Varanasi

Trip Start May 05, 2008
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Trip End May 09, 2009


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Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We took a night train from Agra and we had the experience of sharing a sleeper open compartment with 4 other passengers, all of them Indian middle-class people. Somehow we slept very well, despite the train constantly stopping and trudging along on noisy tracks. We avoided the tout barrage in Varanasi the next midday and got to our hotel, which was outside the city center. Which is why we did not get to experience Varanasi in all of its suffocating chaotic glory until the next day. The city is the oldest in India and one of the oldest in the world, being founded around 1500BC. Today, not many old buildings remain: the old city is mostly 19th century, with some 17th century constructions. The main attraction are the ghats: platforms with steps going down to the Ganges. The Ganges, as befits a river which supports about 400 million people with its waters, is revered here and has been since the inception of Varanasi, which is considered a particularly holy spot, being at the intersection of the great river with 2 other holy rivers. Hence, the ghats have a special significance, as they are the means for devout Hindus to go down and bathe in the holy waters. Walking along the ghats, one is squeezed between temples on one side and the river on the other, while passing a bewildering array of people. Most remarkable among them are sadhus (Hindu holy men), usually in outlandish costumes or sometimes wearing little to nothing at all, with their skins painted in sacred motifs, their hair and beards uncut, and who sit along the ghats. Throughout India's history they have meditated on this spot towards illumination and have depended upon alms for food; perhaps unsurprisingly these ascetics possess an uncanny business sense and ask for money from tourists who take their picture. But sadhus are not the only attraction along the Ganges: one can see people from all parts of India, wearing all kinds of outfits whose diversity in colors is absolutely stunning, mixing in with beggars, holy cows, stray dogs and street food vendors. To make things even more exciting, the day we visited was a festival and hundreds of children were arranging little clay dish lamps in patterns along the ghat steps which were lit that evening.
We took part in the celebrations: we've never seen such a seething mass of humanity: tens of thousands of devout people and curious onlookers squeezed around the narrow confines of the ghats. On barges floating around the banks, religious plays were enacted by actors and dancers. The noise was deafening, even with us wearing earplugs on, due as much to the crowds as to the ear-splitting fireworks launched without much concern for safety from the banks. At one point, in order to escape a plaza which was resembling a sardine can too much for our comfort, we passed through a temple at night. The strange light from candles reflecting off of statues of Hindu deities covered with flowers and anointed with oils, and enveloping the kneeling worshipers in a soft glow suddenly reminded us just how foreign we are to this land and how little we understand it despite everything we've read on it.
We should probably add here that though this experience was very interesting and we enjoyed it, it did not come without its trials and tribulations. Virginia cried at the sight of the runoff water going into the Ganges. The caste system which dominated India until a few generations ago has been abolished, but still manifests itself in people's minds and hearts. It has created a situation where Indians throw all their garbage and unmentionable wastes wherever is easiest for them, which means pretty much anywhere for garbage and in most corners and on walls for "other waste". In the past, the untouchables (anyone who was not in the 4 main castes) would clean it up and most waste was organic so much of it would get eaten by animals, but that system does not seem to be working so well these days. In addition, the introduction of technological wastes such as plastic and metals, which don't get absorbed by the environment, complicates things further. The net result is that piles of garbage and other waste accumulate everywhere in Indian cities and villages and we've yet to see a worse spot than Varanasi for this kind of pollution. Ironically, the most holy spot in India is also the one where the worst sacrilege against nature is being perpetrated... India, and especially Varanasi is hard on the eyes, the ears and especially the nose. Yet, somehow, this overload contains positive sensory experiences in addition to the negative ones, and so the place still retains a certain allure, both attractive and repulsive at the same time, wonderful one moment and repugnant the next. Of course, we are not just spectators in this crazy land, but a living part of it, and we are not used to the frenetic pace of existence here, nor to the hazards which this environment creates. We contracted stomach problems therefore, and spent an extra couple of days here recuperating in our hotel room, watching American movies on TV all day and Bollywood music videos, along with frequent bathroom visits.
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