If you’re just joining us, my opportunity to visit the Subcontinent came up following a family tragedy suffered by my American friend, Debbie. She was looking to grieve, heal and be renewed. India called to her, and she called on me and another pal, Renee, asking if we wanted to join her journey. Of course we did.
The first half of this trip was spent in a retreat of deep spiritual and physical relaxation and stillness at Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort in Kerala. The second half was something completely different. As you’re about to find out…
AFTER THE RESORT: A TOUR OF NORTH INDIA – 3 CITIES IN 5 DAYS
To commence the second part of the tour, we left Kerala, on the lush and tropical southern tip of India, and headed northward into the country’s interior.
Over the next 5 days we would see ancient holy places, walk the streets of heaving and bustling cities where modern life and tradition collide and then visit what is perhaps India’s most iconic place.
On its website, our tour company, Sevanti Adventures, says these 5 days – the post-retreat phase of our trip – is “possibly the most transformative part of the journey”. And I’d have to agree. It certainly packed in a plethora of cultural and spiritual experiences and gave us a taste of “real” India.
Left to right: Me, Debbie and Renee, happy and relaxed on our last day in Kerala, perhaps not quite prepared for the vivid experiences of the week to come.
VARANASI: A CITY OF CONTRASTS
Leaving Kerala, we flew to Varanasi for a two-day stay. After such a languid time at the retreat, there is only one word to describe these two days: INTENSE. Varanasi stands in stark contrast to Kerala’s tropical paradise: polluted, busy and filthy.
Cows and dogs roam the streets. Dung is everywhere. We looked out of the airport transfer bus through smoggy air at a vista of dirt, rubbish and extreme poverty. Within minutes, the deep relaxation that settled over me in Kerala disappeared and was replaced with stress, sadness and a sense of being overwhelmed.
But, as I would soon learn, the dirt and chaos of Varanasi is only a veil over a place of great beauty, palpable spirituality and inspiring hope.
THE HOLY GANGES RIVER
They believe a dip in the Ganges removes all sins and clears karma for life. Hindus also believe the Ganges at Varanasi is the most holy place to die. Many come here to do just that.
BLESSINGS AT SUNRISE
BLESSINGS FROM A BRAHMIN
It’s true what they say: there’s something special about the Ganges. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the traditions and to feel moved by the Hindu devotion to Mother Ganga
THE CRAZY STREETS OF VARANASI
After the peaceful power of the sunrise ceremony, we spent the day walking the streets of Varanasi and checking out all the nearby temples. Later that day, we travelled back to the Ganges by rickshaw.
My goodness, as Varanasi comes to life each day, this sacred city becomes a scene of craziness and chaos. Even more so from a rickshaw.
I covered my face with a scarf as the streets were so polluted and the air so smog-filled that I had trouble breathing! I had never been more grateful to live in the fresh air of Australia. For a glimpse of what I mean, take a look at this video my friend (and our yoga teacher) Tawny captured here.
Our rickshaws stopped some distance from the Ganges and we walked the rest of the way to the banks. On foot, we witnessed the extreme poverty in Varanasi. People with deformities begged for money. Mothers holding malnourished infants begged for food.
Our guides warned us not to give money as most of the beggars were forced by the mafia to hand over everything they received. No matter what you gave, the gangsters would steal every cent of it from these desperately poor people. Walking past and ignoring these people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I fought back tears the entire time. I felt so helpless. However, our guides encouraged us to donate to local schools and shelters. This however couldn’t make me feel any better about stepping over people starving on the street.
CREMATION CEREMONIES ON THE GANGES
Once we arrived back at the Ganges, we again boarded a rowboat, this time to witness the cremation ceremonies on the river’s banks.
For millennia, up to 300 recently passed people have been cremated each night in fire ceremonies intended to liberate their souls to find ‘nirvana’ and be reborn. Legend says the flames of the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghats have been burning for more than 3,000 years.
On our rowboat to watch the cremation ceremonies
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH
As our boat floated in the eerie blackness we witnessed the cremation fires. The feeling of heavy sadness among the group was palpable. We were silent. To me, it felt almost wrong to watch a stranger’s cremation and their family’s heartache.
Yet, in another sense, it was touching to witness such an ancient spiritual ceremony. I tried to absolve my guilt of laying witness by sending love, good vibes and prayers to the heartbroken families.
