BAVANI M’s journey into exotic India with her 78-year-old grandmother turned out to be an eye-opening and soul-searching experience. She discovered that the colourful land is not just about the Taj Mahal and elephant rides, but of ancient ruins and archaeological relics. This is her story.
DWARAKA: Krishna’s Kingdom
Two days — that was how long it took us to get to Dwaraka, the first destination of our three-week trip.
From Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the long and hectic journey to the land of my grandmother’s forefathers included a connecting flight from Mumbai via Chennai to Ahmedabad. There we took an eight-hour train ride to the industrial city of Jamnagar in Gujarat.
It was another 90-minute drive before we finally reached Dwaraka, which, according to my grandmother, R. Thilagavathy, makes up the seven Hindu holy cities alongside Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya, Kasi (Varanasi), Kanchi and Avantika (Ujjian).
To my grandmother, the city was much more than a holy place. It is her grandfather’s homeland and it had always been her dream to set foot on this land of her roots. Our arrival in Dwaraka marked her return to India after 54 years.
Historically Dwaraka is the home of Lord Sri Krishna.
According to the Puranas (ancient Hindu Scriptures), the sea had given him room for making this city. It is said that anyone who visits Dwaraka and bathes in the Gomati River that surrounds the city will attain Moksha (Salvation) and be free from sin and gain eternal bliss.
Archaeological excavations show that the Dwaraka of today is the sixth city on this present site; the earlier five were hit by tsunamis 5,000 years ago.
Taking the steps leading down to the Gomati River, we were enchanted by the sight of camels, cows and goats grazing on its banks and little children naked to the waist having a splashing time in its crystal clear waters.
Moving further, we were greeted by row upon row of stalls offering flowers, Krishna figurines, cheap jewellery, shells and even gemstones.
Mini Hindu temples erected by residents could be spotted everywhere.
Tempted by the soothing waters of the river, we hoisted our saris and went into the water.
The many temples we visited included the 2,500-year-old Rukumani Temple, where we received Darshan (blessings), and a magnificent Sivan Temple constructed in marble.
An 18-foot (5.5m) statue of Lord Shiva standing guard at the temple gates took our breath away.
MATURA: Krishna’s Garden
After Gujarat, we moved on to New Delhi, India’s capital city.
Lucky for us the city of Agra was also along the way, where we visited one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Yes! Despite being charged RM70 each to enter one of the greatest monuments of love, we felt that it was worth every penny to visit the Taj Mahal.
We wasted no time in taking as many pictures of the Taj as possible.
After taking in the beauty of the white marble we continued our journey to Matura.
Along the way, we took in the picturesque landscape along the banks of the Yamuna River.
The city of Matura in Uttar Pradesh is famous for its festivals and celebrations.
According to legend, Matura is the land where Lord Krishna was born and also where he spent his childhood stealing milk and romancing the gopis (milkmaids).
We stopped at the famous Katra Keshav Dev, a gorgeous temple that is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
At the temple gates, we had to relinquish our cameras and mobile phones.
The temple grounds looked like Krishna’s garden with statues of Krishna, his cows and milkmaids.
We completed the customary prayers and went three circles around the temple in accordance with Hindu rites before returning to Delhi.
HARIDWAR: The Abode of Gods
This chilly mountain town was undoubtedly my favourite destination.
There was something about the place, perhaps the politeness of the people, or even the serene atmosphere that made me feel at peace with the world.
We travelled all day by jeep from Delhi, a journey that was fairly pleasant and smooth.
As soon as we arrived, border guards informed us that liquor and non-vegetarian food were prohibited in this town. Only vegetarian food was served in restaurants including the hotels.
Here, the Ganges River flows from the Himalayan mountains, passing this sleepy town.
The town is one of the four places where the Kumba Mela festival is held every 12 years.
During this time, millions of pilgrims visit this place performing prayers on the banks of the Ganges.
Ghats along the banks of the river are flooded with people hoping to witness the arti (fire blessings) ceremony to pay homage to Mother Ganga (The River Goddess).
There was a light drizzle that evening as I sat on the wet steps of the ghat to witness the ceremony.
We were lucky to get a spot with a direct view of the yagna (fire ceremony); I could feel the heat emanating from the fire.
When the ceremony was over my grandmother and I went down to the river to fill our bottles with the Ganges water.
It was strange; the river is filled with filth and has been used as the dumping ground of dead bodies by the poor who can’t afford a proper burial.
Yet the water was crystal clear and cool, and tasted just like mineral water.
The next day, we visited several old temples in the vicinity including the 11th century Mansadevi, Chandidevi and Mayadevi Temples located on the hill.
The skyway ride to the temples offered an excellent view of Haridwar and its surroundings.
Yoga central nextRISHIKESH: The Abode of Sages
Located 24km from Haridwar is the mountain retreat of Rishikesh, a centre of meditation and yoga.
Legend has it that when Lakshman, Prince Raman’s brother, stopped here to meditate, he could not concentrate because Ganga Devi (the River Goddess) was making too much noise as she flowed down from the Himalayas.
