The city of Lord Brahma

We arrived to Pushkar after a tiring bus ride, not because of the distance but because we had to change buses. The first bus took us from Jaipur to Ajmer, about 3h. Once in Ajmer we had to get the bus which would take us to Pushkar (30 mins away) and after a longish wait and a growing number of people waiting for the bus and of course because in India no one respects the queues, we literally had to fight our way into the bus.

Pushkar at first sight wasn’t what we expected, we thought we would find a quiet Indian town with few foreigners but what we found was an oasis made for tourists at the doors of the Thar desert (Great Indian Desert). There were shops everywhere, henna painting saloons, many cafes and restaurants with continental menus and the lake more than a lake it looked like a man made giant swimming pool. But as the days passed we discovered other secrets of the city that made us growing into like it.

Pushkar is a holy city in the state of Rajashtan. The Hindus believe that Brahma, one of their divinities known as the creator, released a lotus flower into the earth. When the petals of the flower reached the earth three lakes were created, and around the biggest one grew the city of Pushkar. The story says that Brahma was to marry Savitri, a river goddess, in the banks of Pushkar lake with a ceremony called yagna that can only happen on a specific astrological moment. As Savitri was late, Brahma was forced to find another unmarried woman, as without a wife he could not perform the yagna. Gayitri was the only unmarried woman available, so they went ahead with wedding. When Savitri finally arrived and saw Brahma married to another woman she was furious and coursed him saying that he would only be worshiped at Pushkar. Pushkar is now one of the few places in India where you can find Brahma temples. There are also temples devoted to Savitri and Gayitri, both of them situated on top of two hills in the surroundings of Pushkar. To placate Savitri, it was agreed that her temple was to sit on the highest hill and that she would always be worshiped before Gayitri.

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Varanasi y el sagrado río Ganges

Nada más salir de la estación de tren de Varanasi nos esperaba la marabunta de taxitas y tuk-tuks que prácticamente gratis se ofrecían a llevarnos a cualquier sitio. Esto es uno de los típicos timos para llevarte a uno de los hoteles con los que los taxistas ganan comisión con el pretexto de que el hotel al que quieres ir está lleno o cerrado. Nosotros nos alejamos un poco de la estación de tren y cogimos un tuk-tuk más de fiar que nos llevara a uno de los ghats donde queríamos quedarnos. Los ghats son zonas a lo largo del río que tienen escaleras para bajar al agua. Una vez en el guest house (Vishnu Rest House) conocimos a un chico de Guadalajara, Alvaro, que había estudiado en el mismo instituto que yo, qué pequeño es el mundo!

Varanasi es un ciudad sagrada donde vienen miles de peregrinos Hindus al menos una vez en su vida, y además está bañada por el río Ganges. En la religión Hindu creen que si creman a los muertos y arrojan sus cenizas en las aguas del río Ganges, sus almas salen del ciclo de las reencarnaciones para siempre. Por eso la gente lleva a sus muertos a ser cremados a Varanasi, que dependiendo de que parte de India  vengan pueden tardar hasta días en llegar con el cuerpo. Por otro lado, también creen que bañándose en el río purifican sus pecados.

En Varanasi hay dos ghats donde realizan cremaciones públicas, y cualquiera que pase por allí puede pararse a contemplar el ritual de cremación. Aunque ya habíamos leido como eran las cremaciones en Varanasi, sin embargo es algo que nos impactó muchísimo. Pensábamos que sería algo más íntimo y sentimental, y sin embargo lo que nos encontramos fueron “fábricas” de quemar a los muertos. En el ghat mayor queman unos 300 cuerpos al día, mientras que en el más pequeño queman a unos 70. Los familiares se rapan el pelo y son ellos mismos los que después de bañar al cuerpo en el río lo queman sobre troncos de madera. Para nosotros es una imagen dantesca, pero ellos ni lloran ni se emocionan ya que creen que el cuerpo sin el alma no tiene ningún sentido. Intentar sacar una foto en los crematorios es una falta de respeto total y absoluta hacia los familiares, que creen que estás robando el alma del muerto, y en algunos casos se pueden volver muy agresivos hasta el punto de destrozarte la cámara. Otra imagen que nos impactó muchísimo es ver a un grupo de niños en la orilla del río al lado del ghat rebuscando entre las cenizas por si encontraban oro o plata de los muertos. Es muy triste ver como estos niños se tienen que buscar la vida… En el resto de los ghats, la imagen del Ganges es totalmente distinta y llena de vida: gente bañándose, lavándo la ropa, rezándo, niños jugando en el agua, animales bañándose, gente jugando al cricket… es sorprendente ver el contraste de vida y muerte en el Ganges.

