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India (5): Khajuraho and Orchha’a

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Khajuraho is a small town at a night-train distance from Varanasi, and it is the perfect stop after the intense and touching Varanasi: no traffic, less people, and a relaxing atmosphere… but that is not why we go there. We go there because of the 22 temples older than 1000 years, and which were built by the Chandela Dynasty. The legend of the birth of this dynasty is closely linked to the temples: the most beautiful lady in town (legendary stories do not happen with regular people, remember) is taking a bath in one of the nearby lake, when Chandra, the Moon God, sees her, and decides to come down to Earth in the form of an attractive gentleman (again, only attractive men have such an effectiveness) and she falls in love. After that night, the Moon God disappear, and she later gives birth to a child, who later became the founder of this Dynasty.
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With such background, it is not surprising that the temples walls are covered by fine figures picturing the main activities at that time and the most important values for the dynasty: war and erotism. War figures are quite basic, but the latter covers all possible spectrum in the most specific way. Some guidebooks say this is the origin of the famous Kamasutra book, but it is actually not linked to it.
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These figures represent the union of the masculine and feminine energies, which signify the magical protection needed to guarantee the successful life of the temple. Apart from these details, the temples are kept very nicely, and their perfect alignment to East, put into the perspective of the time of building, is breathtaking.
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There is enough time to explore the surrounding areas, and we followed the advice of the people in our hotel (by the way, quite more easy-going than the ones in other places), and we let our tuk-tuk driver bring us to the Panna Tiger Reserve. The 45 minutes ride was the most rural part of the whole trip, and was worth it to see closer the massive nature, and the rural life… The real differences with our home countries became clear, as women had to walk long distances for water, food and life seemed to be slower for those sitting on the curb looking at any vehicle that crossed the road. The destination offered us some fanciful formations that water and limestone has created, with impressive waterfalls up to 30 meters.
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From Khajuraho, we took a car (with driver) to go to Orcha’a, another small town with even less activity than Khajuraho, but blessed with a river. There we visited their two forts, Raj Mahal and Jehangir Mahal, massive buildings, empty of any furniture, with many rooms and a big open-air halls, as many others we had seen. The feeling here was a bit different as these complexes were on a hill in a big green valley governing a vast territory. Apart from the forts, Orchha’a also hosts a complex of chaatris, at the riverside, which are memorial buildings, acting as tombs of former kings.
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After Orchha’a, we went to Jhanshi, which is a bigger city nearby, with a bigger train station, and where we took our train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

India (4): Varanasi

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Varanasi is synonym of Ganges. The Hinduism sacred river, where many people do pilgrimage at least once in their lives in order to perform the bath rituals. When possible, they also try to to be cremated here, as there is no better place to rest than the Ganges. For Hinduists, the river is the PERSONIFICACION of the Goddess Ganges in Earth, who came down in order to save the World from the Demons who perished in its waters. It is also a pilgrimage place for buddhists, as Buddha said his first sermon in Sarath, in the outskirts of the current Varanasi.

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This sacred characteristic can be felt in every corner of the city, but especially in the narrow streets near the river, and the Ghats, the streets ending in stairs leading to the river, and which host most of the activity in town. People go there in thousands to perform the sunrise ritual bath, but also during the rest of the day there are people meditating, walking or just observing the vast river.

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Two of these ghats host crematories, with hectic activity during all day, as people from outside Varanasi come in their last days here to have the honour of have their remains be spread in the Ganges river. I find quite interesting and surprising to see a town grow so much thanks to the death business. Everyone shall be cremated, except the saint people (holy men, kids, animals, pregnant women -they have kids inside), and others to avoid annoying the Gods (LEPROSOS, and those who died because of a snake bite)… The weird side of this rule is that those people are thrown directly to the river, so it is not unusual to see dead animal bodies floating in the river, and locals playing to guess what animal it is from the distance…

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For me, Varanasi was a highlight in the trip. It was the most interesting place from all we visited. It probably helped that, following some previous travellers’ recommendations, we hired a local guide, as we had been told that Varanasi could be too intense to get lost. It was particularly useful, as the river water level was very high, and the easy walk on the riverside became impossible, so we had to wander around many small streets which did not feel as the safest place on Earth.

