Moving East – Agra and Varanasi



I’ll start off with this picture of me being a flexible world traveler – eating a cheese and butter sandwich on white bread and potato chips for dinner, part of a packed dinner that we were given for our overnight train ride from Varanasi to Kolkata.  This picture goes out to Keahara with a big smile. 



We are now in Kolkata, aka Calcutta, which has, like many Indian places, reverted to a more native sounding spelling and pronunciation than the British rendition of the word.  I’ve been quite sick and haven’t been writing in my journal or, obviously, posting on my blog as frequently as I’d intended.  I have had one of the most vicious and lingering colds ever.  A cold!  When thinking about getting sick while traveling in India, I never thought a cough would be my lingering ailment.  Anyhow, I’m feeling much better now, if not perfect, and am looking forward to getting back on track with documenting my experience, because it’s truly one experience right after another. 


Since I last posted, we went south to Agra for a day, back to Delhi, then east to Varanasi for several days, and yesterday we arrived in Kolkata.  I’ll ignore Kolkata for now and back track a bit. 


When I spoke about coming here for 5 weeks, I didn’t really understand what that would really mean.  We’ve been away from home for 2 weeks now and in India for a week and a half, and it’s a real challenge.  As Indians keep telling us, an essential part of the philosophy and way of life here is that all things exist at once- there are no real paradoxes or binary contrasts like we so love in the West.  This can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to get an answer to what you think is a direct question, and it can be shocking when you see many levels of beauty and filth at the same time on the street.  It’s easy sometimes to get overwhelmed by the difficult parts of being here, but there is also so much to be thankful for.


One of the other teachers from another group has the daily practice of finding something beautiful to write home about, and I’ve been trying to do that.  I’ll start off by sharing some of these things for me so far.


Upon arriving in India, the smile of an immigration officer.  He was being ever so stern, stamping this, stamping that, looking at my visa, and I was being ever so decorous as a new arrival to the country, but then he looked up at me and I saw the corner of his mouth twitch just a little.  He stamped some more papers, and then he looked back up at me, paused, and smiled so wide, so I grinned back.  Just as quickly, he gave me my passport and turned to look sternly at the next person.


The smile through the rearview mirror of an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi – It is the night before leaving for Agra, and Yael and I are taking a rickshaw across town to go shopping.  We are soaked in sweat and starving and the fast-moving air in the rickshaw is so welcome.  Our driver leans on his horn for several minutes straight, as drivers do here, merging in and out of the chaotic un-laned street traffic.  He honks on more time and grins at me in the mirror, his face grimy and his front teeth missing.  In our long ride across town, he shouts to us about India – cricket and politics – and about his family – his wife works for the police and his children are in college – and about what he loves about America, namely Bill Clinton.  We are blazing through the streets.  He is shouting, “Bill Clinton is a very very sexy man” again and again.  He is telling us, “I will meet Monica Lewinsky one day – in heaven.”  He is smiling so broadly at me in the mirror.


This next one, on our way to Agra, I got a picture of – a man reading on a pile of sacks in the back of a sky blue truck.  You know me.  I doubt I need to explain the beauty of this one.


Man Reading in Truck en route to Agra


The visit to the Taj Mahal was much more awe-inspiring than I expected.  I’m usually skeptical about something that is so talked about, but it was absolutely amazing.  The Taj was built in the 27th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as  a monument to and mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz.  She was his third and favorite wife, who died after bearing her 14th child to him.  It took 20,000 people 22 years to build it.  It’s as tall as a 20-story building and made out of marble inlaid with semiprecious stones.  In those days there were no cranes, so they had to build ramps for miles out so that the elephants could carry the stones to the top.  Visualizing the work itself was fantastic.   The size alone of the Taj is magnificent and difficult to believe, but once you get close there are so many tiny details, all inlaid into the marble.  My beautiful moment for the day- I am standing inside the Taj Mahal’s central chamber, and our guide demonstrates the purity of the echo by singing out a prayer to Allah.  As the words ring against marble walls, tears come to my eyes.







Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually lived in cities.  It is over 3,000 years old, and it feels like it.  It is full of narrow streets and old buildings, and there are people and animals everywhere.  It is known as the religious capital of India, as it is on the holy river Ganges (Ganga, or Gangaji to Indians).  A million pilgrims travel there each year to bathe in the holy water or choose Varanasi as there final resting place.  Hindus believe Ganga is a goddess, a physical manifestation of the divine, but this is in sharp contrast to the intense pollution that taints the river around Varanasi.  Along the river, there are stone steps leading down to the water known as ghats.  These ghats are the site of ritual called aarti, where light is offered as a gift to the goddess.  At night, you can go out on a boat to have a better view of the ceremony, and children walk from boat to boat selling small candles to offer to the river.  On our first night in Varanasi, we went to the largest ghat to watch.  We arrived at dusk when the ritual was just starting.  Young men in orange were facing the river, monkeys were silhouetted on the rooftops above them, and there was the clamor of people and drums all around on.  As it got dark, everything became more vibrant, with candles in leaf cups propped in baskets on the hips of Rinki and Sima, aged 10 and 11, then floating on Gangaji.  Neither of these girls goes to school, they sell the flowers and candles all day to make money for their families.




To get own to the ghats, we took our first bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow old streets by the river, which is very bumpy.  On our way back, someone ran into a cow and we had a rickshaw pile-up with one of our group falling off into the street, which was dirty but not painful.  I don’t fall off a bike quite so easily though!  




I’ve had a lot of nice bike-related moments for you cyclists out there.  There are bikes everywhere-  sweet old big wheeled beauties carrying up to 4 people at a time and just about any object you can imagine.  I’ve only seen one bike lane so far on a really busy street in Delhi, but otherwise bikes are part of the chaotic flow that includes the cows, goats, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cars and tourist buses.  Bikes are even on the highways, which makes for some lovely evening time landscapes with bikes.  On our way out of town from Varanasi to the train station, I saw a boy, probably 10 years old or maybe less, riding an adult bicycle down a road that ran parallel to the highway.  It was dusk and there was a field behind him green turning grey, and he was standing on the left pedal, leaning his body across the top tube, and trying to move the right pedal with his hands.  It was just downhill enough that he was coasting, but it was so precarious and adorable.


Here are some pictures of some bikes so far:


A bike shop in Varanasi, not so fancy as our shops in Berkeley


A bike outside the Sankat Mochan Foundation building.  That’s the Ganges in the background.



Outside the Krishnamoorti School in Varanasi


On Saturday (my parents’ 39th wedding anniversary – woohoo!), we went on our first school visit, to the Krishnamoorti Foundation School in Varanasi.  There are 7 of these schools in the world, including one in California outside of Ojai, and it was beautiful.  The guiding philosophy of the school is to help their students develop “a religious mind.”  By this they mean having a sense of respect and caring for the world and man that is not dependent on any particular faith.  The principal, a truly inspiring man, explained that in their philosophy a truly religious mind inquires very deeply.  At this school they’re also trying to move away from grade level designations so that they can look at each student’s individual learning process.  At the school , we got to sit in on the morning meeting, at which the students and teachers sang several songs together before starting the day,  On the spot, they asked us to sing something for them, and we managed a “My Country Tis of Thee” and an “America, the Beautiful” that were quite nice.  Please give me any suggestions for songs we could do if we’re asked again.  We couldn’t think of anything else.  We were all impressed by how positively the students spoke of their experience at the school and by how caring and thoughtful the teachers were.  I want to check out the school in Ojai sometime and see what it’s like.


The same day, we visited the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which I had mentioned before as an environmental NGO, but  found out, as is the case in India, that it is also a very spiritual project.  The founder, Vir Bahdra Mishra, is also the priest (not sure what word to use) for the temple for Lord Hanuman, the monkey king, and his journey to protect the Ganges is both as a scientist and as a practicing Hindu who sees Ganga as a holy mother.  Around Varanasi, a city of 2 or 3 million people, much (maybe all?) of the raw sewage drains directly into the river, resulting in highly polluted water that is not safe to do what people need to do in it – bathe, drink, pray.  He has been working on this for 25 years and has seen very little progress.





While in Varanasi, we were also able to visit Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first delivered a sermon, considered to be the birthplace of Buddhism. 


Varanasi was a challenging place for many people.  I didn’t do as much exploration on my own as others since I was sick, so I had a less intense experience, but I also seem to be reacting less strongly to some of the things we see than others.  Instead, I felt inspired by several of our speakers, enchanted by the performance by expert sitar and tabla players, and intrigued by the city as a whole. For a well-written and detailed blog from one of my group mates, check out Callie’s site.  In Delhi and especially in Varanasi, there is really intense poverty and a lack of infrastructure that means you see and smell a lot of things that we are sheltered from in the United States.  I don’t know if it’s because I spent a year in Russia or because of our travel to Thailand, or because I’m just jaded, but I’m not so shocked to see garbage everywhere.  People in my group saw funeral pyres and bloated bodies floating in the river from up close, though, and I’m sure that would have had a profound effect on me, but the filth everywhere isn’t so bad.  There are also deformed adults and children who approach us to ask for money, and I’m surprised that I don’t feel more emotional about that.  I’m thinking a lot about why that might be.  My time here has me newly inspired to make some donations of both time and money to some organizations that can help with these problems, but I’m not compelled to help individuals as they cry and tug at my elbow.  Maybe it’s because I live in a city and have already developed a thick skin?  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard so much about how even the children who are begging are constantly being watched over by adults waiting just out of sight ready to take their share?  Maybe it’s because the children will literally hit each other as a tourist bus pulls up so that they can cry real tears?


I’ve been doing my best to focus on the positive and have been successful, though it is draining to be here.  We are all extremely grateful that we are staying in really nice hotels throughout our time here, which makes it easier to recuperate after a long day.  The people in the hotels are tremendously kind to us.  While we were in Varanasi, one day we returned from lunch to meet our attendant, who had proudly made us a Ganesh out of towels and rose petals:



I definitely feel like I’m getting a better understanding of India, good and bad, and I’m better able to go with the flow.  Our speakers often do not address the specific topic that is on our program schedule, and at first that was frustrating, but now I’m generally okay with that and just listen to what the person has to say.  Everything at once, and everything is part of the divine here, which as a westerner requires a great shift in mindset, and I’m getting closer to internalizing that.


I will write more soon about Kolkata, which at first look has a very western feel and promises to be an amazing 4 days.



5 Responses to “Moving East – Agra and Varanasi”

  1. Munish Says:

    Good post about varanasi and india!!

  2. mona Says:

    I’ll be curious to read about your train travel between Varanasi and Kolkata.
    We ate the same cheese sandwiches and potato chips on our train “adventure” 4 years ago. Were you at the Taj Ganges, perhaps? I’ve been to Varanasi two more trips with another planned in November and prefer staying in a hotel on the ghats. Varanai pulls me there. The train doesn’t, however. It’s the plane for me. Your blog attitude is quite positive. Love the towel Ganesha. Safe travels!

  3. Cathy Says:

    A lovely blog, very frank, honest, just the way I like it. I think I need to make a poster size copy of the fellow reading for my classroom. That photo rocks! Miss you lots and cannot wait for you to bring your insights into my class next spring.

  4. Melissa Says:

    I like reading your blog, and I usually avoid blogs at all cost! I found myself teary, when reading about the Taj Mahal, and pondering some of the questions you pose to yourself/others.

    Safe travels, Sam.

  5. Shail from Agra Says:

    You have taken really great pictures from Agra.

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