As you will remember from the introduction, the whole impetus for this trip was the death of my friend Debbie’s grandson. And here, watching people farewelling their loved ones in such an ancient and elemental way, things became especially hard for Debbie.
She cried. One of those big, soul cries where you let everything out. Renee and I held her and cried with her, as did many others in our group. For Debbie, I think this was a cathartic moment.
She let go of some of her grief and sadness, releasing it into the sacred waters. At the time, I said a prayer for her grandson’s soul and I’m sure many others on the boat were doing the same. I know her grandson was there with us that night.
THE FIRE PUJA – A CELEBRATION OF LIGHT
After the cremation ceremonies, we floated to the bank to witness the evening fire puja. This nightly ceremony is a dedication to the River Ganges, the Sun, Lord Shiva, Fire and the whole universe. It is performed by young local Brahmin priests.
There was lots of loud clanging bells and chanting and incense smoke, all of which added to the tone of an enchanting, time-honoured tradition. We were told this ceremony had been held every night for thousands of years. I felt humbled and honoured to have witnessed it. You don’t need to be Hindu to appreciate such a long-standing tradition.
THE LAST 3 DAYS: DELHI, AGRA AND THE TAJ MAHAL
After two intense and powerful days in Varanasi, I was relieved to move on to the next part of the trip. First, we flew to India’s capital, Delhi, then took a 3-hour bus ride to Agra where we took in the beauty of the Taj Mahal. This UNESCO heritage-listed site is one of the great wonders of the world.
THE BEAUTIFUL TAJ MAHAL
We visited the Taj at sunrise. It was much bigger than I expected. It was also incredibly beautiful, seemingly changing colour depending on the sunlight hitting its surface. I was surprised by the intricate details of the marble outer face and the inclusion of a vast number of precious and semi-precious gemstones, which is not obvious from photos. The grounds of the Taj are also lovely, with symmetrical gardens and water features throughout.
Revered as the temple of love, the mausoleum complex was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the remains of his favourite wife (he had three!). Our tour guide told us it took over 20 years to build the Taj and the cost to taxpayers was staggering.
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END….
After visiting the Taj Mahal, we celebrated with a dinner pool party at our hotel in Agra, where we were invited to have our tarot cards read and get henna tattoos.
There was a big line for the tarot, so I missed out, but I did get some henna done on my hand, which was pretty cool. The next day, our group travelled back to Delhi and enjoyed a final dinner together before we all flew home, or onwards to other destinations.
I was sad to leave Debbie and Renee as we had become even closer during this trip. And I left India feeling glad that I had come. I was able to experience the beauty and wonder of this diverse place and also see my friends and give Debbie a big hug.
I’m always amazed at how people come into our lives. When you are meant to connect with people, the universe finds a way to bring you together – no matter how far away you are. And I am so glad it did.
REFLECTING ON THE TRIP
As my plane took off for Sydney, I took a moment to reflect on this incredible journey. Seeing India in all its craziness and beauty, I felt honoured and privileged to have been there.
Being from a young country like Australia, it was incredible to witness such longstanding cultural traditions of the Hindus. While some areas of India are filthy and extremely poor, there is also hope, tradition and spirituality wherever you go.
Some people have nothing yet they hope for everything. Their love, faith and commitment in their gods and traditions is unwavering, despite their seemingly unanswered prayers.
I returned to Australia with a new perspective on life, and also a renewed gratitude to live in such a beautiful, clean country that we often (even unassumingly) take for granted. We really are so lucky just to have fresh air, clean water, clean streets and good health. It’s a lot more than many people have and I’ll try to remember that every day.
FUN FACT: My mum tells me we’re related to an Indian princess about four generations back. She gave up her throne to marry an Irish commoner. I spoke to our tour guides in Varanasi and they said they can help me find her if I can get her last name. I may have to travel back to India one day soon to trace my royal heritage! Stay tuned!
To learn more about the Journey to India Retreat with Sevanti Tours, visit: https://sevanti.com/india-retreat/
To learn more about Ayurveda, visit: https://chopra.com/articles/what-is-ayurveda
To learn about your dosha (body type), take the test: https://www.yatan-ayur.com.au/ayurveda/what-dosha-am-i/dosha-test