The Ineffable Taj Mahal

I’m not going to try to describe the Taj Mahal. To do so is impossible. Far better writers than me have said so.

Confronted with it at dawn, and then at sunset, and again in the moonlight, Mark Twain declined to describe the monument except in an oblique way. The handful of pages he devotes to the Taj Mahal include the most candid passages he ever wrote about the limits of his skills.

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Twilight Above the Ganges

Last night at twilight, as I was standing on the balcony of my hotel room, high above the broad sweep of the Ganges River, temple bells were tolling and puffs of the late freshening breeze carried small gusts of distant chanting. (Now tell me, honestly, could there ever be a more promising start to a story than that?

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Dawn on The Ganges

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click on photos

It’s 5 am. The Ganges River tour along the waterfront of Varanasi starts from the bathing ghat directly in front of the guest house, just as the sky to the east begins to lighten sufficiently to reveal the steps down to the water’s edge. The air is calm. This morning, there is a layer of clouds just high enough to be picking up a diffuse pink glow.

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Varanasi and the Ganges from a Balcony

The wide balconies of the Scindhia are the very definition of what American southerners call “a catbird seat,” the perfect spot where one sits just high enough to be un-noticed from below and just enough to the side that you can see faces, not merely the tops of heads. Life on the path and plaza and nearby temples and schools flows as steadily as the river itself.

Directly below to the left, stairs lead down from the heights and continue right on into the river. Next to them is a patch of land that is literally covered in cow dung. When I say literally, I mean literally.

There is an unstructured dung pile that is constantly added to by collecting the dropping of some huge beasts that wander the plaza and nimbly clunk up and down the broad steps. Next to the pile there are rows and rows and rows of carefully shaped and hand-decorated cow-patties, laid out to dry. When dry enough to be sold as fuel, they are as hard as a rock and will burn like a lump of charcoal.

A double decked rowboat – something I have never known to exist – passes up river, powered by one man. A dozen or so men on the upper deck, unshaded from the blistering sun, are happily chanting and and clapping to  a complex beat.

On the far shore, a bleak flood plain stretches without shade or mercy for miles in each direction. The group you see in the photo remained there, uncovered to the fire of the day, from late morning until  shortly before sundown.

Click on a photo to enlarge.

The Scindhia Balconies Above the Ganges

Over the course of my days in Varanasi I learned there are other places to stay along the river. Some of them will appear high up and in the background of photos taken during the Dawn on the Ganges below. But, as the photos here and in other posts demonstrate, none have the broad, open-air balconies that give virtually every Scindhia room these awesome vistas. Click on photos to expand them.

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9am - Ganges, looking south
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another watcher

For example, look at the range, down and across the Ganges. These are the views directly outside the door to my room.

The hotel layout offers one long, common balcony on each of the five levels. As you can see other  guests also think them an excellent vantage point.

The double-ended rowboats are used in the dawn and dusk rowing tours along the ghats. I’ve scheduled that tour for the morning. Strangely, the hotel books the 5:00am tour, but doesn’t offer a wakeup service. I’ll depend on the help of another guest who has an alarm clock (A German, of course; they and the English are the keeprs of apointments.)

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a good breakfast
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foot of the steps
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off to the right

At the moment, 9am on my first morning,  I’ve had a hot shower, clean, dry clothes and I’m revived. I’m late for breakfast in the common room. But first, a few more photos of this scene from another world . . .

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my neighbor

As I was taking my final shots of this first morning, a lovely young woman from the next room appeared on the shared balcony. She was taking her last look before checking out. She’s Mexican, obviously from a privileged family, on a six-month tour of the world. We chatted in Spanish.

Once again, I silently thanked my patient and persistent high-school Latin teachers who told me that someday I would be glad I had studied the key to most European languages. Decades later I found Spanish needed only just a slight adjustment in vocabulary.

The Maze

The free ride in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw from the Varanasi train station to the Scindhia Hotel was far and away the wildest I’ve ever had in my 73 years of traveling the world. It was a real live version of the roller coaster that many know as “The Mouse.”

The driver was the most aggressive I’ve ever seen, passing on the outside of  curves at full speed against oncoming cars, trucks and rickshaws. At some places along the way, the opposing streams of traffic were divided by a low, narrow wall of concrete – which we ignored. At some intersections we crossed over and went against the oncoming stream – and then at the next, if traffic was lighter on “our side,” we went back where we belonged.

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