"The journey itself is my home."
I was about to lay myself down to sleep on the bank of the Ganga River, just north of Navadwip, Bengal. Soon after lying down on my back, wrapped in a mosquito net, two men came over to me and asked me if I was going to sleep there. "Yes", I said (they were speaking very good English) "I have been walking all day from Mayapur." They told me that I should not sleep there because there are many dangerous cobras. They invited me to eat and sleep at their house. They were father and son who owned a tea trading company. They were tea merchants and they hoped that I would make a contribution to their business. I did offer 50 rupees which is a small amount but they seemed happy to receive it.
We were still outside of the village and it took us about 20 minutes of walking along a foot path between the Ganga River and agricultural fields. We entered a yard where we all washed our hands then entered a room with very little furniture and mats covering a cement floor. We sat on the mats and talked with family members who were coming and going until, after a few moments, a good amount of food was brought to us. After all the platters of food were brought out, there formed a circle of 8 family members, all facing me. One of the cooks, probably the older man's wife, served me some dal, subji, and chapatis. They served me first and intently watched me eat. They fed me a lot of food but I was quite hungry so I did not take too long to finish eating which was their cue to start eating themselves. The food was excellent. I loved the subji which was a curry dish with squash and potatoes. It was really delicious. There were no forks or spoons given so we ate with the chapatis like Mexicans eat with tortillas.
As they were eating, I had tea and sweets set in front of me. The tea merchants then told me that they asked for the donation because all of the families and businesses were raising funds for the village temple. After I told them about my week stay at the ISKCON Vaisnava temple in Mayapur and how I had been walking along the Ganga River for a few days, they asked me about my present destination. I told them that I was on my way to Varanasi. The father told me that his son was going to Varanasi the next morning and that I should follow along with him. We would take the train and I would not have to pay for the ticket. Although I wanted to continue walking along the Ganga and I believe they arranged this train ride just so I would not keep walking further up the river, I did agree to accompany the son to Varanasi. After a couple of hours talking like this, they put me up in a room where I was alone on a wide cot with a mosquito net. I had a great sleep there. The cot was comfortable and the mosquito net had no holes in it so I had no trouble sleeping soundly.
The next morning after breakfast, I followed the son to the proper train station in Kolkata and he paid for both of our third class tickets to Varanasi. I never asked him if he really had business in Varanasi or was he just bringing me there safely. I just followed along with their plan. The train was comfortable although it was third class because my guide found us corner seats surrounded by very nice people including a tea merchant who kept giving us tea. I was wearing Vaisnava bramachari dhoti and kirta of saffron color so he thought I was a real monk. When I offered to pay for the tea he got very upset. My tea merchant guide told me to not worry about his angry reaction, and he took care of the situation for me. I will never forget that incident on the train to Varanasi. Although we were on the train for about 10 hours, I did not see any more the man who I had upset so much.
"Hello. This is Michael Anthony Cicchi."
"Hello Mr. Cicchi, what can I do for you?"
"Yes, I purchased a ticket to fly from Denver, Colorado to Calcutta, India on the 13th of March and I have not received the ticket yet although I made the purchase over a month ago."
"OK, give me a moment and I will find out what happened to your ticket. Do you have a booking number? Wait, your ticket is right here on my desk. I will send it to you right away. Is there any thing else I can do for you?"
"That is all I needed but someone told me that I will be accosted by many greedy, insistent touts and beggars who will make it more difficult to enjoy walking places. Will this be the case?"
"This is Kali Yuga and life is in a low quality condition through out the world. It may seem like it is worse in Baratam (India) but that is only because the population is immense there. You will never be alone there and I suggest that you stick to the ISKCON VAISNAVA temples. You can live in the temples and travel with the devotees. Since you will be arriving into Bengal during the festivities of Sri Chaitanyas' appearance day, you will easily find devotees with whom you can share a taxi from Howah Station to Mayapur."
Hearing in my mind:
Aum tat savitur varenyam Bhargo devasya dimahi Dhiyo yona pratyodayat -Gayatri Maha Mantra Hari Krishna all glories! 🌹🌹
During the first days I was traveling through India, it seemed to me that all business men were using falsehoods and exaggerations to make as much profit as possible. I even wrote that "Vedic civilization has come to an end. The vaisya (merchant class) often acts worse than the sudras (labor class)." In Kashmir (I visited Srinagar for 5 days), the search for money was pervasive but it is more patient because the merchant families will invite you into their home, feed you, befriend you, then wait one or two days before trying to sell you a rug or carpet. They would explain very clearly to you that they can ship anywhere in the world.
It really was not as bad as that. Being in this country for the first time is occasionally conducive to culture shock. One cannot imagine how different India is from anywhere else except for India. I had not even been to any first world Asian country before (think Singapore or Brunei). When I first left the airport, walking from the airport to the streets, I was completely disoriented. I could not tell if it was dawn, dusk, or maybe even midday. There was an orange or beige dust in the air that seemed to reflect a sunlight that could have been intensifying or diminishing. I just stood there outside of the airport looking around at the dusty air and feeling the heaviness of the humidity. I continued to stand there until a Vaisnava bramachari, dressed in the signature saffron colored kirta and dhoti of the ISKCON devotee approached me. He asked me if I was going to Mayapur. I told him that I was going there. He then asked me if I would like to share the cost of a taxi there. The devotee negotiated a decent price for us to pay and I paid my half. I was fortunate enough to meet someone who had traveled extensively in this country.
While we were in the taxi, it was hard to tell if it was fortunate to have gotten into the taxi with the devotee because it was one scary ride. It was as it we were running through a gauntlet of approximately 70 miles of pedestrians, bicyclists, donkey carts, goats, lone cows, noisy horn honking cars, and noisier horn honking trucks. We were rapidly passing through all these things which were all out in uncountable numbers while, at the same time, motorcycles were passing us and we were having to swerve out of the way of oncoming vehicles that were doing the same thing.
