​ Varanasi- An atheist abroad

Okay so the title may be misleading, I’m basically atheist, but I don’t tend to define as atheist as I’m not that clear cut for me. I believe that science can explain way more than religion can, as has been proven time and time again from my perspective. I believe religion has many benefits to society, but sadly from my perspective these are generally overshadowed by the turmoil that surround most, especially with regards to the wars and attacks we seem to witness daily across the globe now. I would never go as far as saying these things wouldn’t happen if religion wasn’t a thing, but I do believe we’d be in a very different world and sadly in some ways,coffee the better. For me, religions set clear principles and values that when adhered to (to a point) can shape a fantastic society, and a happy community, and improve societies. Obviously, though, there’s a flip side to that as well.
I’ve always been interested in theology, but not really studied it in great detail. Coming from an atheist family, but marrying an Irish Catholic girl and my family moving to. country in the Middle East my exposure to Islam and Catholicism has increased exponentially over the years. Plus, I’m now very much at that age where I’m spending more in time in churches for weddings and christenings, and sadly far too often, funerals, so the impact religion has become more commonplace in my life.
“Why the bloody hell are you chatting about religion Matt, this is a travel blog!?”
For those that don’t know, Varanasi is the most holy city in all of India. It’s history dates back thousands of years, and millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to the holy city every year. Hindus believe that if you are cremated and released into the Ganges River (River Ganga) you will break the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana (minus Cobain obviously😬). For this reason there are hundreds of cremations every day at a number of burning ghats, which I’ll talk more about later.img_8261
The city isn’t just Hindu though, across the skyline of the cityscape you see the minarets at mosques dotted all over the place, and hear the choir of the call to prayer. Alongside this, a scattering of beautiful Buddhist temples. Around our hotel in the old town, we could see at least 5 mosques, and had at least 5 Buddhist and Hindu temples within our immediate vicinity (as the crow flies, it probably would have taken hours to find them on the narrow backstreets of the old town). Because of this, Varanasi has an amazing aura around it, with so many people visiting to follow emir believes alone. As you can imagine, this brings with it a true melting pot of cultures and experiences. At one time, I was walking to see the Hindi Ganges ceremony while hearing the Islamic evening call to prayer whilst walking past coach loads of Buddhist monks who were arriving for a Buddhist festival. You wouldn’t see that at the Vatican!
The city itself is amazing, truly amazing. It’s so unbelievably different from Kolkata, with car horns and traffic jams replaced with rickshaws and cows. Yep, cows. The Hindu faith regards cows as holy creatures, so they are everywhere! The labrynth-like experience of the back streets around the old town is made even more ingesting by dodging cows, cow shit, stray dogs, uneven stones for the walkways, and locals on their motorbikes. That in itself is an experience, especially when you see a couple s having an argument! Whilst the are beggars and people trying to flog you stuff everywhere, the poverty on the streets is nothing like what I saw in Kolkata. I must say these street sellers week utterly relentless, and by the end of my 4 days there I was getting rather pissed off with a few of them repeatedly trying to sell me some cheap crap or give me a hand massage. Seriously, these guys will try anything, t always use he standard chat up line of “where are you from?”
For me Varanasi is about the sights and spirituality, the spirituality being the things that’s totally alien to me

The Ghats

The ghats offer a myriad of services, but basically, they are stairs to the Ganges. There are a number of ghats in Varanasi (83 in total I believe), the most famous are the Assi Ghat (where the river Assi meets the Ganges), Dashashwamedh (where the wonderful Ganja Artii celebration is held every evening) and the Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies are undertaken, about 400 each day.img_4080
Each Ghat obviously offers its own experience, but my favourite had to be Dashashwamedh with the ceremonies. Every night, people gather to watch the prayers to the river Ganja, thanking it for its good givings and bringing life to the people of India. It’s without a doubt the most wonderful religious activities I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and we were very fortunate to be there with about 10000 other guests on Ghandis birthday, and to top it off we were speaking with a Krishna throughout the before and during the ceremony about everything from Hinduism to world economics (and more importantly, the false economies and impact of gentrification on modern day society), global warming, and India on the whole. This Krishna completely went against the stereotypical “religious guy” image, and reminded me a lot of the chaplains from my old stomping ground, Anglia Ruskin (big up Nigel and Tony, you guys rock).img_8117
Many people I’ve met have talked about the burning ghats no sadly most of the focus tends to go to the smell. To be honest this didn’t bother me, but seeing the whole process was quite overwhelming and emotional, from preparing and washing the bodies, preparing the fire, placing the bodies, covering with more wood, and finally taking the ashes to the river. Even though I had no idea who was being cremated the openness was obviously alien to me, but the wealth of emotions around the area were very powerful. It’s just such a shame there are still people exploiting the ceremony by trying to catch out unaware tourists (take note people, if someone says to you they are asking for donations for the hospice, they aren’t, they are lying).

