BY DAVID G. MOLYNEAUX, c.2006 Newhouse News Service
AGRA, India — For many travelers to India, the architectural wonder of the Taj Mahal in Agra is both the highlight of the trip and an enduring cultural symbol. A rich and powerful emperor, grieving his dead wife, built this magnificent marble monument as a statement to love, enduring forever. It’s a fairy-tale building, representing a fairy-tale India.
Visitors who want to get a less romanticized glimpse of Indian life, love and death would do well to explore beyond Agra, to the cultural riches of Varanasi and Khajuraho.
The two cities may shock the squeamish. The holy city of Varanasi is the cremation capital of the country, with funeral ceremonies on the Ganges River running round-the-clock. Khajuraho is home to temple ruins that are decorated with highly explicit erotic sandstone sculptures.
In Varanasi, the ritual of death is elevated almost to an art form. It is the most sacred city in Hindu culture, which includes the majority of India’s population of 1 billion.
For devout Hindus, Varanasi is the place of choice to die and be cremated.
At any time, the ancient city brims with tens of thousands of transients.
Pilgrims come for a bath in the holy Ganges River; 25,000 young students come to attend Asia’s largest college, Banaras Hindu University; thousands more, at the other end of their lives, wait to die and gain purification for their souls in the cremation rituals beside the river. Add to that thousands of tourists, some of whom come to ogle the religious ceremonies for the dead.
I came to explore the ancient city and the Indian way of dying. My hired guide, Shakeel ("I’m the short one," he said, smiling at his reference to U.S. basketball player Shaquille O’Neal), provided essential insight into the mysteries of Varanasi.
Our meandering along the Ganges and into Buddhist and Hindu temples was far more meaningful than the group boat tour along the river I had joined the night before. Each night, tour groups file onto flat wooden boats on the Ganges and are rowed to an observation point in the water to watch the nightly fire ceremony at Prayag Ghat, a series of steps leading to the river. As night falls, a swami chants over a loudspeaker. Seven handsome men stand at the edge of the river and, in cadence, light brass vessels holding ghee (a clarified butter) and camphor. The ceremony felt more like a performance than a prayer session. My tour-boat guide said the show, held nightly for the past eight years, is popular with travelers.
In the morning, tour groups came back to the river before breakfast for a boat ride past hundreds of bathers, mostly men in their underwear, washing themselves in the sacred Ganges. As early as it was, many bathers, especially women, had left. They had arrived before dawn and departed before the tourists came. After the tourists left, bathers gathered in greater numbers.
Shakeel and I walked slowly along the river bank, through a dozen of the 84 ghats, on the west side of the river, where crumbling buildings and those in various stages of construction competed for space. Followers of Hindu believe the god Shiva lived on the west bank, so the east bank of the river is empty.
Men and women, singly and in small groups, quietly went about their morning washing rituals. Some sat on steps next to the water reading or in contemplation, some waded in and others dunked their full bodies. Several washed clothes, scrubbing them against rocks and rinsing them in the river. Debris from evening and sunrise rituals bobbed in the water and left a film at river’s edge. The reason for washing in the Ganges is purification, not cleanliness, said Shakeel — and anyway, the holy Ganges would do no believer harm.
Two of the ghats are reserved for cremations. At Harishchandra Ghat, two cremation workers tended three fires, separated from one another by about 20 feet of concrete.
At two fires, men poked at the stacks and moved wood around, but I didn’t see any body parts, only ashes drifting upward. A third fire smoldered near its end. A fourth set of wood was ready for the next body to be delivered.
Nearby, up the steps of the ghat, Varanasi’s streets were packed with tourists, shoppers, a line of men waiting for two chairs at an outside barbershop, people on their way to work, students on their way to class, and men and women on their way to and from the Ganges.
EROTIC SCULPTURES AND POTHOLED ROADS
The primary tourist appeal of quiet, rural Khajuraho is viewing erotic sandstone sculptures. Artisans carved thousands of figures into the 84 temples where Hindu people worshipped about a thousand years ago.
To be truthful, only about 10 percent of the carvings on the excavated temples are erotic — often explicit — depictions of sexual parts and positions. The rest are family scenes, military enactments, and gods and goddesses. But it’s the sex scenes that draw travelers.
To avoid the aggressive local touts, book a guide who will pick you up at your hotel, walk you through the temples and provide a lesson on the fascinating world of Hindu gods. For instance, Vishnu is the Preserver, whose third incarnation as Varaha the Boar — conqueror of the rat-demon Hiranyaksha — is celebrated with a shrine covered with 674 deities at a temple in Khajuraho.
Because of the temples’ remote location, many sculptures survived centuries of India’s occupation by more conservative rulers who destroyed Hindu symbols.
Khajuraho still is far from railway lines and cannot be reached by a modern highway. The closest railway station is in Jhansi, on the line between Delhi and Agra. The road to Jhansi is narrow, pitted and potholed. With a short rest break, our driver needed four hours to cover the 100 miles. You can fly into Khajuraho, though flights are few.
