Northern India

India Wrap-up

Time for another wrap-up. Normally we do a Top 10, a Bottom 5, and our 5 Favorite Food and Drinks. However, wild-and-crazy India needs a Top 10, a Bottom 10 and a 10 Favorite Food and Drinks. We’ll try and keep it short as this is a lot to cover. Here we go!

Top Ten

  1. Holi festival with Sasank

    Staying with Sasank in Delhi – Great guy, generous host, wonderful apartment. Lucky us.

  2. Holi – A holiday like no other. Kinda like dyeing Easter eggs, but with us being the Easter eggs.
  3. Rooftop sitting – Drinking chai, escaping the insane streets and enjoying sunsets.
  4. Udaipur Cooking Class – First cooking class experience was both informational and a lot of fun. Who wants to taste what we learned when we get home?
  5. Meherangarh Fort – We can confidently say that this is our favorite fort in the whole world.

    The Taj at 6am

    One doesn’t usually have strong feelings about forts, but this fort just knocked our socks off.

  6. Camel safari sunset – How could you not love a beautiful sunset over rolling hills of sand that you arrived at by camel?
  7. Sikh Love – Didn’t meet a Sikh we didn’t like!
  8. Border closing ceremony antics – Though it might have been wrong to laugh so hard at something not aimed to be funny, we did and it was.
  9. Taj at sunrise – She’s a beaut and at that hour we had the place mostly to ourselves.
  10. India’s unbridled energy – Though a vague concept, there is no place else like India. Its uniqueness and intensity are at times overwhelming, but ultimately that’s what makes it so rewarding.

Bottom Ten

  1. Delhi belly – We’d toughened up our stomachs a little bit before arriving, but Delhi/India toughened them up a bit more.
  2. Obnoxious salesmen who won’t take no for an answer – Rickshaw? No, thank you. Rickshaw? No. Rickshaw? NOOO!!!!
  3. Salesmen that blatantly lie – Did you know that Richard Gere has visited this hole-in-the-wall textile shop in Jodhpur and that Giorgio Armani sources his fabric from this same place?
  4. Salesmen that are syrupy sweet nice when they are trying to make a sale that become rude or hostile when they realize that you aren’t going to buy anything.
  5. Filth – Really gross stuff. I don’t even want to write some of it down because it’s so gross. But imagine garbage, cow poo, public urination and the smells that go with it.
  6. Horn honking need not be encouraged

    Poverty – There is such a gap between the Haves and the Have Nots and it’s unavoidable to see. People literally live in improvised dwellings on the sidewalks of streets while others are driving by in their Audis. It’s just brutal to see with your own eyes.

  7. Car horns – Though the horns make lots of different clever sounds, they are all loud and all overused. A walk or a bus ride on any road is hard on the ears after about 5 minutes.
  8. Everything is a negotiation/nothing is straightforward
  9. Different prices for foreigners – This is institutionalized. Sure our rickshaw drive will be pricier than for the locals, however, everything from the Humanyan’s Tomb to the Taj Mahal has a significantly higher sticker price for us non-Indians.
  10. Staring – Unnerving, to say the least. I know most folks don’t mean any harm, it’s just weird to be brazenly watched for no particular reason.

Favorite Food and Drinks – We primarily ate vegetarian in India as Hindus don’t eat meat, thus it is a very easy thing to do. However, once in awhile a chicken curry was in order!

  1. MMMmmmmmm - Chai!

    Masala Chai – Or simply chai tea, if you will. It’s prolific, it’s delicious and it’s cheap. We drank some every day.

  2. Lassis – Pretty much a yogurt milkshake. I particularly liked banana lassis for breakfast!
  3. Aloo Parantha – Speaking of breakfast, this is what we liked to eat. It is an Indian bread stuffed with seasoned potatoes served with curd (yogurt) and pickles (chili sauce) for dipping.
  4. Naan – Or roti or parantha. At home we always ate garlic naan with our curries but we found out in India that naan is usually only served for special occasions. For everyday eating it is either roti or parantha (same thing but called by different names in different regions).
  5. Thalis – A medley of different curries, if you will, served with rice, bread and sometimes a dessert. Most restaurants serve unlimited refills, however, we usually split one between the two of us because it was so much food.
  6. Sarah and a dosa

    Butter Chicken – Chicken in a creamy, tomato curry. Mmm!

  7. Masala Dosas – Super thin pancakes/crepes wrapped around some curry.
  8. Curries in general – So many options and oh-so-good. Even mediocre food in India is better than most great Indian food at home.
  9. Gulab Jamun – Pretty much a donut hole soaked in a sweet syrup.
  10. Pakora – Deep-fried battered pieces of vegetable. Hard to not like.

Don’t forget to check out our Best of India photos.

