Varanasi/Benares/Kasi- The Holy City of Shiva
Trip Start Sep 01, 2009
70Trip End Dec 27, 2009
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Where I stayed
First, a couple of comments regarding the trains here. Delhi has 17 million inhabitants and at least 4 train stations. Indian Railways are the largest train system in the world. It is also the most dangerous. Taking the train involves getting a confirmed ticket, the going to the correct station, pushing your way through the crowds, figuring out which platform your train is leaving from, then getting yourself and your bags on the correct car.
The trains' bathrooms (2 on a car) feature aluminum toilets (one western style, one Asian Squat model). Both deliver their contents directly to the rail bed below the coaches, via a stove pipe. Unlike SE Asia and Russian trains, where they lock the restrooms while train in in station, here they are wide open as people load and wait
We rode in 3rd AC sleeper. The 2 tier AC sleeper and 3 tier Sleepers all fit into one coach. The cars have about eight "compartments". Each compartment consists of two chair/beds along the left side of the coach, one over the other. The 2 tier sets are roomier. Across the aisle, there are six bunk beds in two three tier groups across form each other. Therefore, there is a cluster of 8 beds, six on one side of the aisle and two on the other. There are at least 8 or nine clusters on each coach. There are no walls or doors and only sometimes have curtains involved. Just two sheets, a pillow and a heavy wool blanket. Voila!, your sleeper car. Barb and I lucked out, a bit by getting the two lower bunks below the three tier. We had two people on the beds above us and our bags under us. We used our "Pac-Safes" , stainless steel net like cages that surround you pack and allow you to chain and lock your bag to a pipe, beds, or other object. We noticed several other Indian natives locking up their bags for the long night ride. The A/C worked well and there was a strong fan. We slept in our clothes and kept our money on our skin. I had a small rucksack near my head, with my camera, but will stow it in the main bag next time
It was a long 14 hour train ride to the east, from Himachal Pradesh into Uttar Pradesh. We arrived at 7:30 AM in Varanasi, Holy City of Shiva. We were met by Mulu a hotel guide, from the hotel Rashmi palace on the river. He met us at our train coach with my name on a placard. He loaded our gear up into a car and we drove into one of the world's oldest cities. The streets got narrower and more run down. As we approached our hotel, we could no longer drive and had to again carry our bags through narrow little passageways filled with people, gun toting police, dogs, cows, huge bulls, and an occasional Sadhu Holyman.
Upon our arrival at the hotel, we entered our room and slept for three hours. When we awoke, we realized the bag toters had broken my back pack. They had carried it by one shoulder strap only and it broke. We needed to take the broken bag out for repair. Our guide Mulu, took us to a luggage repair shop, where we got the job done.
This is one of the oldest cities in the world. It has had many names, Benares, Kasi (the City of Life) and more recently has been renamed for the two rivers that meet here, The Varuna and the Asi Rivers
That afternoon were took a walk with Mulu along the Ghats. These are the steps to the river that the Hindu people use to perform their morning "Puja" welcoming prayer to the day. They also wash themselves, and their clothes, perform Yoga, and even wash their water buffaloes.
There are at least two burning Ghats, where the Hindus come to burn their deceased relatives soon after death. Mulu, our guide from the hotel, explained some of the funerary process to us.
Soon after death, members of the family bring the deceased to the burning Ghat. They wash the loved on for the last time in the Mother Ganges River water. They give the deceased a last drink of the water from the river., They then wrap the deceased in a white shroud, and place their body on a large wooden pile of very dry wood. The wood has been weighed and purchased by the family. They pay 150 Rupees per Kilo of dry wood. It takes between 200 and 300 Kilos of wood to complete the process. They then take dry torch to the eternal flame, that exists in the temple directly above the pyres, capture part of the flame and walk back to the pyre
Doms, untouchable lower chaste workers are used to manage the fire and insure a complete burn. There are always some remains, usually the pelvis of women and sometime the chest of a man. These unburnt remains are put into the Holy River Ganges. Mulu said that a minimum of 400 persons are disposed of in this manner every day. The process works 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. It has happened this way for a thousand years. The Doms sift thru the ashes in the end seeking small bits of gold or other valuables. The ashes are then placed into the river.
