Varanasi, city of the dead, Khajuraho and Orchha

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
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Trip End Nov 24, 2004


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Friday, April 16, 2004

... in which bodies burn, stone statues fuck horses and a heatwave floors your beloved traveller...

VARANASI

Varanasi, on the holy river Ganges and approximately in the middle of the top bit of India, is the holiest and one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. By the looks of it, the place hasn't been cleaned for quite a while too.

You could say that Varanasi is a crazy combination of a slum, Lourdes, Disneyland, a crematorium and a beach. This is the place where Hindus come to pray and to die. Die and get cremated here, and you'll go straight to nirvana (Hindu heaven - I wonder if there are rickshaws there) without having to go through the whole silly reincarnation business ever again. I don't think there are many places in the world that are so graphic as this, with life and death and prayer and celebration and cremation smoke and incense all whirling around, day and night.

The part of the city where it all happens is a 3km stretch along the south bank of the river (strangely, opposite the city, there's just agricultural fields). Over the centuries, the river banks have been paved and turned into steps descending to the water, called ghats. The level of the river varies wildly - now the river is very low and narrow (about 100m wide) but during the monsoon rains it swells up to 3-4 times the width and gets about 10m higher, shrinking the ghats to the foot of the buildings above, and even submerging some of the temples.

Ghats are the focal point of all that goes on in Varanasi: here, people take ritual baths in the cool mornings and evenings, worship their gods, offer flowers, fish, wash their clothes, brush their teeth, paddle around on rowing boats and burn their dead.

There are dozens of seperate ghats, some belonging to old maharadjas (who built impressive palaces behind them), but most adorned with a Hindu temple at the top, which usually houses a Shivalingam, a stone penis symbolising fertility, that is worshipped. Despite the city's old age, most buildings are no older than the 16/17th century. As I've noted before, Hindus don't seem to care much about filth and flies and bits breaking off their buildings so that maybe is not so surprising.

Space is at a premium in Varanasi. The alleys behind the ghats, which form the 'old town', are so narrow that rickshaws are not allowed in - you have to walk to your guesthouse with your bags instead. That, combined with Varanasi's abnormally huge holy cows (some are as high as I am and as wide as my dad :), often leads to cow jams.

Every ghat has its own festival days, and during my visit in the evening there was what looked like priest initiation ritual. It was very impressive, with hundreds of onlookers deafeningly ringing bells and clapping, while two boys rammed on drums incessantly. On raised platforms overlooking the river, five young men in robes performed a ritual that involved holding up diverse objects (a brush, a cloth, a sort of small Christmas tree with burning oil lamps, a pot of fire, etc) and waving them slowly around, in all four directions. It went on for a long time, and after it was all over there was applause from what I think were happy-looking family members.

A bit further on, a temple that was covered in awful-looking twinkling electric Christmas lights tried to make even more noise with people ramming on big bells, and a live band with heavily amplified meditational-sounding music added to the cacaphony. In between this all, there were some people actually meditating. I'm sure I'll never be one of them.

The main thing that amazes foreigners in Varanasi are the burning ghats, the two places along the river where Hindus who can afford it come to burn their dead. The strangest thing about it is the proximity of the cremations to normal activities - while a body burns on a pire of wood, families stroll to a nearby temple, and 15m downriver a man washes his clothes.

It goes a bit like this. After death (preferably in Varanasi itself), the body is prepared for cremation and placed on a strecher of bamboo poles, and wrapped in red and gold fabrics. There are no speaches or tears, just rituals because after all, the deceased has moved on to the best world imaginable (nirvana) so the relatives should be happy. The women stay behind and are not allowed on the ghat to avoid risk of tears, and also the risk of sati - the practice of women throwing themselves on the funeral pyres which has lead to much problems in India, even recently.

The relatives carry the strecher through Varanasi's narrow streets (and right under my guesthouse window) to the burning ghat, shouting a mantra praising the god Ram. Around the ghat, families of Untouchables (the lowest rank of the Hindo caste society - they do the really shitty jobs) run the business of turning bodies into ash. The family will buy a certain amount of wood (which is brought from upriver by boats and weighed on scales - it's not cheap) and a bag of sandalwood powder.