Processed with Snapseed.
Processed with Snapseed.
We spent our time at Assi Ghat watching the sun rise. We only just made it, t seeing the sun rise over the Ganges was beautiful, and following that was a fantastic yoga and meditation session run by a Krishna, definitely something I won’t forget any time soon!

I started this blog by talking about my position with religion. I can say hand on heart that Varanasi was the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. Whilst it hasn’t made me flick any internal light switches to on, it has definitely grown my interest in Hinduism, and question many of the priorities in my own life. How long that will last I don’t know but Varanasi will always hold a close place in my heart.

Two final shout outs to finish this post. The manager at our Guest House, Sanjeev, was an absolute legend. If you ever visit this wonderful city (and you should) I can’t recommend the Shivakashi guesthouse high enough. Sanjeev went out of his way on so many occasions to help us out. He got us train tickets, gave plenty of local advice on where to eat and go, and had I spoken to him sooner, would have even got us a boat ride down the Ganges, stopping us from getting ripped off! Sanjeev, if you are reading this, you truly are a legend and thank you for your help on manning our trip so special.img_8265
The final shout out goes to Matt and Charlie, a wonderful couple I met in the French bakery. We ended up chatting for about two hours about the world (they’ve been travelling a while chasing the best dove locations around Asia), and met up today as well over Lassi. We will hopefully meet up in Jaipur too if things work out. It was so nice to meet such a lovely couple who seemed to share a scary number of experiences, both whilst on the road and back home.
Sorry this is such a monster post. If you’ve made It to the end, CONGRATULATIONS! I’m sorry this is such a long one, but Varanasi really struck a chord with me, and I hope I’ve done it justice relaying that. I’m also writing this whilst on a 14 hour train journey and it’s only 9pm locally so I’m nowhere near sleepy yet! I’ll try and write something more succinct on our next stop, Agra.

Agra- An Inconvenient Truth

Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress is uploading my pics to the start of this blog only, so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi. I have some stunners so check back to see them soon

It’s one of the things you have to do if you go to India; go see the Taj Mahal. Everyone knows about it, everyone has seen the famous Process Diana photo, and now the famous William and Kate replication. Everyone I know who goes to India goes to see the Taj, has their photo taken in the centre point, probably a perspective matched shot of them holding the brass tip, and about a quintillion photos of the whole site (yep, that’s a number). I can’t blame anyone for this; it’s such a breathtaking site and it really is a once in a lifetime experience.

The truly incredible thing about the whole Taj Mahal site is the genius engineering that went into the building. There are so many design decisions that really make this so special, from the perfect symmetry around the whole site as well as the tomb itself, the ventilation considerations made to keep the tomb cool, the optical illusions you experience when looking from the main entrance, the truly incredible craftsmanship to incorporate precious stones of intricate patterns and Islamic calligraphy into the white marble, and the fact that the minarets are actually angled 3degrees off perfect alignment so those viewing always see all four, but also in case of an earthquake they would fall away from the tomb. Considering this was built hundreds of years ago this is truly astounding. 

When we were being guided around by Prakash, our awesome guide and photographer, he told us the granite came from Rajasthan, the neighbouring state, I’m on my way to now. It’s worth mentioning though this is hardly driving from Cambridgeshire to Suffolk or actually leaving London (I know my London friends, it’s almost unthinkable isn’t it), this was a 700km journey, pulling an unthinkable volume of granite and marble by horse and cart. No wonder it took 22 years and 20,000 people to build!
We spent a few hours at the site, and I was more than happy just sitting and looking ate the building, it really is that stunning. After the Taj we headed across the city to the Agra Fort, which is somewhat overshadowed by the Taj. Unlike most temples in India either dedicated to gods or dudes, the Taj is built for love and in memory of Shan Jahan’s favourite wife and only true love, who died giving birth to their 14th child. 

Sorry Kelly, as much as I love you, I don’t think I’ll be able to top the Taj..

The second must see is Agra Fort..

