20 rupees.

I am not adverse to tipping. It's the grease for the wheels of hospitality. However, the obsequious behavior to make a few bucks off of you is demoralizing. Waiters have literally hovered over us waiting for us to make any mistake so that they can provide "service". Really, I CAN pick up my own napkin. I've witnessed some hotel staffers undermining one another to do some menial task for the tip.

The expectation that every service warrants a gratuity is ridiculous. In Delhi, I asked the hotel front desk clerk to change my 100 rupee bill to tens so that I could tip my porter. To fulfill that simple request, he also wanted ten rupees for himself. I am tired of carrying a huge bulge of ten rupee bills in my pants that is necessary for the constant hemorrhaging of tips. It would probably be easier to just drop some money every ten feet I walk.

Therefore, I love the concept of centralized tipping at hotels. Its genius rivals that of the incandescent light bulb and the Snuggie. Instead of having to dole out tips to each individual, any gratuity is given at checkout and then distributed evenly amongst the staff. This allows guests to focus more on relaxing rather than tipping. Yes this is a "communist" method of doing things and theoretically some staffers may not pull their weight. Of course, those people can be fired. Starting at the Bundelkhand Riverside, many of the next several hotels we visited instituted this policy. Our stays there were much more enjoyable and much less stressful. Ironically, I ended up tipping much more at the hotels that used a centralized gratuity. A happier guest is a more generous guest.

The road to Agra from Orchha was not much better than the day before. It took about five hours to travel the 148 mile (238 km) distance, 30 miles/hr on a major highway! There were two sights that amazed us but didn't even make our driver blink. First, we saw a man lying down in one lane of the road literally rolling along the highway. Behind him were two other people pushing a large cart probably to warn the cars and trucks zooming by that he was down there. Our driver said that some Hindus will travel to a temple in this fashion to offer themselves to a god if they have an important wish they want granted. We were in the middle of nowhere, at least 40 miles from Agra. It's unbelievable that this man could be making such a long journey in this fashion.

Serious Dedication

The next oddity we passed was a fully naked man walking along the shoulder of the road. He was a Digambar Jain monk. The ascetics from this sect of Jainism prefer to follow the dress of Lord Mahavira, who established some of the tenets of this religion. They eschew clothing so that they can be "clothed by their environment." This sight further highlights the complexities of Indian society. On one hand you have women completely covered from head to toe with sari's or burkas. On the other hand, you have men walking around completely naked. Me personally, I prefer the roles to be reversed. Whether you believe in the different religions of India or not, you have to respect their dedication to their gods.

On arrival in Agra, we met our guide Sunil Gupta and made a quick stop at Priya's. Since it is an obvious tourist-herding restaurant, I had low expectations for the food. However, the navrati korma (mixed vegetables with cheese sauce) was actually very good. The lamb and peas was pretty good, too.


They had four stalls in the communal bathroom. With a large crowd of tourist, the men seemed to be herded to the squatters (first one in India so far) and the women appropriately to the seated commodes. As expected, the attendant wanted a tip. Ten rupees.

The next stop was the Agra Fort, the main palace of the majority of the Great Mughal emperors. The fort is immense. The British under the Raj used it for barracks for their troops. Even now, half of the fort is inaccessible because the Indian army still uses it as a military base. It would be a shame if this heritage site were destroyed because India is keeping it as a legitimate military target for the Pakistani Air Force. Although the Agra Fort had undergone some modifications by the colonial British, the exteriors are still very well-preserved (except for the moat which is a bit dried up.


The intricate carvings in the red sandstone walls have lasted the test of time.


Unfortunately, the paintings on the interior walls and ceilings have faded badly with poor upkeep. Last century, a visit by King George did prompt them to restore one tiny section of the ceiling, gold paint and all.

Restored on the bottom right

The living quarters for Shah Jehan's two daughters reveal his prejudices towards his children. His elder and favorite daughter, Jahanara, had quarters constructed of white marble walls with intricately carved designs.