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As there are some morning people, there are some cities which shine the most also in the morning. Varanasi is one of these places, and the best place to live that is from a boat ride at sunrise. Observing the city waking up from the calmness of the sacred Ganges is an unforgettable experience: the ghats getting the many first people to have morning bath rituals, some having travelled long distances for that specific moment, others who have the blessing of having that as part of their daily routine, the crematories starting their daily famous activity, some people meditating in calmer ghats, and many boats full of local tourists fascinated and happy for being able to live this at least once in their lives.

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Apart from that, a plain tourist can enjoy walking up and down the bazaars in Varanasi, which are more adequate for the international taste than others, visit one of the many temples in town, like the busy Monkey Temple, or walking around the green areas in the University… But after many years, you may forget them, or not be sure whether it was Varanasi or somewhere else… but you will not forget the river… and everything else.

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India (3): Delhi

The first impression of Delhi, the capital of India, when you arrive is that it is a hectic city with almost 10 million people continuously moving, provoking constant traffic jams in the main roads. When you arrive there, you may be prone to get immersed into the city, and decide to walk to the closest spot from your hotel. We did that too, and those were the worst 2 km that I have walked in a long time. My first recommendation would be to avoid doing that: Delhi (and in general, India) is not thought to have people walking long distances. Instead, take its wonderful subway, you will be pleased with its modern network, and its tidiness.

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If you happen to stay near the diplomatic area, your first stop is the Gate of India. It reminded me to the Puerta de Alcalá, but in a nicer promenade made to emphasise the presence of the Parliament. If you are there after the sunset, you will find a hectic environment: local tourists taking themselves selfies with the monument (hard with the light conditions), and some others offering all kind of services (pictures, water selling, sweets, …). The building might not impress you much, but the leisure atmosphere is a nice beginning.

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From there, you can would head to Connaught Place, another particular spot of the city: well known brand (and expensive) shops, tons of restaurants and bars, bazaars in the street, and mostly young people make it the top destination for evenings out, and some decent -but expensive- shopping.

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The real visit to Delhi starts with Old Delhi, and there the main attraction is the Red Fort: the first fort in India was also one of the biggest in the country, and if you started your trip now, you will enjoy this kind of palaces (after a few more, you may be looking for something else): a fort is a sort of palace with military defences. Forts are a good way to understand the aesthetic taste at different ages in the history of India, and you can imagine the rulers having their receptions or living there, walking like we can do now in their vast and well preserved gardens.

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When you go out of the fort, crossing a busy bazaar, you will arrive the the Jama Masjid, an impressive mosque, able to host up to 25000 people. If like me, you find mosques captivating with their vast open spaces, you can enjoy its atmosphere of retreat, so needed even if it is only the first day in Delhi. You might be luckier than we were, and have a successful visit to the nearby bazaar and the spice market… We did not enjoy it much. Either we did not go to the right place, or my expectations were not the right ones. Bazaar and spice markets bring me to two places in this world: Istanbul and Marrakech, and that was not what we saw there.

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To complete the day, you can visit two wonderful monuments; both of them are memorials of different rulers. The first one is the Safdarjang’s Tomb, and as it is not in the centre, it is not crowded, and its visit becomes a relaxing experience, where you can even take a short siesta to recover from the jetlag. The second one was the Humayan’s tomb, which is almost as crowded as the Fort. This memorial inspired the Taj Mahal in Agra, and it is a huge red marble building with several tombs inside. Taj Mahal is a clear must, but visiting Humayan’s tomb boosts the appetite to arrive to Agra.

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Before the sunset, you can still be convinced by a crazy tuk tuk driver to go to the Lotus Temple, a modern building in the outskirts of Delhi, which hosts the Bahai House of Worship, aiming to close the gap between different religions… Not that interesting inside (a few minutes to reflect, pray, etc.), but really nice from the outside.

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A great farewell from Delhi can be the Loddhi Park and buy some curry and tea. The park atmosphere was very similar to the one you can see in any big park in the world: my dear Retiro park in Madrid, Englischer Garten in München, Central Park in New York, with only minor differences (like the remains of a mosque inside): people jogging, couples, friends, and even BBQ’s… Life in megacities are the same in any place in the world: we are not that different in the end.