Mulu explained that there are six categories that do not experience this fire ritual.
1. Small children under 10 years of age.
2. Women who are pregnant
3. People who have been killed by the Cobra Snake
4. People with Leprosy
5. Sadhus, or Holymen.(When these men become Sahus and reject all material goods, they actually burn an effigy of themselves
That evening we attended the riverside ceremony. Seven Brahmans made prayers and waved flaming bronze vases, with hooded Cobra Snakes attached.There was musical accompaniment. The breeze came off the river and mercifully blew fresh air our way and not the smoke from the burning Ghats.
The next morning, around 5 AM, we got up and took a row boat out on the river. We moved along the waterfront close to the morning bathers. I was able to get a few shots in the hazy poor light of this misty morning. Bathers and worshipers were out in large numbers.
At one point, just down stream from the burning Ghat, I was taking in the spectacle. I glanced over the gunnel on the port side. There, floating next to the boat was a deadman. He had red ligature marks around his neck. and I thought to myself, maybe he had hung himself. He had been in the water for several days, it appeared to me. I asked Mulu, what was up with this? He was not a child, a pregnant woman,. and probably had not been bitten by a snake. Was he a Sadhu? Mulu said that he my not have had enough money to buy the necessary wood to do the fire treatment
Photography at the burning Ghats is strictly prohibited. The deceased are being lovingly disposed of under the religious traditions of the culture. Their family members are in attendance. I was able to take a few photos with a long lens at a respectable distance. Other guests from our hotel witnessed the water burial of a young boy yesterday. He was apparently under 10, and was lovingly washed, weighted and given to the Ganges by his parents. Very sad, I am glad I wasn't there. There has been an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis here in Uttar Pradesh recently. More on that later.
While photos of the Ghats was prohibited, there seemed to be no problem with my taking photos of the floating body near our boat. CAUTION! I will post several photos at the end of my posts here. Be advised. Those who don't want to see the photos, Don't go there. In addition to all the disposal activity there are 30 sewers that empty into the river from the city.
All this pollution in the river has consequences. Here is a quote from our Lonely Planet Travel Guide.
"The result of all this pollution is that the water is septic- no dissolved Oxygen exists. Samples from the river show the water level has 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water
In water that is safe for bathing the levels should be less than 500! 400 million people live along the basin of the Ganges River. The levels above mean that water borne disease is rampant among many villages that use water from the river."
There are some efforts to improve the situation. They have built a industrial cremation plant along the river that can do the job in 5 minutes. They have built two new sewage treatment facilities and have some education programs. The frequent power outages have caused the sewers to back up into the streets and the bathing areas. More needs to be done. Most efforts are overwhelmed by population and tradition.
The street smells, bad sewage systems, and Ghat walks, have all combined and given both Barbara and me some form of Germophobia. We are washing our hands very, very, regularly. We use Purell hand sanitizer incessantly. We are avoiding hand rails on very seep stairways.. When someone wants to shake my hand, I put my hands together in a prayer like salute and say "Namaste." We are very careful with our food choices and make sure food is steaming hot, avoiding salads, etc. We resist touching our faces.
We stayed at a nice and clean hotel. Just before boarding our train to leave ton, we had lunch on the top terrace. It was raining, and all the tables that were not under the awning were very wet. The floors out there were wet as well. The hotel help was using squeegee to "sweep" the water and mud and cow shit off the floor and over the wall to the ground below. I was talking to a nice guy named Steve from Sacramento
As we prepared to leave the city, I looked downstream, beyond the burning Ghats. There in the river, I saw a boat and a small object the size of a human head, floating off to its left side.
We have seen the city and we ready to move on. I think this has been a very interesting, moving, but disturbing, and hygienically difficult portion of the trip. We take a train next to Jhasi then get a driver to Khajuraho, Orchha, and Gwalior.