His younger daughter, Roshanara, had quarters constructed of white plaster topped with a brass (not gold!) roof. Needless to say, her loyalty towards her father was not very strong.


Eventually, Roshanara assisted her third brother Aurangzeb in overthrowing Shah Jahan. After killing his remaining brothers (and rivals), Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in a small section of the Agra Fort until the elder's death eight years later. Shah Jahan could only view the Taj Mahal, which he built for his late wife, miles away.


Although it was a "prison," Shah Jahan's section is still the most immaculate area in Agra fort. The walls are white marble with jeweled inlaid decor. Sadly, this part of the Fort is gated off from visitors as thieves have already pried several of the semi-precious stones from the walls.


Prior to coming to India, we watched a big-budgeted Bollywood film called Jodhaa Akbar, about the marriage between the third Mughal emperor Akbar the Great and his Hindu Rajput wife Jodhaa. The film team reconstructed the Agra Fort (and the Amer Fort in Jaipur which we will be seeing soon) as it would have looked at the time of the Mughal Dynasty. I wish that the caretakers of the Agra Fort would do the same thing to some of the rooms. As it stands now, the site looks like several cold, ornate stone walls and floors. By adding the carpets, tapestries, and furniture that would have adorned the palace centuries ago, visitors would be able to visualize it as the opulant and leisurious royal home that it used to be.

We finished the tour of the Agra Fort in the main courtyard. At the multi-columned Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), the Mughal emperors held council with his advisors. Amid the colorful gardens frolicked several groups of monkeys.


Not wanting to "waste" the remainder of the day on such trivial matters as seeing centuries-old mosques, tombs, and palaces, we headed to our hotel, the Oberoi Amarvilas. There are some hotels which provide lodging at your destination. Other hotels like the Amarvilas ARE the destination. Consistently ranked as one of the best hotels in Asia, let alone the world (currently #5 by Travel+Leisure Magazine), the Amarvilas epitomizes service, amenities, and beauty with a matching price tag. The staff was very helpful and friendly without being obtrusive. Our room (427) was spacious and elegant with a wonderful view of the pool and garden below. We did regret not ponying up more for a balcony room so that we could privately enjoy watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal.

View of the Taj Mahal from our Hotel Room

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing absolutely nothing useful--lounging and swimming at the heated "infinity" pool and relaxing on the terrace with a cup of chai masala and cookies while traditional musicians and dancers performed on the well-kept grounds.


We dined at the hotel's Estephan restaurant. Reservations were recommended although the place was not crowded. We did see some guests turned away without reservations. A musician playing the sitar set the mood for the restaurant.


While we decided upon our orders, papadum with three relishes (mint, peppers, and tamarind?) were brought to the table. Then we were started off with a tomato consomme.


The tandoori prawn starter was excellent. Less so were the quail curry (although impressively de-boned and stuffed) and the not-so-spicy, "spicy" Kerala shrimp curry. Dal and naan were also served with our dinners.


Overall, our stay at the Amarvilas was extremely relaxing and stress-free. After all, they did have centralized tipping.

Posted by evilnoah 19:34 Archived in India Tagged india agra amarvilas Comments (3)

The Taj Ma-Who?

Our visit to an Indian cemetery

sunny 70 °F

We had to get up before 6 AM, so I was a really sleepy and tired from all that strenuous relaxation at the Amarvilas yesterday. Hopefully, my memories of this morning's events are fairly accurate.

Our guide had pleaded with us yesterday to see some graveyard or something. After all the temples and monuments over the last few days, we were pretty worn out and wanted to do nothing. He told us that the place is famous, and millions of people come from all over the world to see it. I think he must be confused with Disney World. But he promised it would be worth our while, so we agreed. Then he told us to meet up at 6:30 AM. Doh! Damn morning people! So, early this morning, We rolled out of bed and had some complimentary coffee and pastries at the hotel lobby. Then, they drove us the short distance there in a golf cart.

