The family wakes us up at 6 a.m. with two cups of hot tea. After breakfast we take goodbye and go out of Fafunda Village. Shortly two strange guys stop. They are very silent, don’t smile at all and don’t seem like generous or nice people. We travel the record distance of 150 km. with them to Aligarh City. It resulted that one of the guys is not a bad person at all. He treats to rice biryani and buys us water and soda. When he sees that the seller at the shop doesn’t have change for our bill he buys us bananas too. While we are traveling he is all the time making funny moves with his head listening to the loud electronic music at the car.
They leave us at the center of Aligarh, a nightmare-ish Indian town with chaotic, dirty and noisy streets. While we are desperately trying to go out of this town the other guy comes back and asks us for money. We refuse to pay and he goes away quickly. We try to catch a bus, but you are supposed to jump in it while it is moving and this is impossible for us because of the heavy rucksacks. So we catch a tuk-tuk to the end of the town.
When we get on the road a guy with a motorbike comes to us and starts explaining that nobody will stop to take us here. Then we speak to some locals and they tell us 2 km. from here there is a big highway passing by. There are almost no cars on this road so we decide to give it a try. While we are walking a vehicle pulled by a horse passes by and we jump in it. Then we continue hitchhiking and we reach our final destination for today – Taj Mahal, Agra.
We spend the afternoon investigating the situation with the tickets for Taj Mahal. While we are walking in Agra we see some amazing vehicles including a giant two-wheeler pulled by two enormous white mules that have spots on their skin like those of giraffes. Sometimes I wonder if we are in India or in Alice in Wonderland?!
Other means of transportation
Tickets turn out to be much more expensive for foreigners – 750 rupees (around 14 euro), compared to 20 rupees (around 30 eurocents) for Indians. There is no way to enter without tickets so we decide to pay and see this architectural wonder, but we will do it early in the morning when there are less people. In the afternoon there are many tourists and long queues form.
We are exhausted now but thankfully the area around Taj Mahal is in parks and gardens. We enter the Shah Jahan Gardens and find a perfect hidden place in some bushes for our tent.
A garden next to Taj Mahal
We get up early and start packing. We are almost ready when the guards find us. We try to explain ourselves, but they show us positive attitude. They take us to their house and give us water to wash our faces. We leave our belongings at the cloakroom because it is forbidden to enter inside with anything except a bottle of water.
Maybe you all know the romantic story of the emperor Shah Jahan who grieved greatly after his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14-th child. The shah wanted to express his love and ordered for the tomb to be built. It took 22 years to finish it. The best architects of the Moghul Empire were summoned for the project. That is how the majestic Taj Mahal, one of the greatest achievements of the Islamic architecture, came to life. Seldom has a building affected me emotionally, but this one flabbergasts me. The beauty of the tons of white marble incrusted with semi-precious stones, carved in perfect forms, takes the visitor in a world of wonders.
Mosque for women at the harem
The king’s room
The next landmark we go to see is the red fort of Agra, which is close to Taj Mahal. Here the Moghul rulers had lived. The architecture is stunning. One can see the tomb on the banks of Yamuna River from the balcony where the emperor sat everyday gazing at it.
The Red Fort
Audience hall at the Red Fort
Then we go to work on the Internet, after that we buy some maps and start going out of the city. It takes us several hours plus taking two tuk-tuks and a minibus. Finally we reach the highway which is out of town. We are tired of all this.
It starts getting dark and nobody stops. Dozens of cars and trucks pass by, but nobody stops. We start thinking of giving up for today, but there is no place for the tent around us – only buildings and garbage. Luckily a truck stops and takes us to Mathura, Vrindavan – the birthplace of Krishna, which is our next destination. Till we pass the 50 km. it gets totally dark. On both sides of the road we see only buildings and factories. It doesn’t look very attractive, but we want to get off before Agra because inside it maybe it will be impossible to find a place.
Fate (or something else) interferes in a magical way. We suddenly see a Gurdwara in front of us and ask the driver to stop. Mathura is just 4-5 km. from here so tomorrow we will reach it somehow. The place doesn’t resemble the other Gurdwaras we have been at, it looks different and there is no place to wash your feet before entering for example.
