To the heart of Uttar Pradesh and a Ganga Aarti

After taking Basanti out of that dusty, old garage where I’d parked here for the night - I was off to Lucknow.

I braced myself for a long and crowded road, but I happened to take the Agra-Lucknow Express Way. Being a relatively expensive toll road - it was EMPTY! Well, that was a first in India.

What nobody had told me was that food stalls and petrol stations would not be there though. Only every 100 kilometers or so there was a rest place to grab some food and petrol, but other than that - nothing.

Embarrassing enough, this caused me to almost run out of fuel on the highway. Until that time I hadn’t filled up the extra fuel cans that I was bringing. I’m not riding somewhere in remote mountains, so there will be petrol stations everywhere - I thought.

Idiot.

With sweaty palms I was looking at my fuel gauge. Doing all sorts of crazy math calculations in my head as to how far I could still ride.

My rescue came just before Basanti would have come to a screeching stop alongside the road. I let them fill her up to the top, and got some petrol love in the extra fuel cans as well. You learn right?

Lucknow - the capital of kebabs

The capital and beating heart of India’s state Uttar Pradesh is Lucknow. Also called the city of kebabs.

And I understand why. I sampled the best kebab I ever had in my life. On a Kashmiri wedding I attended some weeks ago, I met Sufian - who lives in Lucknow. We met up in the evening and he took me to great restaurant called Tunday Kebabi.

One of Lucknow’s most famous restaurants, it had an entire wall covered with photos of Indian movie stars who’d come to eat there. Promising!

The slaughter of both cow and waterbuffulo is now prohibited in the state of Uttar Pradesh for religious reasons. But we managed to get our hands on this incredibly soft, tongue-melting waterbuffalo kebab!

With a full and happy tummy I went back to my guesthouse - as I was going to be riding again the day after. Destination: Varanasi.

With the first light, I rode out of Lucknow - only to make a quick stop at the Rumi Darwaza. This impressive Mughal gateway is surrounded by other beautiful buildings such as the grand Victorian Husainabad Clock Tower and the 18th century Bara Imambara shrine.

With the rising sun and the ever bad pollution it gave a mystical feel to the place.

Sunrise at Rumi Darwaza in Lucknow.

I continued the journey to Varanasi. A place that I visited 8 years ago for the first time. It made an huge impression on me at the time.

Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you’ll escape the cycle of reincarnation and are liberated forever. There are special burning ghats (series of steps leading down to the Ganges river) in Varanasi, where the bodies of the deceased are being cremated. Around the clock.

After the cremation process, the ashes are released into the holy Ganges river, which is flowing straight past the ghats. Young babies and pregnant women are not burned but placed straight into the Ganges as Hindus believe their bodies are already pure.

The sight (and moreover, smell) of burning bodies is something that I will never forget. During my first time in Varanasi I took a boat ride over the Ganges river. The tiny body of a baby floated past the boat. I still see that baby until this day. There is just no place in the world like Varanasi. In a shocking-kind-of-way.

Ganga Aarti

Every night around sunset, the Ganga Aarti ritual can be seen in three holy cities in India: Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi.

I’ve seen the Ganga Aarti in all three of these places, but my favourite is still in Varanasi. To me, it was the most powerful and uplifting here. So what is a Ganga Aarti?

An Aarti is a ritual in which fire is used as an offering. A small cup-shaped oil lamp made of baked clay with flowers on it is floated down the river. Since it is floated down the Ganges, this Aarti is called the Ganga Aarti.

In Varanasi, the main focus is on the choreography of a group of young pandits (Brahmin scholars) who wave and circle large inflamed lamps in elaborate patterns. Their movements are synchronised with chanting and the sounds of cymbals. The air is smokey and filled with the smells of burning sandalwood.

It was great to visit this special place in India for the second time. I was a lot less culture-shocked than the first time though. Perhaps the last couple of months in India made me more or less immune to sightings that would otherwise shake me to my core.

Or perhaps it was because I didn’t see the dead body of a baby floating down the river. Either way, I enjoyed staying in Varanasi once again. And after staying in this important Hindu site, I’ll be riding to one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites next!

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