Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

In India, more than any other place on earth, the natural and spiritual worlds conjoin. Air and light, trees and mountains, animals and fire are all worshiped as gods. But the most important natural deity for Hindus is the Ganges River, an embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. A water goddess, Ganga originally tended the gardens of heaven. King Bhagirath begged Lord Brahma to force Ganga to descend to Earth and purify the soul of his 60,000 ancestors, whose ashes were trapped in purgatory. Impressed by the faithfulness of Bhagirath, who had meditated for 1,000 years prior to requesting this favor, Brahma ordered Ganga down to Earth.

Pilgrims gather at the ghats in Varanasi, India to immerse in the Ganges River

Pilgrims gather at the ghats in Varanasi, India to immerse in the Ganges River

The unhappy Ganga knew she could not disobey a command from the Gods, so she agreed. Secretly, however, she planned to descend with a speed so tremendous that her waters would wash away the Earth. Fortunately, Lord Shiva intervened. He caught the falling river on his head, channeling its flow through his matted locks and separating the waters into thousands of lesser streams. The lovely legend comes to life each spring, when soaring temperatures begin to melt snow and ice in the highest reaches of India’s Himalayas. Billions of droplets form rivulets that tumble down the precipitous mountains like tangled braids. They fatten with every mile, becoming white-capped torrents that surge through valleys and canyons, pulverizing the dense gray rock.

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Every evening after the sun sets, devotees perform the Aarti Fire Purifying Ceremony at Assi Ghat, on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India

Click on title to view photo in large format. Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world. The original temple that stood upon this site in Bodh Gaya was erected by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C. to mark the spot where Buddha attained enlightenment. The 164-foot high Mahabodhi Temple we see today was built during the 5th and 6th centuries and is one of the earliest examples of a Buddhist temple constructed of brick. Over time, the complex grew to include six sacred sites where Buddha meditated after attaining nirvana, spending one week in each spot. A seventh sacred place, the Lotus Pond, is located just outside the enclosure. In addition to Mahabodhi Temple, Buddhists make pilgrimages to Read More

Workers paint the shared steps between Vijayana Garam Ghat and Kedar Ghat in Varanasi, India

Click on title to view photo in large format. In Varanasi, India, more than 90 ghats (stairways) lead down to the banks of the Ganges River. Hindus come from around the world to immerse in the river they consider sacred. Unfortunately, this was often a difficult proposition. The ghats were covered in mountains of mud deposited by seasonal flooding. Worshipers avoided some ghats where the mud was slippery, but every year a handful of people lost their footing and perished in the treacherous currents. Recently, however, the situation has improved. Read More

Do it in ONE day only. Get in and get out.

That’s the advice I was repeatedly given about visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. People said Agra was a dirty, dusty, crowded city that didn’t warrant a visit of more than a few hours. Being a bit of a rebel, however, I was unconvinced. Instead, I booked three nights at the DoubleTree by Hilton and hopped aboard a local bus in Delhi, determined to discover the best things to see and do in Agra.

In a nod to conformity, I decided to visit the Taj Mahal on my first day in Agra. A huge percentage of tourists visit this wonder of the world on day tours from Delhi. By 10 a.m., caravans of tour buses are vomiting thousands of visitors onto the grounds. Hoping to avoid the crowds and the midday heat, I planned to arrive before dawn. I scoured the list of do’s and don’ts on the official Taj Mahal website, especially noting items that were prohibited on the site. As per instructions, I removed my phone charger, headphones, anything that could be construed as a book, and extra camera batteries from my messenger bag.

The Taj Mahal, cloaked in smoke and haze

The Taj Mahal, cloaked in smoke and haze

The next morning, a moto-rickshaw dropped me at the east gate at 5:45 a.m. I bought my ticket for 1,000 Rupees (about $15 USD), picked up my bottle of water and booties to cover my shoes, and walked a quarter mile to join the women’s queue. By the time stepped up to the security checkpoint 45-minutes later, the sun had risen and I was sweating profusely. I stepped through the non-functioning metal detector and opened my bag for a search. Seconds later the security guard held up my small portable flashlight and shook his head. I was promptly ushered back outside. Fortunately, a kind-hearted shop owner offered to keep it for me. I dashed inside once again and managed to talk my way to the head of the line rather than waiting another hour. Read More

Dawn boat trip down the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

Click on title to view photo in large format. A sunrise boat trip down the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, is the very best way to experience some of the 90-plus ghats (stairways) that descend to its banks. Assi Ghat, the southernmost of the ghats, is a popular place to hire one of the small wooden boats that make the journey each morning. From here, boatmen row downstream to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat. As the dull grey of pre-dawn begins to lift, boatmen turn around and head back past ancient Mughal palaces and brightly painted steps leading down to the water’s edge. Wherever the largest crowds have gathered, Read More