Pilgrimage to Varanasi

Varanasi is a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, located on the banks of the sacred Ganges (or Ganga) River. It is considered the spiritual center of India and one of the world’s holiest places; millions of people make pilgrimages here every year.


The view of the ceremony onshore.

Most of the pilgrims are Hindu; they come to worship, to bathe in the Ganges’ sacred waters, and to participate in funeral rites. Every morning and every evening, elaborate ceremonies take place along the river.


This boy is selling offerings, or diya, for placing in the Ganges.

Dozens of slender boats sit just offshore, giving occupants an exceptional view of the ceremonies. The people in boats may just be tourists – like us – or they may have come on their own pilgrimage.


Washing hands before making offerings.


The boats are crowded, so it might be necessary to stand to view the ceremony.


Dozens of boats, big and small, are rafted together just offshore.


Our boat captain, sitting proud.


The traditional diya, or offering: marigolds are placed in little dishes with a lit candle.


The diya are then set adrift in the Ganges.


A ceremonial cremation ghat; understandably, no closer photographs were permitted.

Varanasi, also called Benares, has close to one hundred ghats, or stepped entrances leading to the river. Many are for bathing or puja ceremonies, but some are dedicated exclusively to cremation; some ghats are even privately owned. Hindus believe that cremation frees a soul from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth; thus, cremating a body along the Ganges is very much in demand and only for the wealthy. The cremation ghats at Varanasi operate twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.


Sunrise on the Ganges.


As always, Indian cities are quite an architectural free-for-all.

Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, and it’s sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. The city is a breathtaking mix of spiritual and secular, modern and ancient, calm and chaotic.


Many of the widows’ quarters seen on the shore are now fancy guesthouses.

Sati (or suttee) is a now-obsolete Hindu funeral custom where widows would ceremonially commit suicide by throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Though it was officially banned by the British in 1829, women are still not allowed to take part in the cremation ceremonies. (Our guide told us it was because “women are too emotional.”) In much of India, widows are still expected to renounce all pleasure in life; in addition to being a spiritual center, Varanasi is known – and not in a complimentary way – as “The City of Widows.”


Monks performing a rite; wood for the cremation fires is seen on the left.


This man is applying his face paint after bathing in the Ganges.


Daily bathing in the river, and a closer look at one of the ghats.


sadhu worshiping on one of the ghats.

Holy men, or sadhus, are a common sight in Varanasi. In Hinduism and Jainism, a sadhu is any person who has renounced the worldly life in favor of religious asceticism. Most sadhus survive on food and clothing donated by the public and may travel great distances on their own spiritual pilgrimages.


It’s impossible not to be caught up in the spirituality of this place. Our visit to Varanasi, and our voyages on the Ganges both at sunset and sunrise, were one of our most memorable experiences during our trip to India.

Dinner at a gurudwara

We’ve had a number of remarkable experiences in India, but one of our favorites so far has been the evening we spent at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a massive Sikh temple complex in Delhi.


Male Sikhs are most recognizable by their distinctive turbans.

A gurudwara (or sometimes gurdwara) is a place of worship for Sikhs; the word literally translates as “door to the guru.” Sikhism is a fascinating religion; it’s one of the youngest major religions and has about 28 million adherents worldwide. It originated in India in the 15th century and broke from Hinduism primarily due to its rejection of the caste system.


The gurudwara in Delhi sees a constant stream of visitors.

As we’ve mentioned, India is an intense place, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed rather quickly here. When your tour guide casually mentions that he’s taking you to dinner at a place that serves fifteen to twenty thousand meals a day, it doesn’t really engender a lot of confidence that the meal will be peaceful or calm. Yet that was exactly how the evening turned out.


Making chapatis for the communal meal.

Everyone is welcome at a Sikh temple, whether or not you adhere to a specific belief system. All gurudwaras in the world have a langar hall, where vegetarian meals are served free of charge to anyone, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. No money ever changes hands, but it is understood that visitors to a gurudwara will participate in “selfless service” in exchange for their meal, which may mean assisting with cooking, cleaning, serving or any other necessary tasks.


Chapati dough waiting to be rolled.