Aparte del río Ganges, otro importante lugar sagrado de Varanasi es el Golden Temple. Como en todo templo Hindu, está prohibida la entrada a gente de otras religiones. Sin embargo es posible entrar llevando el pasaporte y argumentando estar muy interesado en la religión Hindu. Nosotros decidimos ni siquiera intentar entrar ya que nos parecía una falta de respecto hacía su religión. El Golden Temple está situado entre las callejuelas de la la ciudad vieja, donde hay multitud de bazares, puestos de comida callejera y restaurantes, así que es una zona perfecta para perderse una tarde entera. En uno de estos restaurantes donde comimos (Ganga Fuji) encontramos paella, tortilla de patata y hasta gazpacho en el menu, es curioso hasta donde ha llegado la cultura gastronómica española!

Después de tres días en Varanasi, nos fuimos en tren a Amritsar. Nuestra idea era haber ido a Agra a ver el famoso Taj Mahal, pero como no encontramos plazas en ningún tren en las fechas cercanas, acabamos comprando billetes para ir a Amritsar, a 22 horas en tren desde Varanasi! Resulta que en India hay que planificar con bastante antelación los viajes en tren ya que de lo contrario es muy dificil conseguir asientos o literas asignadas.

Our pilgrimage to holy Varanasi

After doing a little bit of research we thought that going from Pokhara to Varanasi would be relatively straight forward, but of course the trip had a few “surprises” for us.

The trip commences with us leaving Pokhara. We take the “tourist bus”, which in reality was a local bus stopping at the tourist bus stand, that will take us from Pokhara to Sonauli (7 hours). Leaving aside the state of the roads, the crazy overtakes (they don’t care if there is another car coming, they just push the horn and hope for the best) and the precipices, the journey was more or less pleasant. We were lucky enough not to have any accidents or punctures but on the way we were forced to stop for more than 20 mins by a bus crash that happened between the bus ahead of us and another bus driving in opposite direction. I should probably better say touch rather than crash, as apart from a minor scratch there was no other sign of the collision between the two buses. Everybody from the two buses involved, from our bus and people from several other cars went close to try to see what happened while the two drivers argued about the “crash”. Crazy that given how old and bumped the bus was they could argue for minutes about the tinny little scratch.

Finally we reached Sonauli, the town where the India – Nepal crossing is. As we preferred to continue our journey to Varanasi by day, we decided to sleep there. Our last night in Nepal eating momos.

Early in the morning we got ready to enter India again. Half Sonauli is Nepal and the other half is India and the crossing between the two it is just a long street that you can cross from one side to the other without having to show your passport or any kind of documentation to anybody. While nobody will tell you anything if you don’t do the required diligences then and there, we could be traveling without an India visa now, you could get into trouble if you don’t get the exit stamp in Nepal’s immigration stand and the entry stamp in India’s one (both are just about 500m apart).

In Sonauli India we looked for the bus to Gorakhpur. First we passed by all the taxi drivers who will take you if you pay a small fortune, but we just said no thanks with a smile. We found our bus and took our sits. The 3 hours that takes going from Sonauli to Gorakhpur went fast thanks to the entertaining Bollywood movies!

We arrived in Gorakhpur around midday. We were back in deep India, the chaos, the traffic, the thousands of people… Now we just had to complete the last leg of our journey, get a train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi. One will think that this was the easy part, it’s just a matter of going to one of the desks in the train station and get a ticket from Gorakhpur to Varanasi, ha! First we learned that reserved seats tickets can not be bought at the train station and that we had to go to the Computerized Reservation Office. Luckily it was only 5 mins away, but walking 5 mins with our heavy backpacks, between the cows, the rickshaws and tuk-tuks, the heat and the Indians I tell you it is not easy!

In the Computerized Reservation Office we were shocked by the amount of people queuing for a ticket at the different desks. As we had no idea of the train schedules, we were advised to buy a book which has information of the main train routes in India. Once we found which trains could take us to Varanasi and queuing for over 45 mins we learned that trains in India have to be booked well in advanced! They were all sold out! But fortunately and after lots of questions we found out there was another train leaving that night, not in the book, that had still beds available in First Class. 2h after we finally had our tickets.

The 6h wait in Gorakhpur went quite fast reading and talking to a little boy in the train station. The train arrived and after a few minutes looking for our coach we realized that there was no First Class coach as we were told… in the middle of the confusion and disbelieve we were told that they were going to attach an FC coach in a few minutes. One hour later, our coach was there and we could finally relax and sleep for a few hours. Night night Gorakhpur, by the morning we will be in Varanasi!

Back to exhilarating India

After spending a few days in Pokhara resting and doing our “homework”, which has been blogging and uploading all the pictures we have taken during this 1st month of our trip, we are now ready to go back to India. Tomorrow morning we will departure towards the border between Nepal and India and hopefully in a couple of days we will reach Varanasi. At this point in time we think that we will be in India until some time after Christmas… we will keep you posted!!