If I was tired and sleepy from the overseas plane trip, there was still no way I was going to take a nap in this taxi. I intensely watched the road in front of us while looking around at everything and everyone we were dodging and passing with unnerving speed. Bengal is the fourth most populous state of India and this road between Calcutta and Mayapur made that quite evident. It started to get dark after we left Calcutta so it was dusk when I stepped out of the airport. Well,I would not have been able to do much sightseeing on the way to Mayapur anyway because the road itself and everything I saw on the road completely engaged my attention.
We arrived safely into the Navadwip-Mayapur area and the taxi pulled up to the entrance of the ISKCON property. I saw two large buildings that had already been completed and one more large building still under construction. The completed buildings were the temple (Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir) and one of the ashram/hotel buildings. The building under construction was another ashram/hotel building. When completed, one of the buildings will be specially used as an ashram for the devotees and the other will be for pilgrims. They were also building a samadhi here for Srila Prabhupad although there already was a very beautiful samadhi for him in Vrindavan. I think they were going to keep Srila Prabhupads' remains interred in Vrindavan and have some relics of his interred in the Mayapur samadhi. This will be one of the most recent temple complexes built in Mayapur among hundreds of more ancient temples, large and small, in the Navadwip area.
Mayapur is located on a tributary of the Ganga River. It is in the region of Navadwip and the ISKCON temple here will be the headquarters of ISKCON. I came to visit here at this time because this is the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabu and his birthday, or appearance day, occurs this week when I arrived. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabu is considered to be an incarnation of Sri Krishna "in the mode of Radha" the number one gopi girl who Sri Krishna would secretly meet for His Rasa lila dancing. Of course, Sri Krishna met with at least 108 gopi girls but Radha is the main one. I believe she is actually an eternal consort of Sri Krishna. There is another beautiful white temple here that was commissioned to be built by Bhaktivinode Thakur in 1886. He was the leading Gaudiya Math Vaisnava who was in the same sisila (disclipic succession) that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupad was in. The temple that he had built is located at Ballaldighi, Navadwip, within walking distance to the northeast of ISKCON. Oh, and there are 2 locations here that hold claim as being the birth place of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabu. One is in the town of Navadwip and the other is on the Mayapur side of the river. I consider the Mayapur location as authentic but that is not based on research, it is just a matter of who you believe.
This catur I bought is Kashmiri but I bought it at the Krishna Balaram Mandir in Vrindavan. I continue to order the scented oils from the same temple till this day. They have an online store called The Krishna Store and it is very easy to navigate the website and order products that are quickly sent and received.
I decided not to rent a room or stay in the ashram the first nights. The weather was lovely and obviously would remain warm for a few nights. So I scouted out the grounds and found a corner in a verdant garden. I had an overcoat with me. This overcoat was a little worn out with a hole in one pocket which is the reason I brought it with me. I thought that it would be a good portable ground covering to protect myself from soil whenever I slept outside. It was now time to put it to use. I did not have any suitcases with me to worry about. I had only an old duffel bag with daily essentials in it. I was finally able to lie down once I had found my corner and I fell asleep quickly and soundly. After I woke up the next morning, I had to find out where to take a shower, shave, and meet Annutama Das. Annutama Das was the president of the Denver ISKCON TEMPLE and the one who told me how to contact the devotees who ran the travel agency through which I booked and purchased my tickets for India. After I showered and shaved, I did find Annutama Das sitting on the marble floor, next to a column, in the temples' main altar room. I sat down next to Annutama Das and we first talked about my arrival. He gave me information about where I could get my hair cut and obtain everything I needed to have the traditional Bramacharya sika and attire. The sika is the crop of hair on the back of an otherwise shaven head. To get the haircut, I had to walk to the back side of one of the ashram buildings to find a lone barber who was shaving the heads and faces of a few men who sat in the one chair he had placed there. When it was my turn, I sat in that one chair that was probably a dining room table chair, and he shaved my head and left a very nice sika in the back. After he finished, I paid him a couple of rupees and returned to the main temple room to wait for the next arati which is the altar worship that is performed by a pujari or two. Radha and Krishna as Radha-Madhava are installed on the altar as well as the Pancha-Tattva which are the five divine persons of Lord Chaitanya, Sri Nityananda, Sri Advaita Acharya, Sri Gadadhara Pandit, and Srivasa Pandit. The proper name of this temple is "Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir". Prasadam is the food that is blessed by its having been offered to the dieties on the altar during arati service. At this temple, and a couple of other temples I visited in Vrindavan, anybody can receive a laddu dessert from the Pujaris after the arati by following the line of people up to the altar and by holding our right hand up so the pujari can drop the laddu into the palm of our hand while we pass. Prasadam is also sold to anyone who wants to buy some from numerous stalls on the property.
It is also possible to see children going to school here because there is a Bhaktivedanta Academy on the property to educate the children of the devotees who are living at the temple. Children from the surrounding communities also attend. The devotee families who live or visit here are also fed Prasadam at no charge as are their living quarters. They are all provided for in return for some kind of service that benefits the temple complex and community. The fact that there is a Pushpa Samadhi here surprised me because I knew about the Samadhi in the Krishna Balaram Mandir in Vrindavan. If they cremated Srila Prabhupads' body then maybe they intend to keep half of the ashes at the Vrindavan Samadhi and the other half of the ashes in the Mayapur Samadhi. There is a large memorial shrine for Srila Prabhupad that is being built and it will be one of the largest of its kind in the country. There will also be many more garden areas on the property besides the one where I was sleeping. I decided to not try and find a room because the hotel portion of the complex was very busy and I slept very soundly the first night and I would be here only one or two nights more. My corner of the garden was nicely secluded by bushes and trees so it was easy for me to get by with sleeping outside there.
