Death and the maiden

Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
Trip End Apr 14, 2006

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Where I stayed
Hotel Haifa, Bhelpura district

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Varanasi is the holiest Hindu place in India (60,000 people a day come to bathe in the Ganges), and said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The river is very polluted here. My guidebook states that the water is septic - it contains no dissolved oxygen. Varanasi has a reputation for being a fascinating but overwhelming and shocking place to visit. Our train pulled into the station at 1:01am, and I tried not to think about the possibility of Varanasi being my room 101.

The best way to describe the city is as India concentrated, intensified and magnified.
There seems to be an incredible number of auto and cycle rickshaws per square metre and their wallahs are more persistent than ever. Walking along the road, a lot of them will turn their vehicle around to shadow you, plying for trade. Some of them guess where you might want to go: 'Main ghat?', 'Old City?' etc. I got quite wound up by it and had to stop myself replying 'Slough?', 'Dungeness?'.

There is also a huge population of cows, bulls and water buffaloes wandering the streets, eating rubbish and generally getting in the way. The bulls are enormous, with genitals to match, and although being in India has helped me get over my fear of cows, I instinctively gave them a wide berth. In the narrow alleyways though this is sometimes not possible. Once we had to squeeze between 2 stationary cows to get past and another time, Flic and I had to hide in a doorway to let past a troupe of cows and a bull that was trying to mount them!

We treated ourselves and stayed in quite a posh hotel, with air-con, in a slightly quieter area outside the city centre. Air-con made sleeping possible in the intense heat, but the higher price was a bit of a rip-off because Varanasi has so many power cuts that a lot of the time it was not working. Luckily our hotel had a generator which powered the ceiling fans at those times.

We ventured out into the heat and bustle on the first morning, heading along a back street towards a nearby temple. I was wearing flipflops that were already feeling slippery with sweat and grime. That's my excuse anyway, because only a couple of minutes down the road, I stumbled in one of the many holes in the tarmac at the edge of the road, fell down landing on my knees, and placed my hand straight into the mud of a drainage channel. It was mostly shock I think, and pain caused my knee landing on a stone, but according to Didier I sounded like an alarm going off! I made such a fuss that lots of Indians rushed over to see if I was OK. Extracting a black hand from the mud I stood up shaking and my knees almost gave way again. I hobbled back to the hotel with my friends carrying my bag and helping me along. When I cleaned myself up, amazingly I hadn't broken the skin on my hand - landing actually in the mud had saved me from infection from whatever nasties were in the ditch (later on I saw a man peeing into it and a dead dog lying in it, just metres up from where I fell). My knees were badly bruised and stiff for 3 days afterwards, but it was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Take two, and this time we made it to the temple. We passed it on the way from the station the night before and it had looked amazing - a rich red ochre-stained building, lit up and reflected in a large step well. In daylight the colour didn't look nearly as vivid and the water was slimy, green and rubbish-strewn, but we went in to have a look anyway. At all temples you have to take shoes off outside, but in 38 degree heat, the stone floor heats up so much that I had to run over the exposed bits in search of some shade. Inside the temple there was a lot of loud clanging bell ringing going on - any of the worshippers seemed to be able to have a go, resulting in a discordant racket, to be quite honest. We didn't hang around long. The next temple down the road was a modern white marble one. For 2p we gained entry to a whole series of kitsch animatronic models depicting scenes from Shiva's life. Now that's what I call temple entertainment!

Next we took cycle rickshaws into the old city and found our way through its maze of confusing narrow alleyways to the ghats. The ghats are dozens of series of steps that lead down to the Ganges. They line one side of the river for 7km through the city. Ghats are the focus of life in Varanasi. Pilgrims come to ritually bathe in the waters, but ghats are also used for laundry, to wash in and as mooring points for the hundreds of rowing boats that take people out on river trips. People come to the river to do yoga, meditate, sell their wares, play cricket, give puja (offerings to the river), worship at the many shrines that line the banks and generally hang out. There are also two burning ghats, where hundreds of bodies a day are cremated on open fires. Death is ever-present in Varanasi, as Hindus see it as a very auspicious place to die.

We walked along the central section of the ghats (side-tripping to visit a Nepalese Temple with erotic carvings, where they've cottoned on to the potential income and charge people to walk around the outside of it!) towards the main burning ghat. Photography is not allowed but tourists can watch the activities from the second floor of an overlooking building. All around the ghat, and on boats moored next to it, are huge piles of wood from Banyan Trees. The wood is carefully weighed so there is just the right amount to completely burn the body. It is expensive to buy (about 500 a cremation we worked out) so many people use their life savings to buy wood to burn their body with. It seems strange when you look at it like that. However, generally the whole thing was less shocking and more dignified than I expected it to be. The bodies are wrapped in material and carried on bamboo stretchers to the river, where they are dunked under 3 times. Male members of the family attend the cremation. Women are not allowed, apparently because they will cry and that means the soul will not gain liberation from rebirth. The body is then burnt under a pile of wood. At the end the ashes are doused with water from the Ganges and unburnt bones are taken out and thrown into the river. When we were there 3 or 4 fires were alight at different stages of the burning process, 2 new bodies were carried in and there were many piles of ash from earlier cremations. It is all very much business as usual. Leaning against the balconies of the building I noticed my hands were getting black from a layer of dust that covered every surface. I tried not to think about where it had come from.