Spontaneous Party in Varanasi

On our 2nd night, we were headed to dinner along the primary street to the main ghat, when we passed a big commotion in the roundabout. We attempted to see what was going on, and gathered in the cluster that had choked up the roundabout as the spectacle moved through. There was loud music, costumes, and dancing, but we couldn’t see too well, so we moved on towards the ghat. A few minutes later, the spectacle moved in our direction, and perching on the road divider, we witnessed a crazy impromptu celebration in the street. First, a few flag bearers led the charge.  Then, a truck with huge speakers blasting dance music rolled through, followed closely by a mobile dance party. After, the main event decided to make a stop right in front of us. A few costumed dancers in huge head-dresses and waving swords (entirely too close to by-standers) performed a mock-battle. 1/2 way through, the main swordsman lit his swords on fire and continued the battle. After more than 5 minutes, the party moved on towards the ghat. For some reason, we didn’t think this random celebration is so random in Varanasi. We’d already witnessed parades of musicians and dancers throughout the day, never sure of what they were celebrating or mourning. Crazy sh*t must happen here all the time.

Flag bearers lead the procession

Then the mobile dance party rolls through

Then the performance begins

Now, it's time to light those swords on fire

Finally, the rest of the party rolls through

The Mighty Ganga

The city of Varanasi is the spiritual headquarters of the Hindu religion. The mighty Ganga (Ganges) River flows through the city, and it is because of this holy river that Varanasi is so important.

The Heart of Varanasi - the Ganga River

Boat's eye view from the Ganga

People make pilgrimages from all over India (and the world) to visit Varanasi and to be in the presence of the mighty Ganga. It is believed that a lifetime of sins can be washed clean with a simple dip in the water, which easily explains its popularity (and people’s willingness to get in a disgusting river)! Life revolves around this river, and day or night you can find people bathing, doing laundry, leading their cows to drinks, cooling off, playing, praying, fishing, and the list goes on. Sadly, the river is grossly polluted and extremely unsafe for swimming (by our standards), however, that did not stop thousands of devoted Hindus from rejoicing in it every day.

Laundry on the Ganga

Cows in the Ganga

Trash along the Ganga

Bathing in the Ganga

Because of its spiritual importance and the fact that its waters eventually reach the sea, many Hindus opt to honor their dead via cremation on the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi, your soul will be released from the endless cycle of reincarnation that largely defines the Hindu religion. Every day at dawn and dusk, you can see the smoke of different cremation ceremonies taking place. The cremations take place at specific ghats, or docks, dedicated to such ceremonies. Some ghats are reserved for laundry-doing, some are for bathing and still others are for cremation. The cremation ghats are easy to distinguish as the shores are packed with thousands upon thousands of logs of firewood. Photos of creamation ceremonies are forbidden.

Burning Ghat

Fuel for the cremations

Ghats on the Ganga

Though a very eerie idea for us to wrap our heads around, it is a perfectly natural and wonderful thing for many Indians. The intensity and extremes of Varanasi are a perfect representation of the eccentricity of India. It was a wonderful and eye-opening last stop for us in a country that throughout our visit, we loved and hated every day.

Scenes of Varanasi

Scenes of Varanasi

The streets of Varanasi


There is a delicate balance to be struck when taking photos of locals and their ceremonies.  On one hand, you really want to get those amazing shots.  But on the other, you HAVE to be respectful of the subjects of your photography.  This dude was way out of line at the Ganga Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh.  Don’t be that guy.

Ganga Aarti Ceremony

Animated Hindu God Painting

I see the appeal of Hinduism. Where at home religion is a part of your life, in India it is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to differentiate one from the other. There is so much color, light, music, and opportunity for celebration in the faith. Religion is part of your cuisine, your style, your friends, even your social standing in the community. For young children, there are animal gods, many dressed in different costumes and there are numerous, fun stories about their powers and various manifestations.  If I was a kid and I had to chose between dressing up, being quiet, behaving and going to church or getting to run around with all my friends while fire twirlers were performing and cymbals were gonging, it wouldn’t be hard decision.

One Hindu celebration that we witnessed in both Rishikesh and Varanasi was called the Ganga Aarti Ceremony. Ganga Aarti is performed everyday along the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) river. There were so many people and so much energy surrounding the event that it literally felt like a once a year type celebration – a 4th of July if you will. But no, this was just another regular Tuesday, or Wednesday or any day – it didn’t matter. The ceremony features priests facing the river and performing various symbolic offerings with candles, and rice, and feathers, etc. Meanwhile another man is leading the group in song or just chanting. Hundreds of people are along the riverside releasing candles into the Ganga. Thousands of others are sitting nearby watching the ceremony while still many more are just standing around talking, from what I could tell.

Nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony in Rishikesh

Sarah participating in the ceremony

Flower boats for release into the Ganga during the ceremony

Varanasi Ganga Aarti Ceremony Madness

Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

Where in church, silence is expected, believers are attentive, and things go in a particular order, that could not be farther from the truth here. People move and listen and come and go and participate however they wish. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s loud, and it’s just part of everyday life; but because it is impossible to separate religion from life, nobody tries to.

The Taj

After a quick stopover in Delhi, we headed east to Agra. The town of Agra is not much to write home about however, it happens to be the home of India’s (and one of the world’s) most visited monuments – the Taj Mahal. As you may or may not know, the Taj was built by Mugal emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his beloved 3rd wife who died in childbirth bearing their 14th child. In essence, it is a monument of love. In actuality, it is a burial tomb. Shortly after completion of this work of art, the emperor was overthrown by one of his sons and locked away in the nearby Red Fort where he could only catch glimpses of his impressive Mahal from a prison cell for the rest of his life. Upon his death, the evil son was at least courteous enough to bury him within the Taj Mahal too so that the two lovebirds could be united once again.

The Taj

A reflection of Sarah and the Taj

Enough of that history lesson, I’ll let the pics speak for themselves but let me say that this Wonder of the World lives up to its hype. It is incredibly impressive, bigger in person than we were imagining and a work of art from any perspective. What we didn’t know until our visit is that the Taj is perfectly symmetrical. It looks the exact same on all four sides. The minarets and the buildings to its right and left are the same as well. Also note that the Taj is built up on a platform, which allows for an impressive photograph. The Emperor was really thinking ahead on that one as nothing in the background disrupts the monument’s perfect silhouette against the sky. And last but not least, the time of day makes a big difference in what color the Taj will appear to be. We arrived at sunrise when it was glowing orangey-pink. By the time we left a couple hours later, it was glowing bright white. We have many of the same pictures from only a couple of hours apart and the contrast is striking. Okay, okay, I’m done now. Enjoy!

Relaxing at the Taj Mahal

Side shot of the Taj

Intricate stone inlays

Some hilarious photography happens here. The guy on the left is posing as though he's holding the Taj, the people on the right are being posed by a guide, and the guy in the middle is just happy to be there

The quintessential tourist Taj photo

Picture of the Week

The Taj Mahal.  One of those Wonders of the World that exceeds expectations.

All You Need is Love…and a Guide Named Raju Baba

As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Beatles came to Rishikesh in the late 1960s where they studied at the the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram and composed much of their famous White Album. Maharishi Mahesh is just down the road from where we were staying, so we had to go take a look. The ashram was up and running until as recently as the late 1990s (we even have a friend who has studied there!). However, due to its Beatles-infused popularity and the types of people (folks with significant drug use/abuse issues) it attracted, the city decided to shut it down.

That is a big shame as it is located on one of the most beautiful spots in the valley, overlooking both the river and the town itself. Though it’s only been 15 years or so, the buildings are in complete decay and it has quite a ghostly feel.

Decay and overgrowth have taken over the ashram

Ashram gate

Meditation caves

Technically the ashram is off-limits to visitors, however, it is a well-known “secret” that the guy who guards the gate will happily let you in for a few rupees. So that is how we found ourselves wandering through the ghost town that was once the famous and revered Maharishi Mahesh Ashram.

We wandered aimlessly, trying to determine what was what, when we ran into Miguel, a nice Spanish man who was wandering the premises with a guide. This “guide’s” name was Raju Baba (or so we were told) – a crazy old man decked out in the traditional orange guru robe worn by many spiritual pilgrams found throughout Rishikesh. I’m pretty sure he lives on the streets of Rishikesh and makes an odd dollar from tourists here and there – he may or may not be enlightened.  Needless to say he was a total character and we were quite amused to follow him around as he pointed out John and Yoko’s bungalow, the Beatles meditation room, and the best rooftop views of the complex. Who knew if what he was saying was true, however, we were thoroughly entertained and I would argue that our small tip for his services was well worth it.

Raju Baba

Cool stonework and architecture

Lecture and meditation hall

Sarah, Miguel, and Raju Baba

It was a very unique day, to say the least, and we can only hope that the city finds the right project to bring the beautiful setting back to life.