I did not explore any other areas of Navadwip or Mayapur. I used these 3 days here to relax, explore the temple grounds, attend the arati services for Srila Prabhupad, and for Radha-Madhava. I ate mostly just the freely distributed temple Prasadam after the arati services although I would occasionally go to one of the snack stalls for a limeade or lassi. After these 3 days at the Mayapur ISKCON temple, I grabbed my duffel bag from the place where I had stashed it and then walked over to the Ganga River. There are some nice foot paths all along the river so I started following the path towards the north west, where Varanasi is located. I decided to spend a week or two walking along the Ganga River. I would have walked all the way to Varanasi (also known as Benares) but that would have taken too much time out of the 3 months I was spending in the country.
A photo of a mantle or traveling altarpiece. The center shows the Panch-Tattva. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabu is in the center of the panch-Tattva. Srila Prabhupad is at the lower left corner position. His spiritual master is at his right side. To the right of Srila Prabhupads' spiritual master is HIS spiritual master and so on... This is the sisila parampara of the spiritual masters that descends from Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabu to Srila Prabhupad.
At the temple in Mayapur, I was given a pamphlet about the proper way to eat. There is a common saying among the yogi communities of India that states; "A yogi drinks a cup of water before eating, a man of passion drinks during the meal, and the man of ignorance drinks after the meal" (thus putting out the fire). The pamphlet stated that we should fill our stomachs as far as three quarters of the way full by eating Prasadam (eating only the food that is blessed on the altar by offering it first to the dieties.) The fourth quarter of the stomach would be left empty and no water would be consumed until after the digestion of the food was well underway. I followed the pronouncements of the pamphlet but I was eating very little during the three days I stayed in Mayapur.
Before I started walking up the Ganga River towards Varanasi, I went to the temple shop and bought a catur (or dupatta) to wear at night when it might get chilly. A catur is like a cross between a scarf and a blanket woven with multifarious colors and motifs. The catur I bought was Kashmiri and woven with thick brown and tan wool. I also bought a couple large jars of honey so I could have some natural sweet to keep up my energy for the long walk. I never felt ill in any way during my stay in Mayapur nor at any time during my walk along the Ganga River. I did not have anything else to eat during the walk besides the honey I had just bought and some nuts that I carried from home and still had not eaten. During the 3 months that I traveled around India, the only times I felt ill enough to vomit was when I over ate and drank in Vrindavan. One time I vomited on the roof of the Krishna Balaram Mandir because I was suffering from a very full stomach and also feeling the oppressive heat of the sun. During my walk along the Ganga River, I always felt like I was in optimal health and strength every day until my walk ended at the house of the tea merchant.
I was probably walking too fast at times. I remember when a young man walked up to me and started to walk along side of me. No speaking or any kind of communication was exchanged between us. He just started walking with me. He was wearing sandals and at one point he stubbed his foot on some kind of prickly plant which caused him pain and he started to limp but he continued to walk with me. In retrospect, I am sorry that I continued to walk at the same fast pace. I should have slowed down for his convenience or I should have stopped so he could tend to his foot but I did not do either. Eventually, he veered off into another direction and I continued along the Ganga. My feelings at the time were that he interrupted my solitary quest and he should not have been there but now I feel that this was wrong and should have helped him.
Farmers plowing with oxen and people walking with cows or goats were always and everywhere to be seen. One group of men told me to sit with them for talking. They were sitting under a large lean-to. They spoke very little English but we were able to understand enough of each other for a short, simple conversation. Besides asking me the usual questions about where I was walking from and where I was walking to, they also asked me if I was a monk and if I was able to be with girls or not. They told me that they could bring me into the village and I could find a girl there if I want one. I told them that I was a Vaishnava Brahmachari monk on a pilgrimage so I could not go into the village with them. Once they knew the long distance that I was walking, they told me that I would have to cross to the south side of the river because the walking path on that side of the river is more conductive to long distance walking. The 4 or 5 men there were laborers who were just relaxing in the shade of the lean-to so they were happy to lead me to the location where I could board a small ferry to the other side of the river. I did not have to pay the ferry man so I do not know if they paid the fare or if they just talked to the ferry man and had the agreement that I could cross for free because I was a monk.
On the other side of the river, the path was a very good path and I soon entered a forest. The path was much used at this point. I saw a constant flow of people walking in both directions and coming from within the forest walking toward the path I was on. I had the idea that many were returning home from a day of labor. I came upon a stream that I would have to walk across. There were a few cow hearders at the stream where the path crossed it. They had a few cows with them which is why I figured them to be cowherd boys (just like Sri Govinda). I stood and watched them for about 10 minutes. Then they began to move on, and I continued along the path, and we passed each other with out any words spoken to each other. It was only an hour longer before the forest thinned out and I came upon a small village where the grass grew tall along the Ganga River. I decided that this would be a good place to sleep so I laid down my make-shift bed and laid down until I was about to sleep. Much to my dismay, a dog started to bark and it would not stop barking. I was just lying there hoping that the darn dog would stop barking but it knew I was there and it made sure that its people also knew I was there. Soon, a couple of children approached me and gave me a sign that told me to follow them. At the home they led me to was one person who could speak some English. I figured him to be the householder and father of the children. He told me that it is not a good place to sleep along the river because there are many cobras. It would be safer for me to sleep on their patio. This was actually a raised platform of cement that was surely used for reclining on mats or for eating outside of the house. A lady who was probably the wife of the man who could speak some English was cleaning the platform with the mixture that infamously includes cow dung. She then set down a long, wide mat by unrolling it, placing a pillow at the head of the mat, and then she motioned me to lay down there.