The Untouchables build a pire by laying down three large logs and smaller ones on top. The body is washed (or dipped, rather) in the river and then is placed on the pire, and then more wood is piled on top. Bear feet sticking out, like I saw, is no problem, they'll get pushed further in later on. The oldest son, who has been shaved bold and who will stay in Varanasi for two weeks to pray and meditate, is now given some burning hay. This is lit from the holy fire at the top of the ghat - legend goes that the god Vishnu himself lit it thousands of years ago, and that priests have kept it going ever since. The son walks around the pire five times and then sets fire to it. The sandalwood is thrown onto the flames and as it burns it emits a pleasant smell that is meant to conceal all the less pleasant smells.

The relatives don't wait around too long, but leave without looking back after a while. While the fire burns, the Untouchables make sure it does so well, so that the body is gone in three hours. The ashes end up in the river when the monsoon swallows up most of the ghat area. A guide told me that the woman's hips and the man's breast are the toughest parts, and not always is the cremation complete. In that case, the Untouchables just shove whatever is left into the river, or (like I saw) fling it in using a stick. That is if the stray dogs roaming the ghats don't get to it first - I saw a few making of with some bones.

A normal cremation will cost about 3000Rs (€60), the poor also have the choice of using the municipal electrical crematorium (which looks like a decrepit factory on the river's edge) for 500Rs, or €10. All in all, it's impressive and very efficient. Within ten minutes of a family arriving at the ghat, the flames already go up. They do between 150 and 200 cremations per day aty the main cremation ghat, and it goes on day and night.

Foreigners/strangers aren't allowed too close, but they can watch as long as they take no pictures. In the evening, just standing behind the ghat gates and watching ten or more fires burning, with flames roaring up high, the heat in your face, and smoke drifting off, is really impressive. Though I must admit that watching an earlier session at the smaller burning ghat - the one with the feet sticking out - made me feel physically sick, and I had to leave.

What else is there to say about Varanasi - it's a crowded, intense place with lots of pilgrims and travellers passing through, plenty of shit hotels and restaurants, no beer but great lassis available fresh at nearly every street corner. And hey, after a few days you don't even notice all the cow shit and flies everywhere!

From Varanasi I turned south - I want to see some beaches before I see the mountains, after all. The bus ride to Khajuraho, my next stop, lasts over 12 hours, costs about $4 and takes in some of the worst roads around. The daily Jet Airlines flight takes 30 minutes and costs $90. The choice was easily made, and the shock was therefore even more profound as we got off the plane just after the captain said 'Welcome to Khajuraho - it's 40 degrees'.


KHAJURAHO

Imagine a small village of three streets with a lake and about 10 large temples dotted around the fields, a handful of delux hotels and an airport, and then heat it up to over 40 degrees. Then add a blond Dutchman sweating and swearing at the taxi driving mafia - that's me!

Khajuraho's temples are still special because they are in the middle of nowhere. No cities in the area, no main roads or trade routes come near here, which is why the Muslim invaders never got round to destroying any of the fabulous sculptures which adorn most of the temples. And boy, they would have loved to smash these. Because Khajuraho's main temples are covered in raunchy statues of well-proportioned nymphets and lovemaking-couples in fabulously imaginative positions. And they're over 1000 years old.

The main group (discovered by a regiment of profoundly shocked British soldiers in the prudish Victorian era) has about eight large temples together in a well-tended green park. It's nice to see something that is taken care of, after decrepit old Varanasi. In itself the temples are magnificent, but just wandering around the buildings, you see well-preserved sculpted gods, scenes from legends, the occasional lovemaking couple (often assisted by other girls - must try that too back home) and lots of sensual dancers. On one temple there's even a bit of humour - a man is shown copulating with a horse while two shocked women look on. God knows what went wrong in India after this period - I think the Muslims and the British killed all sense of erotical beauty in the Indians, because now nudity is illegal and even wearing shorts is frowned upon.

I rented a bike to peddle around the village and visit the other temples the next morning while it was still cool (the best times to be active are 06:00-11:00 and after 16:00... at 13:00 my thermometer was reading 43 degrees). A group of impressive Jain temples had similar sculpting, and there were also some ruined temples in the area. Just cycling around the villages and waving to the local kids was fun too.