Lakshman ordered her to be silent so that he could pray in peace. Till today, the Ganges flows silently across the plains towards Haridwar.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived was an unusual number of European tourists.
Our guide Ajay informed us that Rishikesh is a famous centre for yoga.
In fact, the yoga centres here have enhanced the significance of the town.
Credit also goes to the Beatles, who in the 1960’s, created quite a stir in this sleepy town.
We took a stroll along the Laxman Jhoola, a 3km hanging bridge that was built across the river connecting the town from one end to the other.
Only pedestrians, ponies and mules are allowed to cross here. Several legends surround this place, including one of Lord Rama being exiled for 14 years in the jungle along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman.
We also visited the Bharat Mandir (temple) and the Lakshman Temple, two of the oldest temples here before heading to Ayodhya.
AYODHYA: City of Gods
Ayodhya teems with monkeys. They were everywhere, and followed us wherever we went. One monkey grabbed my jacket to get a packet of chickpeas.
This is where the ancient Ram Mandir lies which, according to Hindu mythology, is the birthplace of Lord Rama. In the 16th century, King Babur founder of the Mughal Empire in India, built a mosque called the Babri Masjid on this ancient site. In 1992, the mosque was demolished in Hindu and Muslims riots.
The event known to locals as the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy resulted in the temple being closed to visitors until recently.
When we visited the temple, the place seemed like a war zone with hundreds of soldiers everywhere.
At the gate, we had to once again relinquish our bags, cameras, mobile phones and pass through barricades to catch a glimpse of the ancient deity Ram.
The incident was indeed disturbing and I was genuinely fearful for my life. Later, we drove to Chitrakoot, known as the Hill of Many Wonders.
This serene forest was where Prince Ram and Princess Sita had spent 11 of their 14 years of exile.
We also stopped by a place called Sphatik Shila, where we came upon a boulder which locals believe bears the imprints of Rama’s footprints.
Here, a storyteller regaled us with tales from the Ramayana before we proceeded to Gupt Godavari, a beautiful cave in the hill.
By the time we were done with Chitrakoot, we were exhausted and slept all the way as Devesh Mishra, our able driver, drove all night towards the ancient city of Varanasi.
The final stretchVARANASI: Land Older Than History
Curled uncomfortably in a corner of the small boat, I was trying very hard to keep my toes warm.
It was about 5am and I could not help but wonder how wonderful it would be to enjoy a nice steaming cup of teh tarik just about now.
We were heading to a quiet spot, away from the din of the crowd where we could bathe quietly and offer Suria Namaskaram (Salutations to the Sun God Suria) on the banks of the Ganges River.
Yes, we were in the holy city of Varanasi (formerly known as Banaras), Mecca for Hindus. Varanasi lies on the banks of the Ganges River, some 700km northwest of Calcutta.
Millions of pilgrims from all over the world visit the city each year to bathe in the holy waters of Ganga to “wash away their sins”.
Hindus believe that if you die in this city, you will go straight to heaven.
By the time I performed my customary dip, I was shivering from the cold. As I waited for Patti (grandmother) to change, snapping pictures of the landscape, I soon forgot my discomfort as I watched (Suria Bhagawan) the Sun God slowly rising over Mother Ganga splashing a brilliant orange colour in his wake. I thought to myself this is definitely better than teh tarik!
Our driver, Devesh, had driven all night long and brought us here in time to watch the sun rise.
We later spent the morning shopping for silk saris called Banaras, which the city is renowned for.
BODHGAYA: The Land of Enlightenment
I remember Sarnath well because it was here that bees attacked us!
Located 10km from Varanasi, Sarnath was the first place where Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya.
It was here also that we encountered Chinese and Japanese tourists for the first time.
As we meditated in an old Buddha temple, we suddenly heard screams. People were running helter skelter into the temple brushing off their clothes. The bees followed them into the temple hall.
We stayed very still praying silently that the bees would not sting us.
Some of the bees even landed on my lap and on my grandmother’s head. But it was my poor uncle who got stung. He was bitten four times on his face, and we later joked that he looked like Hanuman, the Monkey King.
Our next destination was Gaya, located in the state of Bihar. We spent the night at the Mahamaya hotel in Bodhgaya, one of the holy pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.
Our destination was the ancient Mahabodhi Temple where Buddha attained enlightenment and became a supreme being.
It was built in the third century BC by Emperor Asoka and is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely of brick still standing in India. Unesco declared the temple a World Heritage Site.
How we felt under the ancient Bodhi tree where Buddha sat cannot be described, only experienced.
Our guide explained to us that Asoka’s queen destroyed the original tree. A new tree was replanted on the spot, however, through the years, the tree was again replanted due to natural disaster.
The current Bodhi Tree, a descendent of the original tree, is the fourth tree to date!
We crossed the dried-up Niranjana river to visit the ancient Sujata Temple where a local girl called Sujata offered Buddha milk rice while he was meditating.
After spending a day here, we returned to Delhi by train and took the flight home the next day, taking with us memories of a wonderful experience.