The Holy Ganges, moving, disturbing and alarming!

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
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Trip End Apr 23, 2005


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Where I stayed
Prashapati Guesthouse

Flag of India  ,
Thursday, December 9, 2004

Abstract: Left on an epic couple of days travelling, bus to Nepal/India border, crossed with only the minimum of fuss, and the traditional Indian form filling. A sign above the desk cryptically said..'resist persistant harrassment', hmmm, like we encorage it. As if to enforse this message we have been persistantly harrassed by rickshaw wallahs, handicraft sellers etc ever since. Anyway, we got on a bus to Gorakpur, arriving at 8pm, then a train at midnight and arrived in Varanasi, exhausted at 4.30am. What does one do at such a time? Well, leave your bag at the station and go sightseeing of course. By 6am we were on the river with a boatman in a rowing boat. We were enchanted by the atmosphere of the bathers immersing themselves in the holy ganges, as the sun rose over the misty water... truly moving. Not so good is the state of the water, apart from the usual sewerage and industrial waste, the fact certain corpses are dispatched in the river without even semi-burning means that corpses bump into your boat. Because children, and by connection, pregnant women, are considered too pure to be burnt, they are cast into the river only to come ashore later. We were unlucky enough to see a dog devouring a pregnant lady, whilst a man was brushing his teeth 10 metres away... uuurrghh... Luckily we hadn't had our breakfast yet. I guess westerners are too squeemish about death and funerals. We had a frank discusion with a gentleman at one of the burning sites as bodies lined up to be burnt and a half finished cremation took place in frount of us... We also visited the golden temple and wandered endlessly in search of the best samosa (once our appetite had recovered), this was to become a theme in India!


Nitty Gritty : We got dropped at the bus stop in the hotels 1930's jeep, which we ha had to push start... The bus was a 'tourist bus' the very form of transport we always try to avoid... who wants to be bussed around in a westerner vacuum with no more contact with the locals than them trying to sell you fruit through the window ? Anyway we needen't have worried as as usual the 'tourist' bus stoped every 5 minutes to let on people, schoolkids, goats and chickens, much to the annoyance of those tourists who niaively thought it was an express... We got to the 'border' to find out the bus wasn't going the last 5km and then had to wrestle and haggle our way onto a jeep which all 11 of the foreigners piled onto, G was left standing on the back bumper, no bad thing as the baggage onto was extreemly precarious. Finnally the India border appeared and after changing our rupees into rupees, we set off walking despite the insistance on the rickshaw drivers that it was 2km further, of course it was only 300m and the crossing was accomplished with the minimum of fuss... the Indian side of course required endless form filling, a theme which was to develope throughout our Indian travels, the british may have brought beurocracy to India but they have honed it to a fine art...

Above the border bost was a sign exorting us to 'resist persistant harrasment', something which one would have thought went without saying but is of course impossible to acheive. It being only 2pm we decided to press onto Gorakpur, the railhead for northern India. There where several busses, all in various stages of decreptitude, and of course we chose the one which despite it being to all appearances full, and revving its engine, departed last... Arriving at Gorakpur at about 8pm in the dark, we decided to go to the railway station and book the morning train, before retiring. Of course the train was fully booked and we ended up on the overnight train 11.30pm-4.30am to Varanasi. It was going to be a bit of an epic journey. After a veggy Thali we boarded our train and descovered that there was no bedding in the cheapskate 'sleeper' class, unlike China and Vietnam, so we had a bit of a cool night. The carrages where divided into 'compartments' of three bunks facing each other, where the middle on folds down exactly like the european couchette. However the carrage is open with no doors and there are an extra two bunks running on the opposite side lengthways ie. In the direction of travel. The rail gauge appears to be somewhat wider than at home...