The next morning, I tried to leave some change under the pillow as I got ready to leave the house. I wanted to slip away from the house so I would not create any inconvenience for the family. Before I could get away though, the lady of the house told her children to show me to the river's edge where I could take a bath. After taking a bath, I began to walk up the path away from the house. I did not get very far before the children ran up to me because they wanted to bring me the change that I had left under the pillow. They tried to hand it to me but I motioned to them that they should keep the change. They would not accept it. I had to take back the money and then I gave them a sign of thanks and blessing. I told them "Hari Krishna, Hari Boh!" and waved goodbye. We separated at that time and I was on my way up the river.
I spent the next 3 days in this way, walking along the river, meeting different men who wanted to walk with me, either in silence or with conversation. I would lay down next to the river with dogs barking at my presence and people would invite me to sleep on their patios.
One day I was walking between fields of crops on one of those raised paths that seem to always exist between two fields. The field on my left was being watered with large jets of water being sprayed by sprinklers. I stopped at one of the sprinklers to wash the sweat off of my face and neck. A man started to yell at me from the opposite side of that field. I ignored him because I figured that he thought I was going to drink water and the water is not potable water. He kept yelling at me as I washed the sweat off. A man who was walking up the path and who could speak English told me what the man was yelling. I told this man that I thought as much but I was just washing the sweat from the hot sun off of my face and neck. This man yelled out to the man who was yelling at me and I assumed that he told him that I was not drinking the water. I stood up and waved at the man on the other side of the field which was about three to four acres square. I continued to walk along the path and the man who could speak English walked with me explaining about the water. After he finished asking me the usual questions about my life and about my presence on this path, I told him that I was interested in buying a new pair of sandals. He told me that he would lead me to a shop where I could buy a good pair. It did not take long, maybe 30-40 minutes to arrive into the next village. He helped me overcome the language barrier to make the purchase that I wanted. We then walked together to the next major intersection (2 county or provincial routes) where we parted ways. I continued walking north towards Varanasi.
At times, I would arrive at intersections where food or drink stalls are located. There would often be benches at these stalls so I could stop, buy a snack or drink, and sit to relax on a bench. I would eat snacks at such street stalls with no concern about illness or indigestion. Fruit juices would be made to order, peeled then juiced, so I never had any concern for my stomach. I especially loved watching the sugar cane juice being made because the long sugar canes would be placed between 2 rollers and fed through them resulting in a wonderfully sweet sugar cane juice that is perfectly natural. This reminded me of my grandmother Cicchi in Hibbing Minnesota when she washed clothes in her basement. She used a manually operated washing machine that was a metal tub with rollers above the tub. She would crank the washed clothes through the 2 rollers, the water falling back into the tub, and the clothes hung up on a cloths line after being run through the rollers. 😄😄. Anyway, here on the rural roads of India, I was waiting for sugar cane juice, not clean clothes. I would also pass by public wells that had hand pumps that bring water up from the ground. Many of the pumps were right on the side of the roads and some were faucets sticking out of the walls of buildings. The villagers arrive at the wells with one or two buckets. I never stopped at the wells I saw on the side of the roads. I never took any chances with the rural well water even though I saw children drinking water directly from such wells. They would be accustomed to it, I was not. The women and children would fill up their buckets and bring them to their homes. It is probable that the families had to boil the water before drinking it. They certainly cook with the water. I never took a chance drinking the water from the roadside pumps but I certainly did eat food cooked with it.
In Varanasi, I walked around until I found a nice looking hotel with about 20 rooms. It was clean, with a white exterior and a few trees on the small property where it was located. The neighborhood was quiet with wide, clean, suburban streets that were not heavily used by commercial traffic. This neighborhood was almost completely residential. I knew this would be a good place to stay so I booked a room for a couple of nights. I planned to stay in Varanasi for only a short time because I had Vrindavan and Mathura in sight. In Varanasi, I mostly visited the Ganga River where so many bathing ghats exist. I was extremely entertained by watching the activities at the bathing ghats. I sat one morning and afternoon watching the treatment of bodies on the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghat. I watched as one body after another were placed on a pyre so prayer mantras could be chanted while the bodies were prepared to be cremated. I sat and watched as the pyres were set on fire then pushed off to float down river. I also sat at neighboring ghats like Jalasen Ghat to watch the ritual bathing and chanting that could be clearly heard from the top steps of the ghats. There is a lot of room for sitting because the steps are quite long, extending along the whole length of the ghats and there are often around ten steps. Besides visiting the ghats and the great temples that stand along the Ganga River, I spent a lot of time walking through the streets of Varanasi. During one walk, I was passing a narrow street with very tall buildings of apartments on both sides of it. All of a sudden, a great splash of water fell upon the street. Only a small amount of the water reached my legs. I looked up at the upper levels of the building I had just passed and there was a lady wearing a sari looking out of the window while holding a bucket. I glanced at her and continued on my walk.
During another walk, between the ghats along the river and the temples that number in the thousands, I saw a monk in a red robe sitting at the doorway of a temple entrance. As I was walking by, he beckoned for me to join him but I just smiled and continued walking. I thought maybe he would just ask me for a donation after telling me about his life in the temple. That was my suspicion so I kept walking. I eventually found that most people who approached me to converse with me actually just wanted to met me. I have a careful and suspicious mind and it takes some time for me to open up to others but I do.
Old Varanasi is a true maze of narrow streets and alleys. Many alleys are wide enough for only pedestrians and bicycles. Even so, there are food carts, flower carts, and small shops where colorful products like textiles, jewelry, and desserts are sold. There often are annoying obstacles that one must squeeze around like water puddles and cows. I saw many white cows with humps on the streets of India cities but I remember a big black cow or bull in one of those narrow alleys of Varanasi. When I first saw the big animal I had the impression that it was a bull because of its horns. I especially remember its large size because I had to stand next to the building on my left side and wait for the animal to meander past. That shows just how narrow many of the alleys are. I rather preferred walking through the narrow alleys because they were much quieter than the larger, overly crowded and extremely chaotic, noisy streets that have so much traffic that one can get headaches from the exhaust and extremely loud horns. On the larger streets, I constantly heard the extremely loud horns being used, often, for no apparent reason. There are temples everywhere in the vicinity of the river. Large, medium, and small temples everywhere you turn. The shrines are innumerable. They are on so many street corners that they were always catching my attention.