We enter and see a dozen of people, covered with cloths and shawls, meditating in a big white hall in front of the only thing in the room – a portrait of a guru. The atmosphere is weird – the silence is total. Suddenly a boy shows up and tells us this is the main temple of the community Jai Guru Dev.
Meditation at Jai Guru Dev Temple
He adds that people from all religions are accepted well here. He also explains that the people who meditate are trying to open their third eye and see the divine light. He shows us around. Behind the building is the samghati (the tomb) of the main guru who died three years when he was 116 years old – another Indian mystery.
The living space of the guru
We ask if we can stay for the night and they don’t hesitate to accept us. On the other side of the road there is a small ashram with thousands of acres of agricultural land, a cow-house for 4000 cows, a huge shelter under which sleep many people and a langar (kitchen) where food for 200 people is served every day. One of the bosses decides to give us a VIP room at the ashram instead of letting us sleep in our tent. They also showed us the room of the deceased guru which was totally white and was illuminated by colorful lamps. His followers also dress in white. There are a dozen of white jeeps parked in the yard as well as retro cars, collection models and a limousine.
Jai Guru Dev Temple
All this whiteness gives me the impression of billions of rupees and underhand dealings. Later we find out that the owner of the Gurdwara is some influential lawyer and some of the other bosses are politics. Foundation Jai Guru Dev owns properties in hundreds of cities in India and the millions circulate. People here also showed us a photo where their guru speaks in front of several hundred thousand people. Probably after he died the spiritual aspects of his teachings were neglected a bit.
The night is very hot and there are millions of mosquitoes in our room so we spend probably one of the most horrible nights for the last several months.
In the morning the boy who welcomed us yesterday wants to show us all – the fields, the cow-house, the houses of the workers. Everyone here treat us really well and prepare us breakfast.
Breakfast behind the temple
We catch a rickshaw to Mathura which is 2-3 km. away. The town doesn’t impress us much nor the temple where Krishna was born. The building is newly built and the main room resembles prison because the legend tells that Krishna’s parents were chained when he was born. There are many visitors and the security is strict. One must leave all electronic devices at the entrance. Then we walk on the ghats of Yamuna River and around the local market. The river banks are terrible – monkeys, rats, tons of garbage, excrements and all this with the background of buildings with strange old architecture. All looks really shabby. People at the most holy ghat enter the river surrounded by garbage. Understandably there are no tourists here.
Ghats (staircases leading to the water) at Mathura
Ancient pool at Mathura
In the late afternoon we catch rickshaw to the holy city Vrindavan which is kind of a satellite city of Mathura and is about ten kilometers away. Here Krishna spent most of his childhood and adolescence. We visit an old temple and head to the river. We pass through some narrow streets in the dusk of the evening. The atmosphere here differs greatly from all other places we have visited so far in India. Each building is a temple or an ashram. The town, which is not so big, has 5000 temples. On every door we see images of different deities and we feel as if we’ve found ourselves in some parallel reality. In the air one can almost smell ancient times and strange spiritual practices. People are very different from those in Rishikesh. The sannyasi (people who renounced the material world) sit at their temples. Many people have their faces painted with various colors (every community has their own specific paint colors and tilaks – the dots they put on their foreheads) and wear different types of clothes.
In the evening we reach some huts of villagers living next to the river. We find a place aside of the road and ask the people if we can pitch our tent here. They invite us at their house because there are snakes here according to them. Well it is not exactly a house, better said a shelter with few beds underneath it. They seem happy to be with us, but don’t want to bother us and leave us alone. After a while they bring chapatas with chili. They are really kind.
Next to the huts of the nice people
In the morning an evil woman comes and says this is her field. She tell us to go away and we move at the yard of the kind people. The father is preparing for work. He puts his snow white clothes on, adds some make-up on his eye-lashes and leaves. We take a shower using the water pump at the yard and have breakfast. We ask where the toilet is and they tell us everywhere outside of the fence 🙂 Everyone can see you outside the fence, but that doesn’t seem to bother our hosts.