We were exhausted when we arrived in Varanasi at 4.30am and at a bit of a loss as what to do at that time. We settled for leaving our bags in the cloakroom, then having a very leasurely cu of 'chi' the national drink available everywhere for a few rupees (4ukpence), a mixture of tea leaves, hot milk and sugar in equal proportions we have become quite addicted to it over the weeks, I think the charm is partly the ritual of pouring and heating and partly the fact that perched around the stall will be lots of locals also enjoying 'down time' and invariably freindly, many serious cricket discussions have been enjoyed on these occasions. Luckily England are, for once, playing well so we can wind them up by pointing out that India are currently ranked lower than us in the ICC table. However, their knowledge is amazing and they seem able to quote career averages for every player, and often small kids will tell you Graham Gooch's career averages or some other such obscure fact. After one such surreal conversation at 5 in the morning we dived into the ranks of rickshaw drivers looking for the 'prepayed booth' which offered fixed price fares on the auto rickshaws without painful, lengthy haggling. We where duely disgorged in the half light at one of the big 'ghats' or steps leading to the holy Ganges where the devout pilgrims perform ritual ablutions and sometimes, to our horror, gulp down the water. We were immeadiately besieged by boat rowers wanting to take us onto the river for dawn for the bargan price of 1500 rupees, we eventually settled on 150 rupees a more sane figure after about 40 minutes of negociation, in our fatigued state this of course was completely exasperating. Once on the river with a nice young boatman an air and mood of serenity set in. The pilgrims where starting to arrive at the ghats and the pink pre-dawn light reflected off the water and crumbling temples on the shore. There was a surprising number of birds, noisy miners, and several species of kingfisher flashing past... lovely. As the sun rose we approached the first of the burning ghats, where people are cremated on open funeral pyres before there remains are cast into the river. The Ganges is the most auspiciuos site to be cremated so many shrowded bodys lay waiting for their send off and two or more pyres where going at the same time. The most destressing (for us westerners, at least) is the harf burnt, or even unburnt cadavers in the water. The cost of sufficient wood to effectively incinerate a body is beyond the pocket of most Indian families so inadequate quantities are often used and the unburnt torso then cast into the water. Also, children and by connection pregnant women (along with sadhus, snake bite victims and leprocy) are also lowered unburnt into the water. We were particulaly disturbed to witness a pregant corpse being devoured by a dog, luckily we hadn't had breakfast. I guess the dogs and birds perform an essential role, as in Tibet with the 'sky burials' but to us sanitized westerners it is still shocking... As was the man brushing his teeth not 10 metres away.

We continued on our waterbourne tour being accosted by the 'floating supermarket' of typical tourist paraphinalia, G told him to go and bother the boatload of rich looking Japanese as we were mean backpackers... and for once it worked. The poor Japanese can't have got much of a view surrounded by aquatic hawkers... We were taken ashore at the other big burning ghat and a man with great english explained that the two big buildings behind the burning area were full of 'people waiting to die', a sort of hospice I guess... not sure I would want to spend my last days watching others being burnt but, it the context of the holy nature of the river apparently it is a great comfort to the sick... This conversation took place in front of a funeral pyre, and the family of the deciesed seemed quite at ease with the situation and us onlookers. Indeed, later in the day we saw one funeral where a brass band in bright colours played a quite upbeat number... maybe we could learn from this ?

After our return to dry land the whole area had come to life, we watched three shaver-wallahs snipping and shaving away, one policeman recomendidng his wallah to G. We were disappointed G had just had his hair cut because one barber with a chair on the ghat had a sign reading 'the contempory man', and seemed the ideal haircutter... We wandered down the waterfrount where massage-wallahs, fortune tellers , holy men and doubi-wallahs (the clothes beaters/washers) went about there business. Occasionally one comes accross a western 'neo-hippy' sat in a cloud of smoke, or meditating. According to one earnest young english speaker who attached himself to us, they even do the bathing thing... quite whether their immune system is up to the onslought remains to be seen.

After unsuccessfully trying a number of guesthouses we found the Prashapati gueat house right on the Shivala Ghat, where a cell like (clean) room was only 100 Rupees (1.20 pounds) highly recommended with a fabulous terrace view and a peaceful courtyard, and good food. We returned to the train station and collected our bags and booked some tickets after speaking to the helpful Tourist info people. We also discovered a great somosa stall where you had to fight your way to the frount of the queue to get served, always a good sign.... Rach visited a silk shop but wasn't happy with the wedding dress silk despite their other stuff being beautiful, Varanasi is famous for its islk and some of the shawls and bedspreads were amazing...

We wandered around somemore seeing a bridal party all tucking into masala chat on one of the ghats, the bride resplendant in gold and red, and found a South indian Dosa shop for dinner... we ordered four but thankfully only three showed up as they where massive (and delicius).

We had a miday train but rushed off in the morning to see the Golden temple, unfortunatly we chose an old rickshaw driver who was constantly overtaken by pedestrians... He called himself the Indian Helecopter and would madly wave his arms around like a dervish instead of cycling... Whenever he knew the english for somthing we passed he would exclaim 'Indian.....' so it was Indian holy cow, indian motorbike, indian vegtables, and his favourate subject whenever we passed young ladies was Indian lovely or Indian Nice, whereupon he would slow even further to get a good look. Amusing but quicker to walk !
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