The Ganga River is beautiful and wide with people bathing or washing utensils and clothes at every streach. There are rowboats tied to stakes all along the river and people rowing boats everywhere. Devotional music can be heard along with the chanting that comes from the innumerable temples that I was walking past. Music is often heard from loud speakers. Flower pedals of many colors, mostly red, orange, and yellow pedals, are strewn on the roads and steps of the ghats. Chopping sounds are often heard which many times proved to be coconuts being opened or children playing games. Chousatti Ghat - men washing in the river completely covered in soap, Darbha Ghat - a boat with at least 20 people in it, dogs eating scraps of food from the sidewalks and roads. The dogs usually looked sickly and scared. Cows and water buffalos are also quite common and some people will feed them fruits and vegetables. I often saw people throwing food scraps on the street and cows would meander over and eat them. Tables with fresh cut watermelon and tiny fruit flies hovering above them were very common. The colors of India are incredible. Colors of the temple architecture, colors of the flowers, fruits, and vegetables, colors of the desserts, colors of the shrines with flower wreaths hanging on them, and the colors of the saris that the women are wearing overwhelmed my senses. India is a feast for the senses; the sights, sounds, aromas can be overpowering at times so I did tend to walk through the more narrow alleys. I just had to make sure I did not get lost and I had to watch out for buckets of water falling from upper level windows above the roadways. I did get lost a few times in the cities of India but I stayed dry. 😀
After a few days in Varanasi, I wanted to travel to Madura and Vrindavan. To do that, I had to take a train or bus to New Delhi. I decided to take the bus because I wanted to go to a pilgrimage site in Allahabad which is about one third of the way to New Delhi from Varanasi. This site is the location where the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers meet. There is the belief that the invisible Saraswati River also meets the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers at this place. The massive Allahabad Fort looks down at this location from the banks of the river. I had to find the bus to Prayagraj, the official name of Allahabad. The bus ride was only about four hours because Allahabad is only around 80 miles from Varanasi. The pilgrimage site is called the Triveni Sangam because this location represents the confluence of three of the most sacred rivers in the country. The Saraswati River is mentioned in the Vedic scriptures but scholars can make only conjectures as to where the river actually flowed as it does not flow anymore, unless the belief that it flows invisibly underground is true.
The Rigveda especially praises the Saraswati River as the most important purifying river which represents the Goddess Saraswati who is a goddess of knowledge, music, and fertility. She is often depicted playing a Veena instrument or holding a pen and book. The Ganga River is also a personification of a goddess. In this case, the goddess Ganga. Physically, the river is much polluted. Spirituality, the Ganga River is incorruptible and pilgrims go to the river to bath and pray in its water to demolish all their past sins. Here, in Allahabad, I paid a small amount to be brought out, in a rowboat, to the middle of the Triveni Sangam where I could relax, drink a coconut milk from a fresh coconut, and dip my japa beads in the water. I also bathed my head in the water of the legendary three sacred rivers. I had also bathed several times in the river during my walk along its banks and I never got ill as a result.
The Yamuna River is the largest tributary river of the Ganga. This river represents the goddess Yamuna or Yami, who is the sister of the god of death, Yama, and the daughter of Surya. Vrindavan and Matura are located on this river, just north of Allahabad so it is very important in the stories of Sri Krishna (as Sri Govinda) and the gopi girls. In Agra, the Taj Mahal is located on the banks of the Yamuna River and that was my next destination after Allahabad. It is very nice in Allahabad. There were not a lot of boats at the Triveni Sangam when I was there. There were only two or three other rowboats while I spent approximately one hour there. My japa beads (108 stringed wood beads that are used by monks for their chanting each day) hopefully received some blessings from having been dipped into the waters of the Triveni Sangam.😃
The Allahabad Fort was majestically standing on the river bank near us. It was built around 1600 by the order of Mughal Emperor Akbar. The original name of the fort was Illahabas Fort which means the fort blessed by god. There is an annual pilgrimage that takes place here as well as a famous and massive Kumbh Mela that is attended by millions of pilgrims. I was happy to be here not at those times! 🙂 I enjoyed being there myself in a boat away from crowds. I stayed in the area of the fort until after sunset and then made my way back to the hotel because I wanted to travel to Agra early in the morning. Anand Bhawan is also in Allahabad. This is the estate of the Nehru Family (from which Jawaharlal Nehru descended) and it is now a museum. I did not visit this museum on this trip because this was still a pilgrimage for me.
The bus ride from Allahabad took about eight hours to arrive at the ISBT Agra bus depot which is on Bhagwan Talkies Road, located about nine miles west of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was the reason I wanted to visit Agra. I had no cameras for taking photos of the places I visited on this journey. Therefore, I have no photos of my visit to this gorgeous location. I have only what I remember in my mind. I remember being afraid to walk all the way up the walkways on both sides of the long reflecting pool leading towards the monument. There were touts and venders of postcards and trinkets standing on the walkways between the main road and the Taj Mahal. They were young boys standing in various places looking directly at ME! I looked at the beautiful Taj Mahal then I looked at the boy who was closest to me then I walked towards the left of the walkway into the Taj Mahal gardens. I sat on a bench in the gardens. I relaxed on the bench after walking through the gardens. I wanted to sit on the grass to have a picnic but there were no other personages on the grass. That told me that the grass may not be used as a picnic area. Eating snacks at the bench proved to be quite relaxing with one of the most magnificent and recognizable landmarks in the world looking down on me. I was sitting just beyond the Forecourt and the Great Gate. The predominant image that remains in my mind is eating the snacks while admiring the iconic architecture and idyllic landscaping surrounding me.
