We decided to celebrate Holi in Pushkar. Pushkar is known for it's "less traditional, more partying" celebration of Holi. Thousands of tourists, both Westerns and Indians, visit Pushkar to enjoy the days leading up to, and the day of Holi festivities.
Getting to Pushkar was a grind but once we were set up at our hotel, we went to explore Pushkar. We found that it was actually very charming in the town's center - compacted shops varying from tour agencies, clothing, and so much hippy-related merch. Pushkar is definitely where the “free spirited” travellers go; there were people hoolahoopong, twirling what looked like empty pillow cushions on their finger as they walked down the street, dread locks everywhere, and people walking along the streets in bare feet. If there is ONE thing I would never even dream of doing in India it is to walk around bare foot due to the cow poo and pee, the garbage, the glass, the paan, the spit, an the list goes on and on. We arrived at a super busy section of the street and realized it was because there were 2-3 falafel food stands that were jam packed. So ya, of course we got in line and tried out what all the hype was about! And the people were not wrong! These falafel wraps were one of the best lunches we’ve had in India (and quite possibly our entire trip). They filled it with sautéed peppers, onions and mushroom, falafel, avocado, fries, zucchini or eggplant if you wanted, and SO much garlic sauce! I am drooling onto the key board as I write this. The best part, they were so cheap... $0.75 cheap! Needless to say we went all out and had our lunch, dinner and the next lunch and dinner there! Don't fix what isn't broken!
We used our first full day in Pushkar to prep for the Holi festival; we bought coconut oil to cover our skin with so the colors didn’t stain too much, white tops to make the colours pop, a head scarf to protect our hair and cheap sunglasses to protect our eyes while we are getting colour blasted.
That night Holi festivities were already starting. Families painted the section of road outside their homes with brightly colored Holi powder, and had a street party with live music and dancing.
Every year on the eve of Holi a fire is lit to signify Holika Dahan! The fire represents the Hindu mythological event of the burning of Holika, the god of evil. Days leading up to the torch, devotees stack a heaping pile of wood, spice roots, flowers, coconut, wheats and balls of cow dung. Once the stack is engulfed in flames devotees leap into action, reaching into the fire to remove burning balls of cow dung. They quickly turn with the trays of scalding fire and use it to guide their way through the rowdy crowd in order to get the burning embers to their homes as soon as possible. The smoke is believed to bring good energy and have Ayurvedic properties, resulting in better health during the weather transitional period into spring. These photos are a few moments of this jaw-dropping chaotic ritual which took place in the small city square of Pushkar in a matter of five minutes. The locals spent all day contributing to the stack, and once the ceremonious fireworks went off, it was torched and the flames reached the three-story rooftops in the square. I was probably standing 15 feet away and as soon as it lit, everyone closer pushed back and the temperature rose an additional 20 degrees at least. Carter was closer to the action to try and get some of the tradition on film and by the time he got back to me he was sweating from the flames.
March 2nd was Holi and the celebrations start as early as 8:00 in the morning and last until 4-4:30 in the afternoon. Carter and I woke up fairly early and eagerly got ready to get out there. It felt like waking up on Christmas morning and needing to get downstairs to see the tree as soon as humanly possible.
We doused ourselves in coconut oil where our skin would be exposed, put on our old clothes that we were most definitely okay to throw out afterwards, put on our protective hair turbans, and sunglasses and headed out of the hotel. We stood at the top of our steps in preparation and thank goodness we took that extra moment because it allowed us to see a group of kids on a rooftop ready to bombard us. We thought "what the heck" and walked knowingly right into their trap to get our Holi festivities started! We got suckered from above, when I re-opened my eyes, pink and blue were all over us, the kids were in hysterics above and we were ready to take on the day!
We turned the corner onto one of the main streets and it was complete chaos already at nine in the morning! The road was already covered in varying bright colours, kids running up and down the streets yelling and laughing, men dancing, shops playing loud techno music, and SO many people ready to smear powder on our face. Groups of guys were coming out of no where and hugging us, putting the colour on our cheeks, sprinkling it on top of our heads or just bombing it into our faces or at our bodies. There was absolutely no order, no rhyme nor reason but that's the spirit of Holi! Our goal was to get deep into the main square of town where the massive crowds were and where it was obviously the most vibrant. People covered head to toe in colour, people hanging off of buildings, dancing on rooftops, people wearing masks, people on others' shoulders... it was complete and utter chaos. To our surprise we were making our way through the crowd when not even 5 minutes in, Carter was stopped by a wild group of Indian guys who proceeded to rip his brand new white shirt off his back, throw it over what looked like a clothes line in the centre of town and smeared the rainbow of colours all down his bare chest and stomach! We died laughing at what we thought was pure insanity and oddness of it but when we looked around, we started to notice that no other men had shirts on...and if they did, there were groups of guys who made it their duty to rip their shirts off. It was hysterical. Many females opt out of Holi colour throwing because it get can rather rowdy, as you can see below. As a female, I felt safe enough with Carter close by my side. Everyone was just so positive and excited to party, throw colours, ask for selfies with us and include westerners in this unbelivable celebration.
