India: The Gangetic Plains

Varanasi Ghats

Ghats of Benaras

Bada Imambara, Lucknow

The Gangetic Plains – the very phrase evokes more emotions than what human language is capable of describing. It was here that every twist, every drama, every treachery, every heroism that shaped the destiny of India took place. It was the beating heart of the Vedic Civilisation, grand stage of the Mahajanapadas, and backbone of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Mughals and the British Raj. Here arose more schools of philosophies than Greece and more religions than the Middle East. All but two elected Prime Ministers of India had to compete from here for their Lok Sabha seat. Despite all this, the region is not the first (or the fiftieth, for that matter) that comes to the mind of any tourist, but the religious. The chaotic traffic, crumbling infrastructure, incessant honking, persistent touts, choking pollution and insane crowd should all be equally credited for the state of affairs. Since this was our fifty-first trip around the country, it was time to finally strike this off our list.

After the usual pouring over the climate data from the pre-industrial days, we had concluded that early November is the Goldilocks week that is not too rainy, not too hot and not too foggy. But the consortium of polluters had a secret conspiracy to blanket the whole area with a deadly smog by November. But they only succeeded in delaying our landing in Lucknow by an hour, not enough to spoil our evening at the Ambedkar Memorial Park. When UP’s Yes We Can moment came, the beneficiary (i.e. Mayawati) frittered her fortune away by building a monumental communist style concrete park which would have made Kim Jong-Un blush with embarrassment. The scale of it was astonishing and once we could train our mind to ignore the cost of construction and to not equate a park with something green, we could enjoy pleasant evening and the photogenic lighting on a near full moon night. Khusrau Bagh Allahabad

Nawabs, who started as the governors under the Mughals and later ruled independently, were the first to do a Mayawati – change the cityscape of Lucknow with gigantic public projects. Thankfully, their aesthetic sense was impeccable and their purpose laudable – a Keynesian employment generation scheme to offset a historic famine. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula started it all by constructing a stunning Imambara complex in 1784. It houses a beautiful mosque modelled after the Badshahi, couple of gigantic gateways, an intriguing step-well and the main building housing one of the largest arched space in the world. But it is most famous for the Bhul Bhulaiya, the country’s most famous labyrinth where there are 1024 ways to the terrace and only one way down. Getting lost while the guide tricks you into constantly run into him makes for one of those lasting travel memories. In 1838, Nawab Muhammed Ali Shah built a smaller Imambara nearby whose delightful proportions more than made up for the lack of scale. Between the two Imambaras is a gigantic gate – Rumi Darwaza, named after the Roman Byzantine original, a half finished lunar observatory, a baradari and the tallest clock tower in the nation. After a more than enjoyable couple of hours in the region, we headed to the Residency, a complex that the Nawab built for the British representative of the East India Company. It was the ground zero of the Siege of Lucknow during the First War of Indian Independence and is now in pretty much the same condition as the end of the bloody siege.

After a quick lunch, and a pleasant 2.5 hours on the NH19, we reached the outskirts of Faizabad. After a forgettable hour in a rickety e-rickshaw we were at the Faizabad’s top attraction, Bahu Begum ka Maqbara. Faizabad was the original capital of the Nawabs before they moved lock, stock and barrel to Lucknow. Most important of these Faizabad Nawabs was Shuja-ud-Daula whose claim to fame is joining Abdali in beating the Marathas at Panipat and joining Mir Qasim to lose to the Brits at Buxar. If not for these two battles, there wouldn’t be a British Raj nor would this blog post be in English. This Bahu Begum was Shuja-ud-Daula’s wife and her tomb is the closest you can get to be Indiana Jones in real life. You have to first wade through a battalion of emus and look for the grumpy old man with the keys and get him to open the mausoleum before of the abominable birds kicks you in the butt. If you succeed like the way we did, you can get to enjoy the wonderful stucco work on the interior, that is if you can keep your mind off exiting the complex. Faizabad’s only other attraction is the mausoleum of the Nawab himself, set in a peaceful garden befitting his stature in stark contrast to the mayhem at his wife’s tomb. Dhamek Stupa Sarnath

The following day was a new moon, Kartik Poornima to give it a name, a day so auspicious to the religious that we had to shelve our plans to visit Ayodhya and head to Kushinagar instead, just to escape the marauding crowd. Kushinagar is where the Buddha breathed his last and a Mahaparinirvana Temple that marks that event. The temple houses a breathtaking 5th c 6.1 meter long statue of reclining Buddha and about a couple of kilometers from there is the Ramabhar Stupa, the stupa that Ashoka built to mark the actual spot where the Buddha was cremated.