Khajuraho's local shopkeepers were feeling the drop in tourism now that temperatures were up - they did not expect much income until the rains arrive in July. But that did not stop dozens of them coming up to me every day to try to get me to buy Kashmiri shawls or rugs or jewellery. This really gets to you after a while, and I got good at thinking of things to reply to the ubiquitous 'Which country?'. Now my reply is 'Which shop?', and that usually gets them smiling.

It was nice to meet two lovely travellers that I had met in Udaipur again; Heath (Australian) and Julienne (Indian/Czech) were on their way north again. It's such a big country yet you sometimes see the same faces, as the travellers destinations are pretty logical for first-timers.


ORCHHA

I arrived in sleek airconditioned style, but left Khajuraho on a rustbucket bus: five bumpy hours southeast towards the village of Orchha. The 16th-century rulers here had plenty of wealth from trade and they built, built, built. But later on their success dipped and they left it all behind. As a result, there are dozens of huge ruined palaces and temples around Orchha. The landscape, with a beautiful river and green trees all around, the complete lack of tourist-shop-touts, and the dozens of huge vultures flapping around and nesting on the ruins all help to make this one of my favourite spots till now.

The village centre has a large temple to the god Ram, with an assorted collection of wacky-looking sadhus (holy men) wandering around and pilfering food and cash off pilgrims. Towering above the village however is a huge temple that looks most like a French Gothic cathedral (and that indeed was inspired by European churches at the time of construction), but with Hindu-shaped towers. Across the river, two huge ruined palaces, now partly hotel. Further downstream, a group of eight enormous cenotaphs in remembrance of the ruling family members who still had it so good.

A few weeks before I set off on my trip a British man was killed in India - we heard from the owner of the Bhola cafe that it was in Orchha that he was killed. David Green was an artist, and older man who still lived with his mum in England and came to India, and to Orchha, every year for a few months. he would have a tea in the morning and then wander around town or in the forest to do sketchings or paintings. One day a group of three men from the nearby town of Jhansi found him in the forest, robbed him of the little cash in his pockets and shot him. The police found them soon enough (Indian crimes always seem to be particularly stupidly executed) and they're rotting in jail now. But the people in Orchha still seem shocked and can't beleive the bad fortune. They showed us some of David's drawings - really good - as well as the Bhola New Years menu that he had decorated. It's a sad planet.

The heat was intense here too, up to 44 degrees, and I spent a day on a small island in the middle of the river with a view of the cenotaphs, next to a waterfall, under a tree and read my Salman Rushdie and swam a bit. Bliss. Here also I met an earlier friend - Danny from Israel, who I had met on the mountain walks in Mount Abu had already been here for days and loved it too. Just like me, he was planning to go to Ujjain, where the big Khumb Mela religious festival is being held (15-30 million Hindu pilgrims are expected to take a dip in the holy river here ion the space of 4 weeks, making it the biggest gathering of people ever). The trains are booked solid though, and it's difficult to get a place on the overnight train (or more importantly - a guarantee that you can get out of Ujjain again afterwards). Danny managed to get a ticket and set off, and I decided to try my luck the next afternoon by just going to the station and bribing someone.

But in Orchha the heat finally got to me, and the day I planned to leave, I woke up with a fever and stayed in the guestroom for over two days, only sending out the hotel boy to get me water and bananas. Just lying in the dark with the air cooler turned on for a few days had a good effect on me - though my stomach by now had decided to capitulate as well. The (only) cafe on the crossroads became the point where I was surprised to see Alex and Tabby, the two English travellers that I had met a few days before and who were planning to leave Orchha too - they had taken turns in being ill as well and were on the rebound now too. The next day we all shared a rickshaw to the station of Jhansi to get back on the road again. (I'd next see them months later, in Shimla, and even later on in Leh).

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NEXT UP: 2500 year-old Buddha sculptures andpaintings in the Ajanta caves, and big brash Bombay. (I had dropped the Ujjain plan - another day in a hot town with 15 million people and no shade would not de me good - so I decided to go down to Mumbai/Bombay on the coast, it's just 33% there!)

Weather: 44 degrees, relentless sun. According to the BBC I am in the hottest place on the planet - even the Sahara, Australia or Saudi Arabia is not as hot as here. Hurrah.
Stomach: crampy, recovering.
Sign of the day: "Numb skin may mean leprosy get checked" (along the street in Orchha)
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