Since I began my religious studies degree in 2009, India has been at the top of my travel list. I was warned incessantly by the many dangers of travelling solo as a female in India, but armed with pepper spray and my spirit for adventure I was determined to fulfill my five-year long dream of exploring incredible India.
My first destination was the holy city of Varanasi. Despite the constant harassment this colourful, chaotic city became one of my favourite stops in India. The place where Hindu’s come to die, the holy Ganges River is dotted with Ghats, garbage, sludge, pigs, cows and Sadhu’s (holy men). I was befriended by an eager young man from Varanasi and although wary of his intentions at first he proved to be a wealth of knowledge about the cremation process. The deceased is paraded through the streets of Varanasi before being dipped into the Ganges. The outer colourful cloth is removed and the body is burned at the Manikarnika Ghat, which operates 24 hours a day, in a plain white cloth according to caste; the higher the caste the further away from the Ganges the body is burned. One particular family even opened up the white cloth and proceeded to snap photos of their dead relative.
Despite being heavily polluted, the people of Varanasi bathe, drink and swim in the Ganges. I accidently fell into the Ganges and was ill for nearly three days. I can only imagine how resilient their immune systems are. Every day at sunrise and sunset, Hindu’s come to the Ganges for puja (worship) and offer prayers to Surya, the sun God.
In order to break up my journey from Varanasi to Agra, I made a stopover in Khajuraho otherwise known as the sex temple place. The main attraction in Khajuraho is the tantric sex temples that graphically display positions found in the karma sutra. I unknowingly stayed in an ashram and the yogi at the ashram subsequently offered to teach me meditation and read my vibrations. I was skeptical and worried I wouldn’t be able to contain my laughter, but agreed anyways because this was part of the Indian experience. I was instructed to close my eyes and empty my mind, an excruciatingly difficult task for me. While I was concentrating on thinking of nothing, I felt his hand on my forehead as he began to hum and shake. I was half-terrified, half-amused, as this continued for close to an hour. He insisted we continue to meditate for longer as my vibrations and energy were too high for sleep, but with drooping eyelids I carried my “high energy” off to bed and was only too happy to leave Khajuraho behind.
The Taj Mahal is world-famous and as a result of its reputation I was apprehensive it would be overrated and I would be disappointed. However, the white marble mausoleum exceeded my expectations and I could have spent days gazing at this grandeur structure. While the Taj Mahal is world-famous, I became quite famous in India. For whatever reason, Indians love having their pictures taken with foreigners and I was constantly asked throughout India. However in Agra, Indian tourists, in particular would sneakily stand next to you while their friend or family member would snap a few photos. It got to the point where I contemplated asking for 100 rupees ($2) per photo.
Each city in India was like entering a different country, the culture, food specialities, language, religion, landscape and people are all vastly diverse but yet share this common bond of being Indian. The state of Punjab is Sikh and the food boasts enough butter and ghee to give one a serious heart attack. Due to train schedules I had only 24 hours in Amritsar and I sacrificed sleep in order to observe sunrise at the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), the holiest gurdwara (place of worship for Sikh’s). The exterior of the Golden Temple is marble with a large holy pool in the centre with two giant screens projecting the words of the prayers in Punjabi, Hindi and English. Inside of the actual Golden Temple, the gurus sit and play the sitar, drums and sing the prayers. Furthermore, there is a large kitchen that feeds up to 10,000 people a day, I however was suffering from a severe case of “Indian belly” and subsequently did not eat at the temple. Unfortunately, part of the Indian experience was bouts of diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pains. On my way back to my hostel from the Golden Temple I got extremely lost and my stomach rebelled in protest. Desperate for a toilet but unable to find one, I did the only logical thing and found a dingy alleyway in which I half concealed myself with my scarf and proceeded to do my business. Even though no one saw I was slightly embarrassed, but this is incredible India and crapping in public is not uncommon.
Regrettably, my stomach continued to misbehave. I stayed at an incredible hostel, Jugaadus Eco Hostel, which offered tours to the India-Pakistan closing ceremony. Beforehand we stopped for lunch at a traditional local Punjab restaurant which quickly unsettled my delicate stomach. But I ignored its groans and we continued onto the Mata Devi Temple, a bizarre temple that is set-up similar to a fun house. We had to crawl through caves filled with ankle-deep water with a plasticine cow udder, a room filled with mirrors and models of deities with clownish faces.
The India-Pakistan border near Amritsar is the only border I know that has a ceremony to close it. Every evening at four o’clock, thousands of Indians and a handful of tourists gather to watch this comical spectacle. The ceremony begins with a Bollywood dance circle followed by men dressed in beige outfits with peacock hats. The men march towards the Pakistan border doing funny little kicks to demonstrate a sense of authority over the Pakistani’s. About 15 minutes into the ceremony, I felt bile rise to my throat and promptly vomited my palak paneer (spinach with Indian cheese) over the railing in front of two older foreigners. I apologized profusely as they yelled at me, “what the hell is wrong with you? Get out of here!” After I puked up the rest of my lunch in the bathroom, I returned in time to see the two countries simultaneously pull down their respective flags.