Vivacious Varanasi

Trip Start May 12, 2005
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Trip End May 14, 2006


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Thursday, September 22, 2005

"...can you take me to....a crazy town??!!!" yep varanasi is a pretty out there place...used to be known as Benares, one of the oldest cities in the world the holiest to Hindus; by dying in Varanasi a person ensures that they are reincarnated as a human (instead of a rat or an intestinal worm). Tightly hugging the Ganga ( ganges river) is the old town...a maze of alleyways filled with people, stalls, filth, cows, monkeys, temples, pilgrims, funeral processions, poverty and a dizzying spectrum of smells...like nowhere else we have ever been.

Lining the banks of the river are the Ghats...steps down to the water where mobs of people come to wash, fish, cremate thier relatives and take photos of all of this... Stayed at the excellent Yogi lodge, important in such a hectic place to have a nice refuge and although our room was tiny, it was clean and everyone was friendly. Caught up with Rikard again..went out for dinner at a rooftop resturant overlooking the river. The next day we headed down to the river, weaved our way south through ghats and alleyways...had lunch near Assi Ghat (start of the pilgrim circuit) at Haifa resturant; they do an excellent Middle-eastern thali with hommus, fallafel, pita, salad and bab-ganoush; YUM!!

kept heading south after lunch, aiming for the Benares Hindu University; rated as one of the top 5 uni's in the world!!!! Beautiful tree lined boulevards, old colonial buildings...Mark met a trio of Cambodian monks in a foreign student residency, they were very excited when they found out we had been to Cambodia!!! Some very persistent rickshaw wallahs ( wallah basically means seller) about...eluded them by slipping into an excellent musuem; had to rush through as one hour before closing time, but statues and artifacts dating back to 2350BC!! and exhibits on Alice Boner (a european artists who lived in Varanasi, some great work) and the founder of the university.... Walked from here to the Shiva temple, not particularly inspiring. Took a cycle rickshaw; wanted to get to some ghats and take a boat back to the Ghat near Yogi...blokes were rip-off merchants; took us to the middle of nowhere..didn't get all their money!! Walked down to the river. no ghats at this point, mark slipped over in some Ganga faecal mud.....then about 10 minutes later he got headbutted by a buffalo!!! Trying to find our way back to the main road to pick up a rickshaw home (it was pretty much dark by this stage) we ended up wandering through a neighbourhood of slums which backed onto a creek/sewer that was dirtier than the ganga (if this is possible)... The poverty was immense, but some people were still smiley; hearing the cries of a baby we wondered how diligent you'd have to be to bring up a child in these circumstances... Finally got a share auto-rickshaw (three wheeled motorbike with a canopy)..at one stage there were 7 people inside...a little boy had been plonked onto Mark's lap. Don't bother with the goldcoast or disneyland; get an autorickshaw in varanasi if you want an adventure ride; WOW!! A live sitar and tabla duo accompanied our average dinner...said farewell to Rikard once more and off to bed stuffed.

Did heaps of stuff in Varanasi;
Dasaswamedh is the main ghat in Varanasi and we sat in on evening puja (communal prayer time) one sunset..this was very nice..not so many tourists around....got chatting to a bloke, once he found out mark was a teacher, mark had to bless his son; fairly embarassing!! The guy leading the puja came went down to the water before the ceremonry started and had a big 'ol drink....must be pretty blessed dude if he can survive day in/day out drinking ganges water...

A sunrise river trip on the ganga...got into a local boat that took us from Dhasawamedh down to the burning ghat (Marnikarnka; the main cremation site on the banks of the ganga; up to 500 bodies a day are cremated here) and then back upstream again. All indian men and boys in the boat with us, let out offerings into the river when we reached the burning ghats...was a nice experience... Quite a few tourist only boats on the water, being fairly intrusive...glad we chanced upon the local boat.... Plenty of action in the water, hundreds of people bathing, washing, fishing and praying...really nice experience all up. After such an early start, we crawled back into bed for a little nap...the old city never really sleeps, on our way to the boat, in the dark...pilgrims still wandering around and temples ringing bells....

After our little nap took a walk around the ghats to the north of dasaswamedh. One can travel north and south along the river solely through winding alleys...although the river level (just after monsoon) means that many of the famous steps down to the water are submerged. Arrived at Marnikarnka ghat (the main cremation ghat again); the alleyways were stacked with wood (which doens't come cheap), funeral processions wound past us and sadly we were told not to take photos (not sad beacause we couldn't take a photo, we wouldn't dream of doing something so disrespectful, sad that its somebodies job to tell tourists this; sometimes people forget that things aren't just happening for thier benfit...) Anyways, this was a very enjoyable walk...always heaps to see...

Went to the Puja at Meera ghat (just north of Dasawamedh) two nights in a row; the first night was absolute madness....a sea of colourfull, dripping bodies...swarming away from and towards the holy river...pretty hard to imagine a cramming more humanity, colour and devotion in so few square metres... went at the same time the second night, but not nearly as much going on....

One of the joys of varanasi is watching a monkey fight; seeing multiple combatants spring over the 5 m wide strip of blue sky above the alley, scrambelling along pipes and window sills; quite an invigorating sight..as long as they don't come too close....
monkey fight

Sarnath is a town north of varanasi where Buddha gave his first sermon after becoming enlightened. Took a public bus here, the many buddist temples were mildly interesting, the deer park was okay, lunch was good, the museum had an excellent collection...we decided to forego the expensive admission to ruins of some of the older temples....had a great walk through some of the streets of Sarnath...turned into quite a rural village in some sections, got sprayed with buffalo mud (at least they weren't in a head-butting mood..) but all in all, we enjoyed the walk more than the sights....

Took it easy for a few days, plenty of Aussies around, swapped some books with Chris the bass player from The Debt Collector (funky melbourne outfit; apparently now defunct..), got some shagged clothes mended, bit of work on the blog, saga at the post office (only in india does it take over an hour, 5 people, multiple forms and miscellaneous charges to send a little package home; it probably wont even make it!!)....got a train ticket and headed off to Agra and the Taj Mahal....
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