After I finished my picnic in the Taj Mahal gardens, I went over to Taj East Gate Road and a motor rickshaw driver approached me. He wanted to bring me to a hotel and I told him that I am staying at a hotel just down the street. There are several hotels within easy walking distance to the Taj Mahal and I chose a small one on West Gate Road or Taj Western Gate. This is in the neighborhood south of the west gate of the Taj Mahal. The rickshaw driver followed me and told me that he would give me a ride around town for shopping if I paid him a small price. RED FLAG. I knew he would want to bring me to places where he could receive some commissions. Even so, I thought about it while he drove along the road following me and I decided to let him drive me around if the price for the ride could be made reasonable and I was not expected to purchase anything I did not want. He told me that the ride would be only a couple of rupees so I told him that I wanted to buy silk pajamas (These are not sleeping pajamas like those in our country, but rather, the loose fitting long pants that look like our pajamas in the west but are worn outside in public throughout India. They are tied with a drawstring at the waist). That made him happy and he told me that he would charge me just a couple of rupees if he could bring me to a certain shop where he would receive just a small commission if I bought some pajamas. He also told me that he would meet me every morning if I needed a driver each day; he would be my driver during my stay in Agra ( just great, what did I get myself into)?
After I checked into the hotel I chose, I let him drive me around Agra and then he drove me to the shop he was telling me about. The shop he brought me to is nice, organized, but small. There is a large white topped table in the middle of the room with many colorful fabrics on shelves up and down the walls of the room. The tailor was friendly and spoke English. He first tried to talk me into buying a full suit but he was not too pushy nor overly insistent. He quickly resigned himself to my desire for 2 pair of pajama style pants made from silk fabric. After I looked at several types of fabrics of several colors, I chose 2 types of silk. Both were shades of beige although one was a shiny type of silk and the other was more of a cotton looking type of silk. The tailor took my measurements and told me to return to the shop in two days to pick up the finished product.
After I left the shop with the motor rickshaw driver, he again asked me if he could be my driver during my visit in Agra. I thought that it would be a good idea because I did like him and he would be easily able to bring me back to the shop to pick up the pants. I told him that I would agree to that but I am not interested in visiting tourist sites. I was interested in some good restaurants and West Gate Road area. For now, I just wanted to return to the hotel and relax.
The next morning, my motor rickshaw driver friend was waiting outside of the hotel (they do that a lot).🤔 I decided to let him bring me to an area where I could choose a place to eat breakfast and to walk around for awhile. Although he tried to talk me into letting him take me to other sites, I told him that I was not interested in other sites that day. This day was for relaxing. He must have understood that I would not want his services much because, after I was finished with breakfast, he was not outside the restaurant where I ate. I do not know for sure but I suspect that someone else hired him for his service. This left me free to just explore around West Gate Road.
There are a few mosques in the neighborhood. I passed by the Fatepuri mosque and the Barah Khamba mosque. Walking along South Gate and Miyan Nazir Roads, I passed by a Jain Temple, a post office, and a police station. Of course, there are also several Hindu temples in the neighborhood such as the Dauji Ka temple. There are many shops in the area but I did not want to buy anything else besides the silk pajama style pants that I had bought yesterday so I did not go into any of them. I did walk towards the west along Agra Road that follows the course of the Yamuna River here and leads to Agra Red Fort and Yamuna Park. The Agra Fort Railway Station is across Gwalior Road from the Red Fort grounds. The Red Fort is very impressive and imposing. It is really a walled town. Mughal and Maratha rulers lived here. It is a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE. It was renovated by Akbar the Great when he was emperor here around 1600. Just like at the Taj Mahal, I did not enter the interior. Walking around the grounds is all I was interested in this year because I did not want to deal with touts or stand in any long lines. Also, this trip was supposed to be more a pilgrimage than a tourist vacation.
The next morning the motor rickshaw driver was outside the hotel again. At least I would have an easy time returning to the tailor shop to pick up the new silk pajama pants. Everything was in good order. We arrived at the tailor shop and my order was ready. I paid what we agreed I would pay. After we left the shop, the rickshaw driver brought me back to the hotel so I could check out and leave for Vrindavan. After I finished checking out of the hotel, the rickshaw driver asked me if he could drive me around Agra to do some sightseeing. Since I had decided to walk around Agra for awhile, I decided that it would be worth two or three dollars if I had a place to stow my duffel bag while exploring the city. I was able to leave the bag at the hotel so we could visit some temples and restaurants. At the end of it all, I just did not feel like dealing with the bus or train to New Delhi then to Vrindavan so I told my driver friend that I would stay in Agra one more night. We went back to the hotel where I had stayed but the driver asked me if we could pick up the bag and go to a hotel of his choice. He told me that he would bring me to a better motel that is clean and cheap and in the morning he would be able to bring me to the train station or the bus station for New Delhi. I was trusting him by this time so I agreed to this and he told me not to tell the hotel staff what we were doing; "Just pick up your bag and say goodbye." We arrived at the Tourist Guesthouse Agra on Buddha Vihar Gwalior Road. It is a very basic guesthouse, small, and well kept with a cozy patio in the back. I also paid only about $8.00 to stay there so I imagine that my driver friend did keep his word.
The next morning, I decided to take the bus to New Delhi and the rickshaw driver brought me to the station as soon as I was ready to leave Agra. I did not eat breakfast because I was immediately concerned about obtaining a bus ticket. After we arrived at the bus station, I was able to buy a ticket then we found something to eat there. I paid the rickshaw driver more than he asked because he was like a companion who I spent lots of time with. He was fair with me and I never felt cheated by him. He was a friendly person who enjoyed having a regular customer for three days. Our business arrangement worked out for both of us and I will always remember how I was able to get around Agra with no effort at all. He even helped me find the express bus to New Delhi. This bus got me to Agra in just one hour and fourty five minutes. The bus and train rides throughout India always went quickly for me because I was always mesmerized by the scenes I saw outside the windows. So many colors, the people, the animals, the modes of transportation, the sounds, the aromas, the buildings with their store fronts, the fields, and the snacks that are sold at the stops were very interesting to me. I was kept busy watching India pass by the windows that I was often looking out of.