Cooking chapatis on the griddle.


The Sikh gentleman on the left is supervising the cooking of the chapatis.

For our service, we sat down on the floor to roll out hundreds of chapatis, unleavened wheat flatbreads. It was a lovely experience to join the people already in the kitchen; though we don’t speak Hindi, no explanations were necessary. It was simple enough just to watch what others were doing and follow along.


Rather a lot of food is produced in this kitchen.


Vats of delicious dal bubbling away.


Bags of flour and rice in the temple’s pantry.

In addition to volunteering at the temple, most guests also provide an offering of food to the temple’s pantry. Fifty-pound bags of flour and rice line the walls, along with vegetables, lentils and anything else that can be used in the preparation of thousands of daily meals. All the food is strictly vegetarian, and nothing goes to waste.


Cleaning the langar between meal shifts.

Around five hundred people eat in shifts in the langar hall; everyone sits on the floor. Guests queue outside in an orderly manner; in a country where patiently waiting in line doesn’t really happen, we were amazed at how smooth and orderly the process was.


Seating the next round of guests in the hall.

As we filed in, we were given metal trays and shown where to sit. Our guide cautioned us against wasting any food; although you’re welcome to eat as much as you’d like, it is considered hugely disrespectful to take more than you will eat. We enjoyed dal, or spiced lentils, plus a vegetable curry, rice and of course our extremely well-made chapatis.


Volunteers beginning the meal service.

Because there are always more people waiting to eat, everyone basically starts and finishes around the same time, then the hall is cleaned and readied for the next group. The efficiency and elegance of the entire evening was spectacular. The best part was looking around and knowing that the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between were sitting on the floor together, eating the same food. Truly a highlight of our visit to India.


Regardless of gender, everyone is required to cover their heads in the temple. Scarves are provided in case you forgot yours.

After the meal, guests leave the hall, wash their hands and feet (as with most temples, shoes are left at the door) and enter the main temple for worship, chanting and fellowship.


The temple also has a gorgeous reflecting pool.

One of the most interesting parts of our visit happened afterwards, when we were readying to leave. Our group was approached by a young woman with a small child who begged us for money – a very common occurrence in India, particularly for Western tourists. A Sikh immediately saw this and politely but firmly put a stop to it. Our guide explained that since everything is given for free at the temple – food, water, even a safe place to sleep, if necessary – they do not permit any begging on their grounds. This is extremely unusual in India.


Sikh temples can be found all over the world, and a quick Google search will find one near you. If you have the opportunity, please visit your local gurudwara and spend a bit of time making delicious food in the kitchen, then sit down to enjoy it with friends and strangers alike. It is an experience not to be missed!

Kolkata flower market

Early on the morning of our first full day in India, we took a tuk-tuk to Kolkata’s wholesale flower market, near the city’s famed Howrah Bridge. What a bold introduction to the country! Flowers arrive around sunrise each day and are sold by the kilo to retailers who then resell the blossoms for weddings, temple visits and puja ceremonies.


Kolkata’s flower market as seen from Howrah Bridge.


Making a delivery.


Many of the market’s vendors also live in their stands. 


A rare female vendor selling fresh greens for cooking.

The market is almost exclusively male; we saw very few women. As in most parts of India we’ve traveled – except in the larger cities – women remain largely behind the scenes, caring for the home and the children.


Let the haggling begin.

Marigolds are the primary flower sold at the market. The Portuguese introduced marigolds to India in the 1600s, and they’re now ubiquitous at all sort of ceremonies. Their rich shades of saffron and gold dominate the scene.



Stringing a marigold garland.

Marigolds now bear enormous cultural significance here; the blossoms are threaded onto string and used as temple adornments and offerings. They’re also made into necklaces and given as gifts to welcome honored visitors, similar to Hawaiian lei tradition.


The white garlands are made of jasmine flowers, and they smell absolutely amazing.


Immense quantities of flowers are sold every single day; the market operates around the clock.


Women negotiating prices with the seller.


Loose blossoms are sold by the kilo.





Unsurprisingly, a market like this generates a lot of waste.


Marigold blossoms are used in offerings like these aartis, which are set alight and floated on the Ganges.


