The average person probably sees two hundred pictures of the Taj Mahal in their life, but nothing can prepare you for turning the corner in the Agra complex and seeing that thing in real life. It rises from the plane of blue pools and symmetrical walkways with epic majesty; even with scaffolding over one of the pillars, it oozed an elegance that outstrips any architecture I’d seen before it. There isn’t much inside, but knowing you’re in the heart of one of the wonders of the world (and have surreptitiously touched one of its walls) is thrilling enough.
The exquisite style of the Taj is more than slightly out of kilter with the rest of Agra, which is sweaty, dusty and full of persistent touts. Apart from our wonderful homestay hosts and their very pregnant pug, we found it lacking in redeeming qualities, and got out of there quickly.
Next up was Varanasi: the spiritual capital of the subcontinent, where the faithful come to die and where families burn their dead at the riverbank and scatter their ashes on the holy Ganges. One dawn, we paid a young boy 200 rupees to take us on his rowboat along the banks, past the most popular burning spot (the hotspot, one might say). There were a few fires burning – no visible limbs or eyeballs, unfortunately – and the misty morning light cast a lovely rosy hue over the river’s scenes: clusters of splashing boys; gurus in orange or white sarongs sitting by the water, cross-legged, chanting; women in saris that match the kaleidoscopic buildings at the water’s edge beating their washing against the rocks. It was quite magical.
We found that Varanasi is also the fragrance capital of the subcontinent, and not in a good way. If you like your perfume with a whiff of cowpats, souring curd and urine, this is your kind of place. The tightly-woven network of backstreets and high walls just don’t allow that stuff to diffuse – and when you’re only just starting to keep your food down again, it feels like pretty thin ice.
Pungency aside, Varanasi must be applauded for arguably the best lassi place in town. It’s a tiny shop called Blue Lassi that’s been running for 75 years, and the grandson of the original owner sits at the front of the store and whips up fruity concoctions with a half-smile on his face, occasionally pausing to throw a banana to the monkey who’s taken up residence on the tin roof. He serves them in small clay pots – I got banana with little chunks of dried apple on the top – and they are sublime enough to earn Varanasi a solid 7.5/10 on my reckoning. I just can’t shake the smell.
Next stop: Goa.