When I arrived in New Delhi, I was surrounded by busses, travelers, taxis, and rickshaws. I passed by all of that and walked towards Connaught Place because the guide book I had listed at least three decent looking hotels to choose from that are located at Connaught Place. Also, that neighborhood is within very easy walking distance from the bus terminal where I was dropped off at. It took me about 20 minutes walking down Golkali Marg then down Rajiv Chowk to arrive at Connaught Circle. The first hotel that I came upon which was in the guide book is called York Hotel so that was the hotel I entered and that is the hotel where I stayed for a couple of days. I was placed in room 212 and the charge was 275 rupees plus 25 rupees for tax or tariff charge. I paid the 300 rupees in advance. This amounts to about $22 at the present exchange rate. When I took out my money belt to pay, there were many receipts for restaurants, hotels, shops, and ticket stubs that I had to take out in order to get to the money. It looked like a mess on the counter but the hotel clerk was very nice and patient with me. In fact, he told me that he could staple all of the receipts together if I wish. I told him, "Wow, that would be wonderful if you do not mind doing so, thank you." He said, "It would be my pleasure." (English is spoken quite well here). He then gathered the hotel and restaurant receipts and had them in a nice stack that he stapled together and folded just right for proper storage in my money belt. I was able to quite easily find the receipts for Rajpoot Hotel, 5 Kotha Parcha Allahabad, Hôtel Varuna, Vishwanath Villa Gulab Bagh Varanasi, and York Hotel which includes three receipts; one for the room charge, and two for the two times I ate in their cozy Bhoj Restaurant. It amounted to a significant stack of 15 receipts. After I settled down into the room, I decided to relax here for most of my one night stay before traveling south to Vrindavin the next morning. I did leave the room several times to walk around the Connaught Place area and to eat. The restaurant was at the ground floor of the hotel just to the left of the hotel entrance. The ambience was cozy, food was great, and the service was professional and friendly. There are several types of Kesas Pista on the menu. They seem to be made mostly with nuts, some sort of fruit, and spices. This is a refreshing ice cream of India that did a lot to alleviate my long standing cravings for ice cream that often haunted me while in the country. One decent scoop of Kesas Pista cost about $1.00 at the York Hotel restaurant and it was a wonderful, low cost treat. I liked the York Hotel as it supplied me with several things that I was missing while exploring India. There is hot water, soap, flushing toilet with paper, and a bath tub. There is also a color television, radio, large bed with sheets and bed spread, a desk with a room service menu, and a water glass. The radio did not work very good and the television had only local stations that I could find. I enjoyed my stay at the York Hotel because it was a large step up from patios and hostels. By this time, I was constantly wearing the two silk pajamas style pants that I had bought in Agra. I was wearing kirta style shirts with them. I remember one time when I was walking around Connaught Place, I saw a man looking at me when he spoke in surprise; "Pajamas!." The streets are wide and busy in this area. I once stood on the sidewalk watching a man with no legs crossing the wide street of Connaught Circle with only his arms. The handicapped are very visible throughout India and they are often fending for themselves to get places without any modern conveniences like wheelchairs. Many of them survive on whatever people put into their hands or cups. There are many places to go to get free food. Prasadam is food that has been offered up to the dieties on the altar before it is eaten and there are many thousands of temples throughout India where people can go to eat freely distributed prasadam. There are also the festivals and feasts that provide free food from many Muslim and Sikh communities. There are also water faucets on buildings that are used, not only for cooking by anyone who needs the water, but are also used for bathing. I saw several men crouching below such water faucets taking baths with bars of soap. It seems to me that it is much easier to live homeless in such a country as India than in USA. The next morning, I walked back to the transportation hub to buy a ticket to Vrindavan and wait for the bus. It is not difficult to buy tickets at the stations. Each window clearly shows the destination that the windows serve. I just had to find the window where the south bound bus traveling through Mathura and Vrindavan was located. Once I found the window, there was a line I had to queue up to and the wait was only about 15 minutes. It is an efficient system that did not take long to get aquainted to. It was easy to find the correct platform to wait for the bus because the platforms are also clearly marked. I waited on the platform for about half an hour then all us passengers were quickly boarded. Of course, I was traveling lightly with only my duffle bag (unlike most of the other travelers with their many bags and boxes) so I was able to find a seat right away then just watch everyone else manipulate their possessions until they were all piled together and secured.
Once we were on the road, I was transfixed on what I saw outside the window. I was discovering that India always mesmerized me. There is so much to see everywhere, from the buses and trains, that I have never seen before. In the movie "Gandhi", there is a scene that shows Gandhi traveling by train throughout India. What is shown in that scene is very reminesant of what I saw from the train I was on. The bus ride took about four hours because we had to go to Matura before continuing on to Vrindavan which is a change of direction, more towards the east. Matura has the reputation of being to town where the god Krisna was born. Because the demonic ruler Kamsa was trying to find the baby to kill him, Krisna was transferred to Vrindavan to live out his childhood in the home of "Mother Yashoda". I think Yashoda was his aunt so he was able to grow up in Vrindavan while in hiding from Kamsa while remaining in his family. In Matura, I was able to see the Katra Shrine which is the location of Krisnas' birth. This location is in the area of the Krisna Jamasthan Temple, Garbha Griha Shrine, Bhagavata Bhavan, and Rangabhoomi (where Krisna fought and slayed Kamsa). I could spend just a few minutes here because I had to get back to the station to get on the bus for Vrindavan, the town of one thousand temples where there are probably 2,000 temples 😄.