The “apartment” of the villagers
Today we want to see some of the more important temples. While we are walking two Sadhu call us to visit a small Hanuman temple – the monkey god. One of them is older and one could tell by how he looks that he belongs to the highest yoga class. The younger offers us to smoke hashish with him. We refuse, but sit with them for a while.
Sadhu in Vrindavan
It is indescribable to walk in a town where every single building has some religious purpose. Strange dark catacombs and rooms filled with unknown to us deities; old temples with thousands of pilgrims inside; modern white temples with seemingly limitless financial resources; cows, dogs, rats, pigs, monkeys digging in the garbage piles. Pilgrims, who are usually in groups of several hundred and have a guide with them, clog the streets. Almost everyone is barefooted.
Feast for cows, pigs and monkeys
At every corner there is a group of monkeys that try to steal your phone, food and basically all that you have in your hands. One of their best tricks is to hit a person who wears glasses on the neck and when his/her glasses fall down another monkey steals them. The owner of the glasses has a small chance to receive them back if he/she bribes the monkeys with juice or a fruit. We saw this happen at least two times. The horrors of Vrindavan are many, but the town is charming in its own wya. We try thick sweet airan (yogurt battered with water) served in clay cups for single use – the specialty of the region. Everywhere merchants offer sweets made of milk and potato balls. Practically one cannot find meat, eggs or fish anywhere.
Old temple at Vrindavan
While we are hanging around Keshi ghat searching for a hotel, restaurant or a luxury shop where we can leave our rucksacks we witness how a cow is being cleaned. A guy with a towel cleans every centimeter of the cow including her ears and ass. The cow seems to enjoy this very much and is pushing her head in the person just like a kitten. Then she lied down and fell asleep.
How to lean a cow
We decide to leave our rucksacks in some ashram and we see one that is good looking. We are surprised to find out that inside it live mainly western women who all wear white saris and look a lot like nuns. The place is called Gopinath Bawan and is a kind of nunnery for western women. Most of them have bought apartments in the ashram and live here for years. They follow Gaudiya Vaishnava which is a branch of Hinduism – where from Krishna Consciousness derived, but ISCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) separated from their sect. They invite us to lunch in one of the temples with many other people. The mother of one of the followers has died and he is making a memorial service. The more we stay the more we feel like we are in a psychiatric clinic.
Gopinath Bawan – the temple of the “whiteis” (people who belong to the white race)
While Rishikesh looks as a place of enlightened Himalayan Yogis, Vrindavan resembles a spiritual psychiatric clinic. People everywhere are all the time in a state of trance. They have severed their ties to reality. All the foreigners we saw at lunch looked like people who had serious psychological problems. There are people from everywhere – Armenia, France, China, Brazil, Great Britain… We feel nervous from the surrounding psychotic atmosphere and the strange people here.
The ancient Madan Mohan Temple
People who follow Gaudiya Vaishnava exist only to worship Krishna and Radha. Their goal is to unite with Krishna by practicing Bhakti Yoga – worshipping with love. Their main occupation is to sing and play instruments for Krishna. We also sing to the Murti (statue or idol of a deity or person in Indian culture) and then they prepare a very delicious lunch. People tell us of their life in Vrindavan – in their words it is a life where the Transcendental Vrindavan co-exists and Radha and Krishna dance in it at this very moment.
The Samadhi of Brap Hupada (the man who started Krishna consiosness movement in the States) – ISCON Temple
When people here talk about this sacred couple they fall in ecstasy. Gaudiya is one of the many branches of the Vaishnavaism, which is a major branch in Hinduism. It recognizes Vishnu and its avatars including Krishna. We now come to the conclusion we have never seen foreigners who follow other branches such as Shivaism, Sahaktism and others. I don’t know who or what made Gaudiya so popular around the world, since it is a local branch of Hinduism and has very specific rituals and beliefs. The crazy atmosphere here is not a trade mark of only the Krishna’s – the whole world is affected by it.
Inside the temple
After walking around different temples for several hours we are tired, but we want to continue. We ask a boy for the directions and he starts showing us around with great enthusiasm. His tilak (sign on the forehead) has a shape of a leave and two yellow lines crossing it – all this saying he belongs to Gaudiya.