The Vibe of Rishikesh

Rishikesh vista

Rishikesh is special and fascinating for a number of reasons. First, its location at the foothills of the Himalaya and the headwaters of the Ganges (or Ganga, as they call it here) sets a beautiful backdrop. Flatness to the south, mountains (similar in size and feel to the Flatirons coming out of Boulder) cut majestically up from the wide and pale green Ganga (also a very holy body of water to the Hindus). The river here is relatively clean, and swimming in it is a common (and cold) activity. 2nd, its location away from normal Indian craziness (but it’s all relative). Rishikesh is actually the main city across the water and to the south a bit, and it’s regular old Indian mayham. The 3 main areas where travelers and pilgrams hang out are separate communities north of the main town and across the river – Ram Jhula, Lachsman Jhula, and High Bank. In all 3 of these, there is very limited traffic – mainly only scooters and motos, and then a jeep service between Ram an Lachsman. This is a very important factor in the development of the spiritual center this place has become. Most importantly though, this place is special for it’s spirituality, and the people that it draws in the pursuit of it.  Yoga capital of the world, the region is dotted with Ashrams where pilgrams come for serious study. Ashrams range in their price and focus, but most require adherence to a schedule of study, a dress code, a conduct code, and that participants be serious in their dedication. We considered staying in one of the lite Ashrams for a couple days, but decided that we could get the yoga/meditation we wanted just by dropping in.

The entrance to Parmarth Ashram

There is a lot of focused brain power and spiritual energy in this place. A LOT. For all of the reasons above, Rishikesh is the perfect storm of elements to create probably one of the world’s most significant hubs of people energy. And you can feel it. Lots of Boulder people would dig the vibe here. Sarah gets a bit annoyed by all the travelers dressing the part (lots of people here wearing hippie clothes that wouldn’t be caught dead in them back home), but I think it’s just people getting away from their lives and getting into the vibe here.

Students of the ashram

The streets are lined with these unique beggars. Dressed largely in orange, this skinny old dudes with huge beards and long hair would very unobtrusively ask you for a donation as you walked by. As many people come to Rishikesh to cleanse and build up their karma, it’s a good place to be a(n apparently spiritual) beggar.

Rishikesh Beggar

There is NO alcohol in this city. None. Can’t have a beer with dinner, no wine, no hard stuff. There is one restaurant up in High Bank that has beer, supposively. Good for the budget though. Oh yeah, and no meat either. It’s so easy to eat vegitarian when meat is not an option. Haven’t missed it once since we’ve been here. Nobody offers it, nobody eats it, and the food is delicious.

Sunset on the Ganga

A Yogi’s Dream

Our next stop was Rishikesh, a hippie/yoga enclave in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Rishikesh made headlines in the late 1960s when the Beatles spent time in an ashram here writing their famous White Album. The Beatles ashram is now out of commission, but there are many others that are going strong. Thousands of Westerners and Indians visit Rishikesh every year to live the ashram lifestyle (à la Eat Pray Love), dedicate themselves to yogic study, and/or take in the beautiful scenery of the Ganga (Ganges) River flowing through town. It is a very spiritual place full of hippies and wannabe hippies, as well as true Indian gurus and wannabe gurus.


We spent a week in Rishikesh, relishing the relaxed vibe and relative peace and quiet that seems impossible to find in other parts of India. Though we considered staying at an ashram, we decided that we’d prefer the flexibility of making our own schedule so we opted for a guesthouse instead. That’s not to say we didn’t go with the flow and dive into what Rishikesh has to offer.

Parmarth - the most popular ashram in Rishikesh

Ted and I found ourselves doing yoga on several occasions – which were Ted’s first yoga classes ever and my first since college. We were entertained by our various teachers, each with their own style and expertise. One class had over 30 people in it as apparently our instructor was a renowned yogi – what did we know? Our second class was led by a rather feminine man with an adorable lisp and I could barely contain myself from giggling as he commanded us to relax our right nostril and our left nostril while focusing in savasana at the end of class. Another teacher was particularly into using breath when moving through the poses – he had us nearly hyper-ventilating. Needless to say, we learned that each yoga class is very different depending on who is running the show!

Prayer at the banks of the Ganga

We spent a few evenings doing guided meditation at an ashram which was a brand new experience for me. I have a long way to go towards ‘stilling my mind’, but I have to say that overall I enjoyed the experience very much and am intrigued to learn and do more.

And we both took dips in the holy Ganga River (as it is called). It was a quick dip as the river was freezing. Please note that this is not the dirty polluted Ganges that you are imagining. Up in Rishikesh, the water is a beautiful blue-green color, flowing from the Himalaya before it has yet to be contaminated with the filth, sewage, garbage and animal run-off that destroys it further south. The Ganga is of great religious importance to the country’s hundreds of millions of Hindus. We regularly saw entire families by the river edge swimming and splashing themselves with the water of this great river. Many families fill up jugs with the sacred water that they then take home with them for future use.

A cold dip in the Ganga

Plastic jugs for sale - take some holy water home with you

So, though we didn’t do much in Rishikesh, per se, we did our best to take advantage of what this spiritual center had to offer and found that we quite liked what that entailed.

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