The road from New Delhi to Matura is a well maintained highway with lots of traffic but the road from Matura to Vrindavan is not so much a highway. It is well maintained but not wide and it has less traffic. Vrindavan is a major pilgramage destination for Vaisnava hindus and many others so it is not surpising that there are many temples along the Yamuna River here. The first destination for me was the ISKCON temple, Sri Sri Krishna Balaram Mandir, at Bhaktivedanta Swami Marg. This is where I would stay off and on for the next month.
I was given a place to stay at the brahmacharas' ashram so I could live here as long as I wanted. I would offer some kind of service for my room and board. I lived here and ate here with no money spent except when I went outside the temple grounds for lassis or street food. There is a nice restaurant at the temple and I did buy a good meal there once or twice when I was tempted. I spent a lot of time in the library and garden of A.C. Bhakivedanta Swami Prabhupada relaxing. I would sometimes rake up leaves in the garden. There are several trees in the garden and leaves were often falling. The initiating guru of the temple eventually asked me if I would like to do service for the devotees and Krishna. I accepted to do this service and found myself in a motorhome traveling around Rajasthan State as part of a Traveling Sankirtan Party. My duties were to fetch water from wells and faucets with two metal buckets. The faucets always were attached to the walls of buildings where a line of water bearers formed. This water was for the cook. I also helped the cook by chopping vegetables. This was the routine in several cities throughout Rajasthan. I was sent out one time to sell posters of Radha-Govinda as well as posters of Vishnu and Ganesh but I lost most of them because people would ask to see them and they would just leave as soon as they had one in their hands. I was surrounded by people. They would take hold of a poster, many people at the same time, and the posters would disappear before I could say anything. I was no longer sent out to sell posters after that first disaster.
When I was in Vrindavan, I spent a lot of time walking and exploring the streets of the city. I called the main temples the "Goswami Temples" because the very important Vaisnava Goswamis like Sanatan Goswami, Srila Jiva Goswami, Rupa Goswami, and Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami were intrumental in having them built. These temples were my primary destinatons in Vrindavan and the ghats along the Yamuna River were my primary destinations when I wanted to be alone. Sri Radha Damodara Mandir and Banke Bihari Temple were the two temples where I spent the most time, besides the ISKCON Krishna Balaram Mandir where I was living. Swami Haridas established Banke Bihare Temple around 1860. Srila Jiva Goswami established the Radha Damodara Temple in 1542. It is amazing how many temples are in Vrindavan and more are being built all the time. There is also a quaint market place, Loi Bazaar, and a few square shaped cement ponds, or kunds, where ritual bathing is practiced because the kunds are known as places where Radha and Krishna spent time.
The area around Mathura is especially sacred to the Vaisnavas. It encompasses approximatly 170 square miles with Mathura in the center. They call it the Brajmandal and consider it a manifestation of Krishnas' abode on earth. They believe that one must visit Brajmandal with the knowledge and attitude of their scriptures, or shastras, to see past the material characteristics of the place. That is how they are able to experience its true nature of sat, chit, ananda (eternity, bliss, and knowledge). In the Adi Purana, it is written, "In all the three planetary systems, this earth is especially fortunate for here stands the town of Vrindavan." There is a garden that is surrounded by a large wall which is called Nikunja Ban. This is where Krishna, as the most beloved Govinda, is believed to have appeared to His devotees. The Mathura Mahatyam Shastra has many statements like; "Dumb or unconscious beings, blind, killers, and those not practicing any tapas or nyamas who die in Mathura at any time will go to Visnu Loka (the abode of Visnu)." Also stated; "If a man decides in his mind, 'I will go to Mathura and I will stay there', simply by having such thoughts, he will escape the wheel of Samsara." Maybe I should have accepted the offer of the initiating guru of the ISKCON temple (Sripad Gopal Krishna Goswami) when he told me to live longer in the temple and they would arrange to acquire a visa to allow me a stay of much longer than the three months on my present passport visa.
Unfortunatly, I mostly saw the material conditions of Vrindavan rather than the Sat, Chit, Ananda. The material conditions jumped out at me all the time. They took the shape of dead cows floating down the Yamuna River, big, ugly pigs lumbering along the streets, dead dogs lying in the road, small children looking up at you with sad eyes as if they were hoping for a hand out of food or money, the heat of the sun bearing down, and the dust from the roads and dry fields rising up into my nostrils. There was some Sat, Chit, Ananda, though, such as when I met the spiritual master, Sripad Gopal Krishna Goswami because one of his devotees interruped my service in the garden of Founder Acharya Srila Bhagevendanta Swami Prabupada to bring me to the spiritual masters' room. The spiritual master wanted to ask me if I would like to go on traveling sankirtan with the devotees who travel in an RV to places like Gwalior. I liked the idea because Sripad Gopal Krishna Goswami seemed very humble and intelligent although he had at least 200 disciples in this temple and a few Africa temples. Also, I would be able to travel through Rajasthan with no money at all. There would be three of us traveling to Gwalior in the Traveling Sankirtan RV. The main purpose of the traveling sankirtan mission is to distribute books by Vaisnava Spiritual Masters and posters of Hindu dieties like Narayana, Krishna, Ganapati, and Laksmi for a nominal donation. We also spent a good amount of time preparing meals for, not only ourselves, but also for impoverished people in the area and the cows, goats, and dogs. We spent two hot, sweltering weeks in Gwalior. We slept on the roof of a Vaisnava Temple that hosted us during our stay. We had no mattresses to sleep on. We did have some thin mats though. We took baths with buckets of cold water which actually felt good due to the oppressive heat of the sun. We had soap most days but not every day. When we traveled the province of Rajasthan, we did so in an RV with inefficient refrigeration, suffering temperatures that sometimes reached 105 degrees farenheit.