Pilgrims in the streets of Vrindavan
We start running like crazy around different temples and everywhere we have perform a different ritual – going around the temple exactly four times, bowing in front of the Murti, drinking holy water etc. The last temple we visit is called Radha Raman and while we are making the bows somebody gives us binoculars to look at the Murti.
The alife murti at the Radha Raman temple
We ask them what to look at exactly and the people explain that this Murti is not like the others – it is alive and its skin is soft – like of a person. They add that it also smiles sometimes. In another temple named Banke Bihari they periodically pull the curtains in front of their Murti because its look is too powerful. We come to the conclusion we have to leave this town if we want to remain sane 🙂
In the evening we decide to cross Yamuna River and sleep on the other side. There is much vegetation here and no buildings. We manage to find a boat that still works and can take us to the other side. The boatman doesn’t want to take us if we don’t pay 10 times more than the locals. The other people in the boat take our side and there is a big scandal. Finally he takes us. On the other side there are only trees and bushes and we hide among them. We go to bed happy to sleep at this clean and silent place.
Around midnight we hear some noises next to the tent. We go out and we see three locals – one has a thick stick in his hand. They don’t look friendly at all. We try to talk to them, but they don’t speak any English. When they see we are tourists they leave us alone. After an hour we hear noises again. Three other scoundrels are here and one of them has similar thick stick in his hands. They tell us we can’t sleep here. It is obvious they are looking for trouble. One of them tries to pull me away and starts making obscene gestures. They try to separate us and constantly call Mr. Shushtari aside. We have an adrenaline rush and they don’t dare to attack us because Mr. Shushtari is much more muscular and taller than them.
At this moment I start shouting at them that all Indians are terrible people with rotten hearts and that Krishna is watching them – something I don’t think at all. The oldest one is embarrassed by my words and tells the other ones to leave. He keeps saying we can stay and sleep here. When they leave we are off immediately too. Obviously this place is unsafe. We walk for 15 minutes and reach a small village. Like this if something happens we can ask for people’s help. We pitch our tent behind a bush in the field hoping there will be no problems till the next morning.
The morning after the scary night with the rascals
The villagers come early in the morning, but just smile and tell us not to worry. After we get up they invite us to drink tea and treat us really well. We pour water from the pump and an old man gives us raisins and sugar. The scoundrels from yesterday are gone and we never see them again. We still don’t know from where they came and what the problem was with the place where we were sleeping at.
We cross the river with the boat, visit another temple which tires us immensely because of the crowds. It is believed here that every night Krishna and Radha come to the Nidhi Van temple to make love and one mustn’t go there at night under any circumstances.
We sit in an Internet café and then leave town in the evening with a tuk-tuk. We settle our bivouac in an empty space between two gigantic temples. On the top of one of them there is a huge statue, Walt Disney style, of the goddess Durga. We spend a calm night.
Camping near the Durga statue
We reach Faridabad, a city close to Delhi, from which there is a metro to the center. Finally we will see the Indian capital that all foreigners avoid to visit. We prepare in our minds that it will be total madness and very dirty. But it turns out the situation is quite different than we expect. After we have been to cities such as Aligarh or the old city of Multan nothing can bother us.
In fact Delhi is in contrast to the other parts of India. Big shopping malls, highways – everything one imagines when one thinks of a big capital can also be found here. The cows and monkeys couldn’t be seen anywhere. The barefooted crowds dressed with saris and turbans are fewer at the expense of the modern people hurrying for their offices. To summarize: Delhi is around 300 years ahead of all the cities in India.
We enter the metro and the machine that gives tickets breaks which results in a long queue in front of a small ticket-office. In addition the lady working there issues tickets really slowly. It is the Indian metro after all 🙂 After traveling for one and a half hour with the metro we reach a relatively calm neighborhood where we plan to stay two nights at our host from couchsurfing.org. While we are traveling we notice that there are very few skyscrapers and many parks. Later someone told us that it is forbidden to construct building higher than 4 stories in Delhi.
In the evening we take a walk at the central square where shops of famous world brands attract Delhi’s elite. The only things that reminds us we are still in India are street vendors who sell sweet potatoes and chick-peas in front of the Rolex’s shop or a sheet of a merchant of cheap jewelry pitched in front of Prada’s shop.