Agra Fort has adopted a number of roles over the years, and is now 80% a military base. It’s quite nice it’s still used for government purposes I guess. It was a shame we couldn’t see it all, but what was open to the public was pretty awesome. There are so many layers of the fort that offer difference architectural design changes as the fort was built up and modernised by different leaders over hundreds of years. My favourite part though was overlooking the Taj and the surrounding greenery. I could have spent hours just looking over the horizon to be honest, and for those that know me personally I’m not too good at just sitting. I really loved the contrast of designs and colours around the whole site, and to be honest I liked the contrast against the almost perfectly kept Taj. This fort has seen better days in parts…

Once we did these two sites, we decided to head to Mehtab Bagh ( the Black Taj) and its’s gardens on the other side of the river from the Taj for a different view. The gardens are lovely, tranquil, quiet, and well worth a visit to escape the all round carnage. The Black Taj was meant to be a palace for the King directly opposite that of his love, so he could watch over her but sadly only the foundations were completed before his third sun overthrew him, imprisoned him at Agra Fort and killed his two elder brothers to become king. The ruins of the foundations are still present today. We had hoped to stay until after sunset but security had a different opinion. Still, it was great to see the Taj from a different angle and chat with other tourists.

Then, there’s the inconvenient truth.

I’m just going to say it…

Agra is a shit hole.


I know many of you are probably thinking I’m just saying this because of the opulence we are used to in the UK in contrast to India, but seriously, look past the Taj and the red fort, it really is a shit hole. This is comparing against what I’ve seen so far in this truly wonderful country.

For example, as soon as I got off the train the smell of sulphur stabs you in the nostrils, I can only assume from the polluted river which was abnormally low, thus a huge pile of rubbish sat festering around the banks. I’ve said before in previous blogs I didn’t get when people moaned about the smell bomb of India, but THIS epitomised Ming to me! Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, even some food I had tasted of sulphur (obviously using local unfiltered water) and brushing my teeth using the standard taps overpowered my minty fresh toothpaste with rank egg-like gag inducing taste. Needless to say, and without being too graphic, my body wasn’t a fan (projects ladies, if you’re reading this, your leaving present came in handy!!). I never found out why this was so bad, but my hostel manager said that it is a big problem in Agra, and even locals can’t drink the water; such a shame considering the famine in some areas of India. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink comes to mind…

Then there’s the bugs. There is a break out of Dengue fever and Chicken Gunia in Agra at present so we had to be careful all the time. Because it’s rained so much over monsoon season there are more mosquitos than usual. No one can help this I appreciate, but I found that most establishments struggled to do much about this, so restaurants and our hostel were covered in bugs, and sitting outside was literally like running the gauntlet with some pretty nasty diseases. I didn’t fancy that at all.

Finally, and possibly the most annoying thing for me was the blatant gentrification that oozed through Agra. Locals can’t drink any water, but a 5* Meridien hotel can build whatever it wants and offer a world class service to its guests whilst people outside live in a box. I went into one of the many top hotels scattering the city to nick some wifi and have a coffee. The coffee cost more than any street food I’ve eaten in all of India! The level of opulence I saw around reminded me of trips to Abu Dhabi, which is quite literally another world and totally adrift from reality for the majority of the human race. 

The reason this upset me, is it was obvious many people probably fly into, India and onwards to Agra, see the Taj, and piss off again. The paradox of 5* hotels against the local experience is mind blowing, there are literally people living outside the hotel walls in boxes! I’m not naive to think this wouldn’t happen near a world heritage site and that this is the basic supply and demand economics, it’s just sad the government aren’t doing more to resolve the water issue. 

Finally, Agra is the biggest tourist trap imaginable. Everything has a markup, EVERYTHING! We absolutely decimated our budget seeing the must see sites, eating and getting around, and we only had breakfast and dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we saw the sites, but some of the ticket officers were royally taking the piss with their foreigner inflation (not the establishments inflation, which was bad enough, but the officers on the gates themselves). Rickshaw drivers were literally driving down the road next to us walking for hundreds of metres trying to get us in their vehicles, whilst street vendors selling snow globes and other bits of crap followed us on the other side. I even went for a bloody run earlier around Agra and had the same thing happen. 

No mate, i don’t want a lift, I’m clearly going for a run. Look at my attire. Getting a taxi down the road somewhat defeats the object of going for a run…..

So I probably sound like a moany little bitch, but I wanted to make the point to our people planning trips to India reading this, when going to Agra, get in, and get out! The good is great, but the bad is bad…

I’m now on my way to Jaipur which I can’t wait for. Everyone I have spoken to says Rajistan is an amazing state to visit and Jaipur is different to anywhere else we’ve visited so far. We are staying with a guy from Couchsurfing too, which will be interesting in itself. The best way to experience the local culture is to stay within it, so let’s hope we really get a chance to see it.

Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress isn’t uploading my pics to the right part of my blog so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi.