Sunday, October 25, 2015

A weekend in Varanasi

I made a visit to a school in North India that is going through the process of being authorized as a PYP school, and since I was in the north already Sharon flew up for the weekend and we went to Varanasi.  Varanasi is on the banks of the Ganges and is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world.  It is the spiritual capital of India.

Varanasi is famous for silk, perfumes and incense and as a place where the Buddha gave his first sermon (at Sarnath).  It's a major centre of pilgrimage, also a place where people bring their dead to be cremated and have their ashes strewn into the river.

We spent much of the first day wandering along the ghats - the steps - where the pilgrims perform their ritual bathing and pujas (prayers).  

Varanasi has at least 84 ghats, most of which are used for bathing by pilgrims and spiritually significant Hindu puja ceremonies in the morning and evening, while a few are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites.

The Jantar Mantar observatory, constructed in 1737, is located above the ghats along the Ganges, and is adjacent to the Manmandir and Dasaswamedh Ghats.  It has a huge sundial.  We stopped for coffee in a rooftop restaurant right next to this observatory.

The extensive stretches of ghats in Varanasi enhance the riverfront with a multitude of shrines, temples, and palaces built tier on tier above the water's edge.

Other ghats were used as washing ghats (dhobi ghats) and the brightly coloured saris were laid out on the steps to dry.

The first evening and the  following morning we went out on a boat ride to watch the pujas. In the evening a group of priests perform "Agni Pooja" (Sanskrit :"Worship of Fire") as a dedication to Shiva, Ganga, the sun, fire, and the entire universe. In the morning we got up at 4 in order to get to the river while it was still dark.  We were able to take part in the morning puja at sunrise.

The Manikarnika Ghat is the primary site for Hindu cremation in the city. Adjoining the ghat, there are raised platforms that are used for death anniversary rituals.   Fires are kept going day and night as it takes around 3 hours to cremate a body.


Our final day trip out of Srinagar was to Yusmarg.  We drove through the autumn countryside where people were gathering in the harvest.

Charari Sharief

The only thing to do really in Yusmarg is to walk.  There were a number of walks but we chose to go through a pine forest.  It was beautiful and really deserted.

Gulmarg - the highest gondola in the world

One day we decided to go to Gulmarg.  It's a place where you can go skiing in winter and there is even a gondola that goes right up to the top of the mountain.  At 14,000 feet it's the highest gondola in the world!

The gondola is in 2 stages.  Many people go only up as far as the first stage.  Getting tickets for this gondola was quite a challenge.  There was a queue, but various "guides" kept jumping in at the front of the queue.  As we went up to the top we went right through the clouds.  On the other side there was a bright blue sky.  At the top it was very stony.  You could continue to walk up a bit and from the top you could look over into Pakistan.

People of Kashmir

Local people in Yusmarg

A man and his pony in Gulmarg

A boy in the backwaters of Srinagar

A man and his boat in Srinagar

A local woman washing up in a stream at Gulmarg

Sonamarg - walking to the Thajiwas glacier

I had been to Sonamarg many years ago when I was first in India.  I remember the mountains, the glacier and most of all it being very cold, even though it was summer.  I was excited to return to Sonamarg to see what had changed.

Sonamarg means "meadow of gold".  The Sindh (Indus) river flow through here.  The place is cut off in winter because of snow, but the road is open from around April onwards.  We decided to walk to the glacier, but the locals tried to persuade us it was a long way and that we would need to go on ponies - one local actually followed us for quite a while as he couldn't believe that we were going to walk.  The first bit was challenging as it was quite steep, after that it got easier and it was actually a lovely walk.

We sat at the bottom of the glacier and a local man made us a drink called "qahwah" (pronounced kava).  It was delicious.  I was hoping he hadn't taken the water from the local stream!  The clouds appeared to get quite threatening as the afternoon wore on, so we hiked back down to the village and took the car back to Srinagar.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Mughal Gardens

One of my favourite places in Srinagar was the Mughal Gardens, and one day we visited 4 of these and the Botanical Gardens.  We started at the Shalimar Bagh, my favourite of all the gardens.  These gardens are set out in geometric designs, with terraced lawns and fountain pools and beautiful flower beds with amazingly large flowers.  The Shalimar gardens were fuilt by Jehangir for his wife Nur Jahan.

The setting of the Nishat Bagh is also lovely as it is right by the Dal Lake with steep terraces and a great panoramic view of the lake.  

The setting for all the gardens was really beautiful, with a backdrop of mountains and from many of them lovely lake views.

We also walked round the Botanical Gardens - not as nice as the others but set around a large boating pond.  From there we went up to the smaller gardens such as the Chesmashahi Garden and right at the top of the hill the Pari Mahal, which has gardens set around an old palace high above the lake.  The views were breathtaking.