A guide who had attached himself to us took us to a silk shop where we were shown shawls aplenty. The owner kept spreading out more and more colours and patterns until there was a huge pile on the floor. It is well known that a lot of so called silk is actually mixed with cotton and when Matt asked about this the salesman insisted on burning the edge of one of the scarfs and getting him to smell the smoke. This was meant to prove that it was pure silk but of course Matt had no idea what burning silk should smell like. He said that the burning material actually smelt of chemicals. After some half-hearted bargaining (none of us really wanted to buy anything) we left when the owner threw some items at Matt in disgust at the low price he was offering. Not the best way to do business.

At sunset we went to the main ghat to see the aarti ceremony (where arrangements of flowers and candles are floated down the river) and generally soak up the atmosphere as the light faded. Boatmen tried to book us on their boats the next morning, young girls sold flowers, children played and splashed in the river, loud speakers blared chanting, and cows and goats lay about on the steps. There were strings of light bulbs everywhere and huge illuminated murals of Shiva and other gods. Off to one side a stage was set up and the steps acted as an amphitheatre where people gathered to listen to preaching, singing and amplified music. It was a vibrant scene, full of life in the gathering darkness.

At a restaurant that night we listened to a classical music concert as we ate. Two men, one on tabla and one on sitar, played pieces of music that lasted for half an hour at a time, starting slowly and building to amazing crescendos of sound.

At 5am the next morning we set off back to the main ghat for a sunrise boat trip - the definitive Varanasi tourist experience. We paid far more than the guidebook suggested, but we got a boat just for the 6 of us and were able to say where we wanted to go for 90 minutes. It was very peaceful being rowed along (once the mosquitos disappeared, anyway). It was amazing how many people were out and about on the water's edge at that time in the morning. I suppose when the day is unbearably hot by 10am, it makes sense to use the cooler time around dawn. The sun came up a red glowing ball and the river looked very serene in the soft light. The buildings that line the river behind the ghats are mostly crumbling but you can imagine their previous grandeur.

After lunch Celia, Didier, Flic and Alex left Varanasi and Matt and I visited the nearby town of Sarnath. This has many important Buddhist sites, archaeological remains, and a museum containing an impressive amount of stone sculptures from 1st-12th century AD. There is even a massive capital from a pillar that dates to 200BC. It depicts 4 lions standing back to back and I found it impossible to beleive that it was that old. Matt and I wilted a bit in Sarnath - the heat seems to just build and build throughout the day, not even cooling down when it gets dark. We also visited a Jain temple where a very informative man at the temple door explained about Jainism - it's a religion that can seem quite extreme and obsessed with self-denial. They will not kill any living thing to the extent that the monks wear material over their mouths to avoid killing airborne microorganisms, will drink through material to filter out any microrganisms in water, do not eat live yoghurt and will not pick fruit from a tree. They also have a rule about not cutting their hair. Instead they pull it out. We were proudly shown a photo of the man's uncle standing naked, holding what appeared to be a large shaggy wig. I didn't want to stare at the photo too much but it was the highlight of my time in Sarnath!

The following day Matt and I took an early morning walk along the ghats near our hotel. We had heard at the burning ghat that some bodies are not cremated - instead they are put into the river. These include pregnant women, children, lepers and victims of snake bites (all these people are believed to have died a holy death and therefore there is no need to cremate them). So, we were not too shocked to see a body, wrapped in material, floating down the river. It was strange to see people still bathing and washing happily, 10m away from the body, but it must be a common sight. Just as we were about the leave the ghats a dog came up the steps infront of us carrying something in its mouth. It didn't take long for me to see that it was a tiny, bloated, dead baby. Nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of something like this. The Indians walking past also looked shocked. The dog took its meal further up the steps, thankfully out of sight and we left the river, sickened, via another route. I had wanted to experience everything that Varanasi presented to me, but now felt naive for having this sentiment. I tried to deal with it by thinking about the fact that the baby's soul had left its body. When so many people and animals are competing in such a small space for survival it is inevitable that things like this happen.

Back at the hotel, poor Matt finally succumbed to Delhi Belly, just hours before an 8 hour train journey. That means that of the 9 of who met up in India, only one person (old iron-guts Celia!) did not get ill. I said goodbye to Matt at lunchtime (he was heading off to visit the largest school in the world, at Lucknow) and spent the last day and night in Varanasi on my own. Despite having been in India well over a month I still felt apprehensive about going to any tourist sights alone. The constant attention, stares and repeated enquiries of 'how are youuuu, ma'am?' can feel intimidating. Instead I chickened out and spent my time in an internet cafe, a fixed price shop for last-minute present buying, and the hotel restaurant.

At lunchtime the next day I set off to the railway station, starting the long journey home.
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