Burning bodies in Varanase

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Monday, May 30, 2011

Today we crossed the border into India by foot; we checked out of Nepal and walked over to the Indian side. We saw police with guns and walked straight passed them, and then continued to walk down the road trying to find the Indian checkpoint.  Couldn't find it so we kept walking past lots of shops then I realised that we had passed it.  Nobody made any attempt to stop us, check our passport it was hilarious.  We walked into the small office which was nestled in between two shops and facing us was four guys sat behind a pasting table looking really bored.  I passed one guard my passport and he took my visa number and wrote it in his book, didn’t look at my photograph to check it was mine.  He stamped it and threw it back.......welcome to India the country where you just walk in!  They might as well have a sign saying 'Close the gate on your way out’.

We managed to find a bus that would take us half way to Varanasi so we jumped on it and got pushed off it at the other end.  The following us for the second part of the journey was absolutely shocking, I climbed on dropped my bag by the driver and tried desperately to find a seat the wasn’t falling apart, trust me this was a difficult task so I just took pot luck and sat at the back I waited for Justin to get on and his face was a real treat bearing in mind we had to be on it for 8 hours.  The only toilet stop was in an alley up the wall so I decided not to drink for the whole journey.  Along the journey I saw a dead man lying on the side of the road covered in a mosquito net awaiting cremation, nothing shocks me anymore.  Just when I started to loose the will to live myself a lovely guy Asif started talking to me, he listened to my ipod, we chatted for a while, him and Justin chatted for a while, then I got bored and he kept talking and talking and talking.  He wanted to take us for a drink we said no so he stopped a rickshaw for us and all three of us headed through the craziness that is Varanasi, he said his house was on the other side of town, so I asked why would he come with us, we will be ok.  I realised when we paid and got out he leaped out, said bye and walked off.  Ahhh he lied he did live on this side of town and wanted a free taxi ride.....nice one!  We walked through the crazy crowds and another guy said he would show us to our hotel, I refused and told him I wouldn’t tip him so forget it.  But he wouldn’t! He kept walking with us and I just lost it "Why would you show us for free, it doesn’t make sense, go away"  We took a tuk tuk to the hotel after agreeying 100rps then when we arrived in an alley he said ”No 100rps each” “Bullshit” I screamed.  We paid up and just as we were trying to work out where he had dropped us our little guy turns up shouting “follow me I show you” I was so tired and it was 8pm I just followed.  He did actually take us to the hotel, turns out the hotel pays him to send people to his hotel as it is easy to get lost.....Ahhhhhh.

Varanasi is the holiest of cities in India.  Hindu pilgrims come to wash away their sins in the Ganges.  It’s an overwhelming city where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place all in public on the Ghats.  These are the main attraction and with 80 Ghats boarding the river it gets really busy.  Our first morning in Varanasi we walked along the riverside looking at all the Ghats, pilgrims were bathing in the river and those who weren’t able carried a large jug of the water to a spot where their family could wash with it.  It was very interesting to watch but what got me was the fact that the river had a lot of rubbish on the riverbanks.  I read that the Ganges is the most polluted river in the world with 30 large sewers discharging into it...nice!  We took a boat ride down the Ganges guided by a young guy, we caught a beautiful sunrise and on that same evening we decided to do the same and catch the sun go down too.  Every evening along the main ghat there is a ceremony takes place for all the pilgrims so we sat in the boat alongside hundreds of other boats and watched as they burned cow dung, light incense and rang lots of bells.  We bought a small candle to light and float in the river and customary said a prayer.  The girls who we bought these off were about 8 years old and were rowing a boat past all the other boats touting for people to buy off her, she was so young but really gave the men a run for their money when it came to rowing fast.  As we moved up the river it got dark and we saw lots of fires on the cremation ghat, eight or so bodies were being burnt as the families stood by to watch, it was so dirty on the riverside I couldn’t understand why they would think this is the right way to go.  They believe in the afterlife and a cremation is almost a celebration of that next step, there are no tears.  I got a shock when one of the family members took a stick and smashed the head of the body.  Apparently this releases the spirit into the next life.  The women are not allowed at the site it’s only the male members of the deceased that burn it, apparently women are too emotional! I couldn’t help but feel it was Guy Fawkes Night or someone was having a BBQ, there was very little upset.  That night I didn’t sleep very well, the vision stayed with me as I tried to work out how such a sad occasion here is conducted in such a matter of fact way with no tears.  Is that better than our way?

I am averaging four showers a day at the moment it’s so hot, forty five degrees hot actually and with all the dirt on the tiny side streets and alleyways the smell in the air is not good.  Today I worked out that every day when we leave the hotel as we fight our way through the narrow streets we always see four things; a cow, a goat, a stray dog and crap on every corner.  Not one day did we leave our hotel an not see these four....mostly poo!  The following day we walked to the other cremation ghat but this time in day light, I thought it might seem more spiritual in daylight, but oh no it didn’t!  I started talking to the man who owner the ghat and he told me all about the burnings and explained each individual process pointing them out as there families were doing each one.  He told me that if a pregnant woman dies then they are considered pure so they don’t need to be burnt; instead their bodies are tied to a large boulder and thrown in the Ganges for the fish to eat.....lucky ladies! I can’t really explain the affect this place has on you, seeing the strangest of rituals and trying to understand the religion is a task in itself, after three days I was ready to fight my way out of the craziness
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