A four hour drive took us to Allahabad and we had to head straight to check out its sites. Since we skipped the Ram Janmabhoomi, we were in no mood to skip its secular equivalent, Nehru Janamabhoomi. When Motilal was fed up hosting the Congress members at his home, Swaraj Bhavan, he just donated it to the party and moved next door to Anand Bhavan. Peering into the rooms where the likes of Gandhi, Patel and Nehru held court stirred some nationalistic pride in us. That continued into out next stop, the Chandra Shekar Azad Park, which is where Azad heroically breathed his last fighting the British. The park also had a mildly interesting museum housing artifacts that our first President and Prime Minister collected during their tenure. Once in dozen years, Allahabad hosts the largest congregation of humanity on the planet during the Kumbh Mela and the prime attraction is the Sangam, the confluence of the two holiest rivers in Hinduism – the Ganga and the Yamuna. Since we had strategically avoided the party, we got to see the green waters of the Yamuna crash into the muddy Ganga in relative peace. Allahabad is also the final resting place for one of the tragic persona of history, Khusrau. Something possessed this eldest son of Jahangir and the crown prince to rebel against is father and he was caught, blinded and put to death for his temerity; his demise paving the way for his younger brother Khurram to eventually take over the empire as Shah Jahan. Although Shah Jahan played a prominent part in the gruesome episode, he gave his elder brother a gift that only he is capable of giving - a sumptuous mausoleum. This mausoleum along with those of his sister and mother are quite an architectural delight.

A three hour drive brought us to Saranath where Buddha met his pre-enlightenment friends and enlightened them with his first sermon. There is a stupa each to mark the place where these events are said to have taken place and both are quite unique in style. The Dhamek Stupa marking the site of the first sermon is a cylindrical as opposed to the usual hemisphere and the Choukhandi Stupa marking the meeting has an incongruous tower on top built by the local Raja to commemorate a Humayun’s visit. The piece the resistance of Sarnath lies at the site museum – the original Ashoka Lion Capital whose image has adorned every single note printed by independent India – where we finally got to see the fourth lion! It was time for us to face what we had avoided on the way to Sarnath, viz, Varanasi. After our driver dropped us by the station and gleefully ran away to Allahabad, we hired the smallest vehicle available to negotiate the final 4 kilometers. Negotiate he did somehow through streets half the width of the vehicle avoiding the cows and calves with alacrity. Sher Shah Suri Tomb Sasaram

The headache due to the traffic, the ringing in the ear due to the incessant honking, the marks on our pants due to the dung were all endured for one of greatest moments travel can ever offer – an early morning boat ride by the Ghats. And boy, was it worth it! It was, to repeat a cliché, simply magical. Floating gently down the Ganga as the first morning rays light up the Ghats revealing the entire cycle of life – bathing of the new born, a quiet prayer of the newly wed and a burning pyre of a recently departed – can turn anyone into a deep thinking philosopher. It dawned upon us that we are probably now the first atheists to have visited the Vatican and Varanasi in the same calendar year. I hope Dawkins doesn’t read this confession and excommunicate us from the congregation. A short walk at the end of the boat ride brought us to the most famous of all Hindu temples – the Kashi Vishwanatha. The original, after being bulldozed by Aurangazeb, is now under a mosque and the current one is a replica built by Ahilyabai in the 18th century, but built close enough to the original to have the domes of the mosque looming over the temple spire. After a quick darshan we went on a city tour of which only the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum inside the BHU is worth a mention. The museum houses some impressive collection of miniatures and sculptures. We ended the day with another boat ride, this time at sunset as the artificial lights went up culminating in the famous Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.

The following day was a long drive, three hours into which brought us to Sasaram, the birthplace and the final resting place of one of the unsung heroes of India – Sher Shah Suri, the man whose life is an answer to the most common WhatsApp rhetorical question of today – What can one man do in five years? Well, for starters, Sher Shah introduced the very first Rupee, built the Grand Trunk connecting Chittagong to Kabul and reformed the civil administration that was copied by the Mughals. He also built himself a breathtaking tomb, which, but for one milky white building in Agra, would easily have been the best on the planet. Set in the middle of a lake, the mausoleum seems to float above the water surface like a blooming lotus. And the road we took to get here was the very same Grand Trunk that he built half a millennia ago. Your turn, Mr. Prime Minister. Sariputta Stupa Nalanda

Three more hours on the road brought us to our final destination Bodh Gaya where, two millennia and a half ago, Prince Siddhartha became Gautama Buddha. Given that it is the holiest spot in Buddhism, every country with a sizable Buddhist population has built a monastery here, quite true to the style of their homeland. Bodh Gaya is the only place where you can see the understated elegance of Japanese Temple sitting beside the extravagance of the Bhutanese, the vertically soaring elegant Thai spires looking down on the horizontal ones of the Chinese. We had just enough time to sample the best, ogle at the 64 ft tall Buddha statue and paying the customary visit to the Mahabodhi Temple marking the location of enlightenment, before the night fell upon us.

