I’m studying abroad in Varanasi, India! I had posts posted in a separate blog and am finally switching them over en masse to this blog, so they have the original title, and then their original posting date. I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures.
I arrived in Delhi on Tuesday night. The past 48 hours have been some of the most spectacular of my life. I’ve eaten amazing home-cooked food at the house/bed and breakfast in Delhi where we’re staying.
Our first day consisted of waking up to see green parrots feeding at the bird feeders in the courtyard. We have our meals out on the veranda and get to hear the combination of birds and traffic. I’ve slowly learning to eat with my hands, and don’t even necessarily need to wrap my food in roti to eat it, as long as it isn’t dal, and I have some rice. This day, Wednesday, was chock a block with excitement. First, we ate a nice breakfast and had our first orientation session. Then, we went on a little trip to the Lotus Temple, which is a Baha’i temple, one of seven in the world. It’s really beautiful and shaped like a giant lotus flower. After that, there was lunch and more orientation sessions (culture and health), followed by a trip to Connaught Place, which is a huge shopping area in very old buildings. Here, I bought two salwar kameezes which are both gorgeous (one’s green and red/orange and the other is blue and light blue). We ate at this “famous” restaurant (I don’t remember the name) for dinner where we got dosai (LARGE crispy pancakes) and also rice balls (idli) and things like potato pancakes, all of which you dip into sauces and eat. It was all so good!
Today was also a very exciting day! We woke up, ate breakfast, and then took a tour of Old Delhi. We were driving and passed this HUGE red sandstone fortress, which I found out is called the Red Fort. It was built in the 17th century under the Mughal Empire. Even though we didn’t stop there to tour, I’ve marked it on the map. You can see that the whole thing consists of most of the block that the marker is on. It’s really massive.
Our first stop was a Jain Temple, which also housed a bird hospital. We unfortunately but understandably weren’t allowed to take pictures in the temple, so I don’t have any, but it was very beautiful. The temple itself was covered, floor to ceiling, in brightly colored paintings and drawings of the different Tīrthaṅkara (which serve a role similar to a Bodhisattva, which is kind of similar to a saint, but for Buddhism) and monks. Interspersed between the artwork is bright gold bas relief and pillars. The worshipers in the temple were giving offerings of rice and visiting the many different statues around the temple. It was a very exciting environment to be surrounded by. After visiting the temple and meditation center, we went to the bird hospital, which was very depressing to see. Jains believe very strongly in non-violence and trying to aid the suffering, so trying to save birds who are near death, mostly pigeons, seems to them to be a very good thing to do, a good way to access and perform their beliefs. However, these birds undergo treatment, which normally involves getting their wings sewn back on, and then are put in small cages until they heal. Walking around these cages, one gets the sense that many of these birds won’t ever heal enough to go back to living their previous lives. Most of their wings simply won’t work well enough for them to fly. A few birds were actually even just laying in their cages, appearing dead already. It was really emotional to see. There was another section with larger birds: crows, a hawk, green parrots, and a few peacocks, all of which were in fairly good condition, which was really nice to see.
After the Jain temple, we walked through the streets of Old Delhi, which is even more chaotic than New Delhi. You constantly want to watch your feet to make sure that you don’t step in anything unpleasant, but at the same time want to look around, because on the street, you pass places where there are waist-high statues of the Buddha or Mahavira or of different Hindu Gods which are standing next to sacks of rice or flour. The sacks sometimes cover the deities. It’s an interesting contradiction to see.
En route to the mosque we were headed to, we stopped at a chai wallah for some chai (chai in Hindi just means “tea,” so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to get Chai Tea like you would in the states.). The chai wallah was run by five boys, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been older than 15. The chai was amazing, and while we were sitting and drinking it, a few of the boys pulled out their cell phones to take pictures of the white girls.
The mosque, Jama Masjid, was absolutely stunning. It’s the largest mosque in India. It was also built during the same Mughal emperor as the Red Fort, so it also consists heavily of red sandstone, but also has beautiful black and white marble, as well as a small amount of alabaster from Spain. It’s an open courtyard mosque. The inside part can house 1,000 worshipers, while all together, 25,000 can fit for prayer, which normally happens on Fridays for the Jum’a congregational prayer, and for holidays. I took some great pictures of it, which will be on Facebook as well as my blog, as soon as I get that set up. There’s a section in the mosque which contains some relics of Prophet Muhammad. I saw a strand of his hair as well as one of his sandals. They also had two bits of the Holy Qur’an which are 1400 years old, written on deer skin. One was written by his brother-in-law, and one by his grandson, I’m pretty sure. They were all so beautiful. There are walkways on each end of the mosque which have gorgeous arches that you can see long distances from. There are stunning views of the Red Fort, as well as the top of the Jain Temple and a Sikh Temple, and then the markets of Old Delhi. There was one at the bottom of the mosque which had goats and sheep on its roof.
Driving is crazy here. The cars honk constantly, as if noise were just another dimension of cars which has always existed, as if driving would be unsafe without honking, which it probably would be. The lines on the road are more often than not ignored, and sometimes you find yourself facing oncoming traffic. Despite the chaos, I mostly feel I can trust the taxi drivers and I haven’t been as much of a nervous wreck as I thought I would be. The green and yellow auto rickshaws have signs on their rear bumpers which read “keep distance.” Seeing these makes me laugh. There is no distance kept between cars on Delhi streets.
Yesterday I got to try my first Indian mango. It was the best mango I’ve ever had. It was very flavorful and juicy. It makes me sad that there are only a few more days left to mango season.
Tomorrow is mostly information sessions. It’s also our last day in Delhi, which is pretty sad. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but am ready to get to Varanasi!