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India (2): The Route

We spent 11 days in North India, starting and finishing in New Delhi. We tried to limit the travelled distances, while maximizing the places we visited. The route can be seen in this map, and was done clockwise, using trains, planes and cars/taxis, depending on each track. All recommendations we got included Delhi, Varanasi and Agra as musts in the North of India. Most of them included more days in Rajastahn than we were, but we had to shorten the trip and decided to stay in the closest places to Agra and Delhi (Jaipur and Udaipur). Jaipur could be skipped, but Udaipur was a nice way to finish the trip: a small oasis.
mapindia
Itinerary
  • Day 1: Arrival to Delhi
  • Day 2: Delhi
  • Day 3: Early Flight Delhi-Varanasi. Varanasi
  • Day 4: Varanasi
  • Night Train Varanasi-Khajuraho
  • Day 5: Khajuraho
  • Day 6: Khajuraho-Orchaa-Jhanshi (by car). Jhanshi-Agra Train
  • Day 7: Agra
  • Day 8: Taj Mahal. Agra-Jaipur (by car)
  • Day 9: Jaipur
  • Night Train Jaipur-Udaipur
  • Day 10: Udaipur
  • Day 11: Udaipur. Flight Udaipur-Delhi. Delhi
  • Day 12: Departure from Delhi
If you like videos, this is a good summary video of almost two weeks in India:

India (1): Welcome

India is synonym of chaos. Although they manage to keep the airport calm by not letting in anyone not travelling, once you get out of there, your survival instinct makes you observe of all details of the intense and diverse traffic.

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There are old and new cars, decorated trucks, thousands of motorbikes (some of them with up to 4 people), the tuk-tuk’s or rickshaws which will soon become your favorite mean of transportation, the tough cycle rickshaw… You realize soon there is more life than pedestrians and vehicles…

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Animals are also all around: not only dogs and cats, but also cows, goats, donkeys and porks are present in the streets, playing their role in this organised chaos. This diversity is in constant movement in flexible paths, where right, left, forward and backward become elastic concepts, as lanes are just recommendations. After a few days, you will not remember, that your first minutes you were constantly wondering why everybody is using their horn all the time.

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Your focus will also turn towards those animals that walk free: pigs, dogs and even monkeys can be found in any corner of a city like Delhi. You see goats carried on rickshaws and motorbikes by their owners, and sacred cows with a not very healthy aspect, anywhere you can think of.

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You even see cows walking on the railroad in a train station.

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The sacred condition of the cows make them especially popular in the streets, and vehicles respect them completely, and you think that would not happen back home. A driver will explain you why they are seldom crashed by a vehicle: in such a case, driver would have to pay for any damage, and as it is an important sin, he would need to go to the Ganges to get purified, he would need to pay the brahmins (priests) for some prays, and most importantly: your family would belong from that moment to the lowest caste. Too high price.

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Caste system is still present and alive in India, and it does not seem about to change in the short term. This makes some extreme poverty be present, especially in big cities. There are people begging in the streets, and the health standards are way below those you are lucky enough to have at home. The presence of animals living freely in the streets, garbage in any unexpected place, water not being potable makes the living conditions not the most adequate ones. Development is not equal throughout the country, and rural areas still show women walking several kilometres to the nearest source of water, to carry it back home.

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Once you start getting used to the chaos, you will look at the people and find out the interesting mix in way of dressing that you find, mainly driven by the several religions present in India. Most of them belong to the Hinduism, muslims follow them (although the most muslim areas in the region are now independent from India -Bangladesh and Pakistan), and then the sikhs with their colourful turbans make them very visible.

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When you start getting hungry, you start the challenging task of identifying in the menu, those dishes that you will like the most. A wrong choice can make your mouth be on fire for hours, as they like veggie and specially spicyfood. You take special care with the drinks, always choosing something bottled, and decide not to pay attention to the non observance of some hygiene procedures that are standard at home.

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Prices will make you remember why India is one of the main manufacturing countries in the world: they are lower than anywhere else that you have been before. In any case, they recognise the tourists easily and offer them higher prices -still affordable-, and even the government has “prices for foreigners”. You will soon realize that you are an easy target for all kind of scams, even if you try to your eyes wide open: the most popular one is that any transport you take will make you stop in a shop/restaurant where they get a certain commission from any spend you have.

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You have an overall idea of India. Ready to live it?

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