So you have to really want to go to Khajuraho, which makes much of the town a delightfully quiet place of parks and uncrowded streets — to the woe of shopkeepers.
"Tell the government to fix the roads," several shop owners pleaded with me, unwilling to accept the possibility that a journalist from the United States might have little influence in India.
But just in case, hear this India: Fix the roads to Khajuraho.
One advantage of being off the beaten path is that old villages often survive the ravages of modernity and offer windows to the past. Down a country road from the modern town of Khajuraho is the Old Village, which was here when the temples were built a thousand years ago. Most of the temples are in ruins, but the old town looks a lot like it did centuries ago, said resident Jagdiesh Khare.
Thanks to Khare’s hospitality, I spent a rewarding evening in Khajuraho’s Old Village. I met him as I walked the village with a guide. Khare invited me to see where he lived with his wife, sister and mother in a series of cavelike rooms that had been hollowed into the sandstone, probably in the 11th century. Rooms were separated by low wood beams. The floors were stone and dirt.
Khare drives a car and lives a modern life as a businessman outside his home, which is wired for electricity but still uses a kitchen stove that burns wood and cow dung. His front door, made of teak and iron, is about 380 years old, he said.
Village streets are no wider than an ox cart. They wind through tiny neighborhoods like a warren of sidewalks, with little or no space between homes and shops, joined by solid stone and brick walls. A cow had made temporary residence in the ruins of an old Hindu shrine. A sandstone bench outside a one-room shop looked like a relief — though not an erotic one — from one of the excavated temples.
Outside one house, in a clearing shared with a motorcycle, a 14-year-old girl was tending a fire that Khare s
aid would be used to cook her family’s evening dinner. A teacher invited me inside his school to see cavelike classrooms with solid sandstone walls. The teacher asked for a donation, saying 200 rupees — less than $5 — would provide a poor child with a school uniform. I left the rupees at the school, called Maa Saraswati Vidya Mandir. Maa Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning.
Khajuraho’s Old Village also provided a lesson in what remains of India’s ancient caste system, which continues to dominate lives throughout the country — though officially castes were abolished starting with laws enacted in 1957. In the caste system, one was born into a religious class and remained there all of his or her life, and their descendants after them. Especially among Brahmans — priests and learned people of the highest caste — a person did not mix socially with other classes. The hierarchy ranged from the Brahmans down to the warriors, merchants and finally the so-called Untouchables who did — and still do — India’s dirtiest work. A person of a higher class would not eat or drink from the same source as that used by a person of a lower class. If a lower-class person was in the house of a person of a higher class, the lower-class person always sat lower than the higher-class person.
Caste survives in Khajuraho’s Old Village. As Khare, a Brahman, pointed out, each class still has its own neighborhood and, most telling, its own water pump. Brahmans would not get water from the pump of a lower caste, said Khare. If a Brahman drank from such a well, he would have to make a journey to the Ganges to bathe and purify himself.
I thought of my travels through the American South as a boy in the 1950s and remembered the awful images of drinking fountains labeled "whites" and "coloreds."
In Khajuraho, I felt as if I had sipped from the past; it left an unwelcome taste.
MONUMENTAL WONDERS IN AGRA
Agra is pretty much a one-trick pony for tourists. It’s a big, ugly city that most travelers to India visit but don’t see. From all over the world, they come for one reason, to tour the Taj Mahal and maybe the well-preserved Agra Fort. Then they move on.
The Taj Mahal was an extravagance when it was built, taking 22 years and, as the story goes, 20,000 artisans to finish in the 1650s perhaps the most storied building in the world — a monument to an emperor’s wife who died at age 39 after delivering her 14th child.
Still, the Taj Mahal is one of the few tourist places that exceeds expectation. Whatever you think you may see, it is better. Its white marble is luminescent and appears to change hues with the light of the day.
"I have seen the Taj a thousand times," said Agra guide Aditya Rastogi. "But every time I come here it gives me a different feeling. Sometimes the fog hides all but the dome, then the sun will dry the air, and a whole new view comes alive."
My wife and I were lucky to see the Taj from two magnificent views — up close on a tour of the monument one day and from our balcony at Amarvilas, Agra’s top resort hotel and the only one with a good view of the Taj Mahal. At the last moment, we were able to book a room for one night and grabbed the chance. Amarvilas, part of the Oberoi group, is considered one of India’s finest hotels, combining Mogul and Moorish architectural elements to dramatic effect.
As recommended, we awoke at daybreak to view the Taj Mahal from our windows. It was enveloped in fog, and we went back to bed disappointed. But as the sun burned through about 9 a.m., we had our splendid view — me from our balcony, and my wife from our bathroom tub, which overlooked the monument through French glass doors.
The Taj was majestic and ethereal, all marbly and glistening, seemingly floating above the land.
Below us, between the resort and the monument, we had a less heavenly view. This is a residential area of Agra, where mostly poor folks have homes with no modern facilities. On a slope between our elite lodgings and the exquisite ostentatiousness of the Taj Mahal squatted several men relieving themselves in the bushes.
March 14, 2006
(David G. Molyneaux is travel editor for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. He can be contacted at [email protected])