The day was the most unreal, exciting, hilariously amazing experience. This was the one day we planned our entire year's trip around and we are so incredibly glad we did!
What wasn't such an amazing time was trying to get clean afterwards... it took us a full four days to rid ourselves of the fluorescent pink colour on our skin!
Agra & The Taj Mahal.
On the train from Pushkar to Agra, we made friends with this lovely family heading back home to Agra. Below is Kalf Khan and he stole our hearts. His dad was a tour operator and offered such great advice on how best to see the Taj Mahal and other sites in Agra; we listened to Kalf's English and taught him some new words, but we mostly took selfies and oh'd and aw'd at all the hilarious photos he was showing us on his dad's phone of him modeling like a Bollywood star!
We got into Agra late, so the Khan family was nice enough to drive us to a hotel they recommended that was clean, cheap and right near the front gates of the Taj. But not before Mrs. Khan asked us three times to come to their house for dinner and tea. If we weren't so exhausted and knowing we had to make it to the Taj for it's 6:00am opening time, we would have taken her up on her offer as they were such a genuinely kind family. Mr. Khan gave us his card in case we needed another ride while in Agra and I had make a joke that we would hire his car for the day if his son Kalf Khan could come with us.
The next day, we woke up at 5:30am to make our way to the gates of the Taj Mahal. We heard several times, on top of Mr. Khan's advice, that you should get there 30 minutes before the gate opens to try and get a glimpse of the World Wonder before there are hoards of people. Unfortunately, we were visiting the Sunday of Holi which is a popular public holiday in India, so we were met with almost 200-300 people in line already. This line was complete insanity; men and women were split up so Carter and I followed our own queues. My line was mostly Indian women who pushed and shoved and pushed some more, and Western women who were complaining and pushing back, and I just sat in the middle being tousled back and forth like a helpless buoy in the ocean's storm.
When we finally got through the gates, the first glimpse of the Taj was indescribable. The light glow of the marble tile in the rising sun looks like the Taj is a floating painted picture in the sky. It was absolutely breathtaking. The fact that we have all seen the Taj Mahal in photos, movies, recreated in paintings, and much more does not take away from the experience of seeing it for the first time whatsoever. The sight, beauty and magnitude of this perfectly symmetrical building will most definitely take your breath away!
However beautiful, it was impossible to get a photo without a thousand tourists in the background but this didn't take away from the experience either. The palace is absolutely exquisite, bigger than you could ever imagine, and yet so peaceful and serene at the same time.
After our visit, Mr. Khan's driver showed up at our hotel and who comes out around the corner, KALF KHAN. Mr. Khan actually sent his 6-year old son to hang out with us all day! He took us around to the different temples, forts, artisan shops...we told him we loved samosas and wanted to try the best in the city, so he took us to a number of places that day, all local food and so incredible - marble tiling all done by hand, carpet-weaving and a precious jewel shop. All the while, I was just listening to Kalf speak in his cute little Indian-accented broken English voice and making him say words that made us laugh. He was the happiest little boy.
After visiting the shops and almost buying a beautiful rug, we were taken to a park across the river from the Taj Mahal to watch the marble glow change from a brilliant white to a glowing orange in the sunset. All the little ants you see around the Taj are of course people; it just gives you a better perspective on how enormous the palace actually is.
