Holi in Varanasi
Trip Start Jun 10, 2010
94Trip End Apr 08, 2011
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The ride through the countryside on the Indian side of the border at least offered us some dazzling views. I will always remember my first glimpse of India being of fields and fields full of cattle behind roadside dilapidated shacks, with a bright red sun setting to our right and the giant moon shining through to our left – at its closest point to earth in 18 years.
Escaping our hotel bellboy’s over-eagerness for tips in Ghorakpur - a 'city’ offering very little to a visitor, where people stare at you wondering why on earth you’re even there - we travelled by train to the holy city of Varanasi the next day, arriving late at night
Varanasi is a city to which Hindus travel for miles around to wash away their sins in the Ganges, their river of salvation. As a focus of the Hindu world, the city is an auspicious place to die, and is also one place in India where the traditional rituals of life and death are accessible to see. The ‘ghats’ are the main focus of these rituals, which are long strings of steps leading down to the water’s edge. Here, sins are washed away, offerings are made to the gods and bodies are also cremated in public – on ‘burning ghats’. We saw people meditating, washing clothes, bathing and even having massages along the river while we were there - all the while with bodies burning just metres away. It certainly is a unique culture at its most open.
Upon arriving into the city, after our first Indian autorickshaw ride past streets lit up with fairy lights, bonfires and people dancing in the streets, we were told by our guest house owners that we had arrived the day before the Hindu festival of Holi – a crazy celebration of brotherhood among the people, also denoting the end of the Hindu year. That would explain so many water-pistols and bags of paint powder on sale along the streets... Awesome!
During Holi morning’s celebrations, the women generally stay indoors whilst the men drink, dance, throw paint at each other, drink cannabis shakes and generally go a bit mental on the streets
Locals armed with every possible colour of paint came over, mixing the powders with water to ensure the complete saturation of every single one of us. Buckets of paint were poured over our heads, smothered on every visible space and thrown from distances, until we had our very own rooftop river. To dances of ‘Happy Holi!’ along the village rooftops, the singing could be heard for miles around, and soon the water pistols were out in force as we began creating water-paint bombs from plastic bags to chuck at the crowds below us. It was entertaining enough to just watch it all going on around us, with men even trying to mount cows in the alleyways, but we could never stay still long enough to avoid being the next target.
It was all just a big game that lasted hours into the day, until local people began to feel the effects of the Bhang ‘special’ Lassi (made of almonds, pistachios, rose petals and cannabis) and fall asleep. Come late afternoon, the streets were deserted (aside from the odd multi-coloured dog), as people began to swim in the Ganges opposite, pushing Water Buffalo out of the way. We took the opportunity to try to scrub the paint from our skin, but not one of us was successful
Sunset Ganges light show
With purple-tinted faces and bright red toenails, we celebrated and drank into the night, when a group of us opted to take a boat out along the Ganges to watch the Ganga Aarti light ceremony at the Dasaswamedh Ghat. With us was a couple from Australia who had lived in India, so we were lucky in the sense that they were able to translate and explain many of the traditions to us.
Along the way, we passed the burning ghats -live cremations of bodies on the riverside. From afar, these could have been just any other bonfire on a beach but, upon looking closely, you could make out the silhouettes of the bodies stacked on the wood... The other worry was the idea of the bodies floating in the water around us somewhere – the bodies of those who aren’t actually cremated. The Hindus don’t burn the corpses of pregnant women or children under ten, who are instead just pushed out into the water
Instead, our main present concern on the boat was fighting off the swarms of flies, moths and mosquitoes skittering about our feet and swarming in cyclones above our heads – there were thousands of them! But when you see the floating waste swimming along the top of the water, it’s easy to see why... In fact, the water of the Ganges is completely septic, and the levels of waterborne diseases from the river in its bordering villages are horrendous. The smell was incredible and we gagged most of the time, but miraculously still enjoyed the whole experience. There were so many other boats out there, filled with Indians and visitors all gathered to experience the prayers - many meditating, others just watching. It was a nice atmosphere in the twilight, with the candles and flowers floating around us (so long as we could ignore the faeces) and the moon still enormous and reflecting in the water.
Our days in Varanasi were great fun. I don’t think we needed to spend as long as we did in the city, but we used the excess time to hang about our rooftop with everybody else and even order in a Domino’s one night (they ‘ran out’ of large pizzas!), when none of us could be bothered to venture out
Actual road signs in parts of India:
- Love thy neighbour, but not while driving
- Better to be Mister Late than a late Mister...
- Go easy on my curves
- Overtaker beware of Undertaker
- Stop gossiping and let him drive
- No hurry, no worry