In late November 2019 the Toyotoro gang re-entered into India from Nepal at the border town of Sonauli and made a bee-line southward for Varanasi. It was only a month ago, when we spent a few weeks in the Eight Sister States in the southeast. The India we crossed into this time seemed like a different country.
Overlanding in India was by far the most exhausting segment of our entire trip. This was mainly due to the fact that it was so god damn hard to find places to sleep without being disturbed. Almost every morning (around 5am) we were woken up by a group of men, quantity varied between 5-30. We made a game of guessing how many were out there before we brought the blinds down. Locals’ call for attention: “Namaste! Namaste! Hello!?” became our alarm clock. This was of course harmless and not uncommon, but some tried to open the doors and shook our car, by which time we have hurriedly climbed out of bed ready to engage. Once the necessary greetings were made, we then searched for a less populated place to brush our teeth and eat our breakfast. We understand it was mostly out curiosity, but it grew tiresome when it became a daily affair.
The first city we chose to see was Varanasi. Since Henning and I have different opinions in regard to the level of enjoyment of this city, I will use one diplomatic adjective that will encompass both of our views: intense. Very intense. Varanasi lies on the banks of the river Ganges making it the holiest city for Hinduism and Jainism. It is the place where Hindus come for pilgrimage because they believe to die or be cremated next to the ‘holy’ water of the Ganges would break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation.
For me, however, it is one of a handful of places on earth where I feel I appreciate it more from a photograph than in real life. Henning on the other hand was thrilled by the temporary anarchy. A hundred stories simultaneously and continuously presented itself all around us as if we were trapped in a carousel projector. He brushed aside the pestering hecklers, ignored the grime of the tight, makeshift living quarters along the ghats (embankments with steps leading to the river where rituals are performed) all the while clicking away with his camera. However, after two days of breathing fumes from the live cremations and dodging vehicles and defecating cows on the road, we thought it was more than enough.
Where Henning and I differed at Varanasi, we can happily agree on our visit at the Taj Mahal as a major highlight. We tolerated the doom of pollution that followed us everywhere like a plague, just so we could bear witness to “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. These words from UNESCO only just begin to describe its beauty. When I first saw it emerge in the distant through the archway of the Great Gate, the irksome crowd of tourists around me disappeared in an instant. A spell was cast over me and I could not move. My first impression of the Taj Mahal was it looked like it was floating. Maybe the air pollution gave it its signature touch of haziness that added to the surrealness. Every step we took brought us closer to its magnificence. I could have spent days tracing the marble relief work or just staring at the exquisite details of the pietra dura (marble inlay work with over 35 different types of precious and semi-precious stones used) of vines, flowers and fruits.
We tried to prepare ourselves for the shock of Taj Mahal by visiting the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah days before. This is the Baby Taj, often regarded as a draft for the Taj Mahal. The white marble “jewel box” of a structure standing in the middle of a garden, raised on a striking red sandstone platform, was already an impressive legacy of the Mughal empire. I found the red sandstone of the gateways of Taj Mahal and Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, a style found in earlier Mughal buildings before Shah Jahan brought white marble into fashion, to be as equally striking.
In an attempt to escape people, the noise and the smog we made our way to Rajasthan, a place to experience the mysterious landscapes from Arabian Nights. The allure of the Thar Desert and the majestic forts and castles left by old Kingdoms were much more attractive than smog-choked cities like New Delhi. However, we were rather disappointed to find that even in remote desert regions we were discovered by people. We had hoped for some peace and wild camping without disturbance but that was not to be. In addition, the desert we discovered was nowhere near as grand nor wild as those we encountered in northern China and Mongolia. The omnipresence of commercialism did it no favours.
This being said it was at the city of Pushkar in Rajasthan where I found my Varanasi. A city of pilgrimage for Hindus, like Varanasi, it has many temples but at a much more digestible quantity. The lush Aravalli Mountains provided a picturesque contrast to the blue waters of Pushkar Lake and along the water peppered with ghats. Sat atop a café overlooking this scenery I was momentarily transported back to somewhere in Europe.
Due to time limit, Jaisalmer Fort was probably the most southerly point we reach in India. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 and as one of few ‘living forts’ in the world, holds history within the crevasse of its imposing sandstone walls. It commanded a great view at the top, looking down you could see the exterior wall surfing along the hilltop like the folds of an Indian woman’s sari, rippling gently in the Arabian breeze.
One city in India that surprised us the most was undoubtedly Chandigarh, in the northern tip of Punjab state. As soon as we entered into its neighbourhood, we felt we had entered into another world. A world where people followed traffic rules and etiquette; a world where pavements neatly lined with trees and shrubbery existed for pedestrians, a novelty we rarely saw in India. Chandigarh is the product of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s masterplan of an ideal modern city that hoped to promise peace, democracy and social order during the chaos of post-independent India. I cannot judge if he had succeeded but the city’s prosperity and greenness is evident for any visitor.
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