We played tag with Kalf, built an Inukshuk together with the loose rocks and even picked a few apples. As we were sitting in the park, watching the sunset over the Taj, it turned golden and was the most incredible thing to sit and watch. Kalf turns to Carter and says "curd?!"..."some curd??" Curd is an Indian yoghurt, mainly used for snacks and desserts. Calf said it a few times and was essentially making it clear he was hungry, bored and wanted to leave for some curd. It truly was an unforgettable moment for us, here we are sitting still and silent watching this remarkable transformation of the Taj with little Kalf sitting next to us and of course a 6-year old boy with a TON of energy would not truly understand the significance of this sunset from our perspective. Carter laughed and almost as if it were our son...he said, "I will take him...you stay and watch" So they went off running again to try to distract little Kalf of his hunger by playing tag and I got to sit peacefully watching the sun fully set. During our time in the park, many people asked if we wanted them to take a photo of the 3 of us together, and Carter and I were wondering why we kept getting asked that. Finally, a nice couple came up to us and asked "is he your adopted son, you are such a cute family" and that's when it hit us - people thought Kalf was our son! The funny part is...I DO really wish he was our son! He was our absolutely favourite. Every now and again we find ourselves quoting Kalf and the cute things he said in his Indian accent like "goo-ooot" for goat and singing "I love my India!" He seriously made a lasting impact on us without us realising it at the time. Just as we got back to the car, Kalf's mom had called to say she missed him and it was dinner time, so we hugged Kalf good-bye and left the Khan family. They made our time in Agra SO much sweeter!
The Holiest of Holy, Varanasi.
Varanasi…this may be slightly graphic.
Varanasi is likely the most wild city we will ever visit, it stimulates every sense at the same time and then proceeds to blow your mind. A maze of streets crowded with cows, bulls, tuks-tuks, blinding dust storms, begging pilgrims, spiritual leaders, Hindu worshipers, tourists, vendors and so much more. There are moments where you feel like the only way to regain your sanity is to head back to your hostel bed to relax the body and mind for a short period of time. Rejuvenated, you feel the need to spend as much time as possible exploring the extremely narrow/hectic streets or head down to the Ganges Riverfront to walk past each Ghat (a flight of steps leading down to a river) where you find religious ceremonies temple side and in some parts of Varanasi, burning Ghats.
Burning Ghats are essentially areas along the Ganges River where they cremate the deceased in designated pyres. 24/7 heaping stacks of wood engulfed in flames burn human bodies in plain view beside the river. Coming from western society where death is very concealed and private, this funeral ceremony was obviously difficult to witness, let alone comprehend. It isn’t until you’re walking down Main Street in Varanasi and see a dead body being hoisted on the shoulders of a hustling crowd in a type of funeral concession that you can really wrap your head around the fact that these burning heaps of wood with the dead inside are in fact funeral ceremonies. “The Hindu believe that if a deceased’s ashes are burned close to and laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept called moksha is profound. The holier the place, the better the chances you achieve moksha and avoid returning to Earth as an animal or insect in your next life.” Once the burning ceremony concludes and only ashes remain, they use a rake to sift through the ashes for jewellery. Jewellery is collected and given to the family, and finally they heave the ash into the Ganga river in hope to attain Moksha.
With that said, these ceremonies are only a fraction of what takes place along the Ganges River each day, which contribute to a severe pollution issue in this “sacred” body of water. Here is some insight into the problem in Varanasi or the Ganga as a whole “The Ganges flows for 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas through four states where 400 million Indians live through to the east coast where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. As it passes through 100 towns and cities, it absorbs all their human and industrial waste. Experts estimate that more than 3000 MILLION litres of untreated sewage from these towns along the Ganges are pumped into the river every day. By the time it reaches Varanasi, whose untreated sewage (or most of it) is also pumped into the waters, it becomes a sewer and the sixth most polluted river in the world” And we complain about Lake Ontario! Probably the most shocking of all after understanding the incomprehensible amount of pollution in this river, is waking up early to watch the local Hindu people practice their everyday ritual, to bathe and cleanse in this holy water. Families gear down into their underwear on the slimy green waters edge where the steps of the Ghats meet the contaminated water, to rinse off and begin a new day. Children laugh, play, swim and splash. Moms dunk new born babies, some do laundry, and some folk even go as far as brushing their teeth or giving the dentures a scrubbing. These are all sights that we witnessed first hand over a brief 15 min walk down the riverside. Probably the most difficult to comprehend is that this type of activity has taken place EVERY day for the last five thousand years. So you can begin to understand why spending time in Varanasi is most well spent simply just wondering around, witnessing and truly embracing this cultural and religious phenomenon.
We took a paddle boat cruise one morning with a local to see the morning rituals from a different perspective. The sounds of the temples playing songs from the Ghats, the men in the water who swim out and scream “GANGA” in order to show their love and devotion to this body of water, the smiling and laughter by the shore. It is honestly an extraordinary experience that we are unable to compare with anything else, at this point of our travels.
We took this photo below randomly, just to capture some of the morning chores at the shore of the Ganges. It was only until we looked at this photo on the computer that we realized what this elderly man is actually doing...
When people ask us about culture shock, I would say that Varanasi would be the pinnacle. It is without a doubt the most interesting place we’ve ever been, which is why we continue to LOVE India and it’s extreme complexity.
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!