The streets of India are filled with small altars; shops selling flower offerings are always nearby.

Like everything else in India, the market was loud, hot, chaotic and messy…but completely worth a visit!



Welcome to India

A friend mentioned recently that she describes India with “the three C’s”: color, chaos and contradiction. We couldn’t have said it better. There is literally nothing in the world that can prepare you for this country – not the noise, the heat, the traffic, the pollution, the incomprehensible number of people, nor the breathtaking beauty. India is almost too much – too much to absorb, to photograph, to process – but we’re doing our best. This is not easy travel, that’s for damn sure, but it is amazing and completely unlike any place we’ve ever been.


The iconic sacred cows are found just about everywhere, most often in the middle of the street.


Chickens on their way to market.


Victoria Memorial, Kolkata.


The hill station of Gangtok, plus efficient solar drying of laundry.


Milk delivery.

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Mandala prayer wheels at a Buddhist monastery.


Outside of New Market, Kolkata.


Car and motorbike parts for sale.

We have been absolutely amazed – both in India and in southeast Asia – at the sheer number of tiny storefronts and street stands selling all manner of goods, from food to housewares to fabric. The typical American “big box” store definitely isn’t part of the lifestyle here.


It’s election season in India and there are lots of flags, posters and rallies.


Tractor repair shop.


A ferry on the Ganges.


See those apples? They’re from Washington! The U.S. is not the only country importing produce from thousands of miles away.


Street scene, Kolkata.


India’s classic Ambassador taxicab.


Spices and aromatics for sale at a basement shop.


No room to build? Just put it on top of something else.


A monk at Rumtek Monastery in Gangtok.


Much like geisha culture in Japan, families often rent traditional costumes for photo shoots, like this group at a temple near Darjeeling.


Prayer flags at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Darjeeling.

Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:


The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.


You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.


One of Angkor Wat’s towers.


Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.


Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.


Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.


Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?


Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.


Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.


Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.


Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.


Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.


It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…


Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

Temples and shrines

There are few more iconic images of Japan than the ubiquitous temples and shrines found all over the country. Certain places, like Kyoto, have one around every corner, but even in Tokyo’s Blade Runner landscape they turn up in the most unexpected places. The temples are Buddhist and the shrines are Shinto, and in Japan these two primary religions co-exist peacefully. To paraphrase a lovely book I read about pre-Western Japan during our travels, Christianity would have done better here if they’d just installed gorgeous churches next to these temples and shrines. Essentially, these are as much about beauty, calm and aesthetics as they are about religion, and as such everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs.


Nonomiya Shrine, Arashiyama.


Matsuo-taisha Shrine, Arashiyama.


Ceremonial sake barrels at Matsuo-taisha Shrine. This shrine is a favorite pilgrimage site for sake brewers to pray for the success of their vintages.


Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto.


The summit of Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.


When you approach a Shinto shrine, you first throw a coin into the offering box. Then you ring a bell like the one above to summon the spirits. Bow twice, clap your hands twice, focus on your prayer in your mind, then bow once more.


Yasaka Shrine, Gion District, Kyoto.


Most of the shrines and temples have gorgeous paper lanterns that are illuminated at night.


Osugi Shrine, Inishiki City, Ibaraki. We were taken to visit this shrine by Mitsuru-san, the owner of our second farmstay.


Though common themes could be seen, all of the shrines and temples we visited had incredibly unique details.


When you enter temple grounds, you wash your hands and rinse out your mouth from a ceremonial fountain.


We frequently came across statues with hand-knitted caps, scarves and cowls. A little research indicated that these are Jizo statues, named for the protector of children; he reverently guides their souls into the afterlife. The statues are placed on temple grounds to honor deceased children.


The main entrance gate at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine is in a large leafy park which is a wonderful oasis of green in this frenetic city.


Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. The large drums are used for summoning the spirits.


Ravens aren’t necessarily malevolent in Japanese culture as they are in Western cultures; this bird is guarding wooden prayer placards at Meiji Shrine.

These varied and beautiful sites were such a joy to discover as we traveled around Japan, and their interesting architectural details and rich symbolism made them a highlight of our month there.