(Left) Still trying to wake up. (Right) It was still a little dark when we arrived

Apparently, the place is some monument to a lady named Mumtaz Mahal. I overheard some little Indian kid later say that she had died in a car wreck. Wouldn't be surprising considering the way their traffic is in India. Reportedly, she was set to have a reality show on TLC about having 14 kids after being pregnant 19 times. But she died, and they offered the show to the Duggar family instead.

Her husband was some guy named Shah Jahan. He was the leader of a group called The Mughals. I think that they are an Indian offshoot of the notorious biker gang The Mongols based in Southern California. However, he got into some legal trouble and was jailed for eight years. He ended up dying in prison. Probably got shanked or something.

When we arrived at the place, there was a long line of people already. It seems that she was pretty popular. Must have been the homecoming queen or something. There were metal detectors and security guards searching bags and patting folks down, probably looking for shovels or pick-axes. India must have a problem with grave robbing.

(Left) The entrance built for royalty is packed with visitors. (Right) The entrance built for the rabble is closed.

The site is more than just a mausoleum. There is also a large gateway and two identical buildings flanking the tomb.

Gateway with intricate decor

Our guide told us that they built one as a mosque and then the opposite one as a guesthouse just for "symmetry." What I really think happened is that they built the first "mosque" and then realized it faces away from Mecca. How embarrassing! Therefore, they had to build it all over again facing the opposite (and correct) direction towards Mecca.

The true mosque on the upper left. The remaining pictures are of the identical guesthouse.

To make matters worse, they built the gate and two "mosques" using beautiful red colored sandstone. However, by the time they started constructing the mausoleum, they had run out of that building material. Therefore, they had to finish it with plain white marble. That building can really use some color!

The minarets actually lean outwards. If there is an earthquake they will fall outward and not on the mausoleum. Incidentally, Agra is NOT on a fault line.

Inside it's no better. I think they must have ran out of paint for the walls on account of wasting it all during the Holi festival. Instead they tried attaching cheap pieces of colorful rock to the walls to micmic some color. Who was their interior decorator? The guy from Trading Spaces who glued moss and hay to someone's wall? How low rent!

The large Koran inscriptions are made of inlaid onyx. The calligraphy is actually larger at the top to give the illusion of being uniform size when viewed from the ground.

The decorative florets are composed of inlaid gemstones (Turquoise, Carnelian, Green Jade, Sapphire, Agate, Amethyst, etc). The exquisite designs are carved into the white marble.

Photography is not allowed inside the mausoleum. It may wake the dead!

Our guide told us the mausoleum was designed by some Turkish or Persian guys. I didn't have the heart to correct him that it was actually the Danish. This place is a complete rip-off of LEGO set 10189. Actually, I really can't blame them. If it's good enough for David Beckham, then I'm sure it's good enough for some dead lady.

Separated at birth?

Our guide then told us it costs 32 million rupees and took over 1000 elephants and 12 years to finish the project. Of course it took so long! Have you ever seen an elephant operate a crane or drive a dump truck? No. Obviously, there is a reason why. A couple of hard working illegal immigrants would have had that thing completed in under six months and with a cheaper price tag.

ALL vistors must wear hot-red shoe covers when walking on the marble platform.

As we were leaving, we politely nodded to our guide and lied that it is a really nice place, worth missing out on three more hours of sleep. I just don't see this place ever being a tourist attraction. Nobody would come all the way to India and see some cemetery. Unless of course they had a six foot mouse.

Egrets and parrots at the mausoleum

I'm in the doghouse for writing this entry. My wife does not think anybody will get the sarcasm. Truly the Taj Mahal is even more awesome to see in person than any picture can show. Don't take my word for it. Just read the 50 billion other blogs about the place.

Posted by evilnoah 19:15 Archived in India Tagged india mahal taj agra Comments (0)

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