An hour north of Bodh Gaya is Rajgir, erstwhile Rajagriha and the capital of the Magadha Empire which ruled this area during the time of Buddha. Rajgir is too old for anything other than foundation to have survived from its heydays, but it does have couple of modern day attractions. First is the ubiquitous Japanese Peace Stupa, this one reached by a long single person ski-lift and a stunning Veerayatan Museum showcasing the important events in the lives of Jain Teertankars in the form of 3D panoramas. Half hour further on from Rajgir is Nalanda, one of the premier universities of the first millennium AD. It was founded during Gupta era and continued till 1200 when Bhaktiyar Khilji left it in ruins. Walking through the ancient student hostel where the likes of Xuanzhang, Nagarjuna and Aryabhatta once lived and studied was an exercise in fighting goosebumps. A hop, skip and a jump away from Nalanda is Pavapuri, the final resting place of Mahavira, the last of the Jain Teertankaras. After his cremation in Pavapuri, it is said that the great rush to collect his ashes left a hole large enough to be filled by a pond and in the middle of which lies a Jain marble temple. After a quick in and out, we headed to our night stop, Patna. Ananda Stupa Vaishali

60 kms north west of Patna is Vaishali, the capital of the ancient Lichhavi Republic and one of the eight parties to stake claim on Buddha’s funeral ashes. Lichhavis built a mud stupa on the relic which was later enclosed in a brick one by Ashoka – so claimed the travel blog of Xuanzhang. His blog eventually helped ASI to trace this stupa and re-discover it in 1958. Quite heartwarming just to think that travel blogs, occasionally, do get read. Few kilometers from this relic stupa is another, this time in much better condition built by who else, but Ashoka, which marks the location of Buddha’s last sermon. The site also houses the most intact of Ashokan Pillars with the lion capital, this one old enough that lion was yet to quadruple. A further 50 kms from Vaishali is Kesariya where exists one of the largest stupas from antiquity. This stupa from 500 AD is rarely visited and if you come this far, you can get to see a stupa that is half claimed by nature with the period life-sized Buddha sculptures still adorning its niches. There is yet one religion of this country not covered on this trip and we did not have to invent a reason to add it. Patna was where the last of the Sikh Gurus, Guru Gobind was born and hence houses one of the nations prized Gurudwaras, the Patna Sahib. It is a mystery how the Sikhs have managed to create an oasis of calm in the middle of the cacophony of the city.

Our final day of the trip was spent checking out Patna’s sites. First up was a Dargah dating from 1619 located an hour west of the city centre, Chotti Dargah in Maner, a quintessential example of the Mughal Architecture. The next up was the Patna Museum which houses the actual urn containing Buddha’s ashes recovered from Vaishali. We then fought our way to the most crowded part of the city to the Khuda Bhaksh Oriental Library where, in the most appalling of conditions, lies the very sword Nader Shah raised to signal his infamous 1738 sack of Delhi - only India can hand out such a revenge toany one. Somewhere in between was the dekko at the Golghar, a stupa like granary built by the British as a response to the famine of the 1780s; yes, the very same one for which the Awadh Nawab responded with the Imambara in Lucknow. Now that the trip had come a full circle, it was time to end it and we did that at the ruins of Pataliputra where all that remains of Ashoka’s palace are a few broken pillars.

We now finally come to what is increasingly becoming the most nail biting part of our trips – the return journey. Our grand plan to take the evening Rajdhani to Delhi was squashed as the incoming train has been lost in the fog and a search party was being constituted to find it. The crisis was an opportunity for us to witness the bigheartedness that defines modern India. First, the kind souls in Indigo, for a nominal sum of Rs. 25,000 (stale veg sandwiches extra) agreed to fly us to Delhi and only went back on their word by 3 hours giving us a luxurious 30 minutes to rush between the terminals and then the upright Delhi taxiwala taking pity on our situation, for a nominal sum of Rs. 1,200, agreed to ferry us between the terminals. Thankfully, the old adage of “if you die by the smog, you live by it” came to our rescue by delaying our connection to Pune just enough for us to huff and puff into the last two available seats, the middle ones by the toilet.

Click here for more photos from Lucknow.
Click here for more photos from Faizabad and Kushinagar.
Click here for more photos from Allahabad.
Click here for more photos from Varanasi and Sarnath.
Click here for more photos from Bihar.