The best and the worst of India in one fell (foul? ;) ) swoop
21.04.2013 - 21.05.2013 32 °C
Well it was raining in Varanasi when we arrived. Varanasi is bonkers. It is without a doubt the noisiest, dirtiest and mentalist place in India. (imo of course) After a few quiet days in Orchha, we were straight back into dodging potholes, cow shite, flies, tuk tuks, taxi drivers and cycle rickshaws (the most deadliest of all the rickshaws imo - they have no horns or bells) ...
Our hotel seemed alright, til I found 3 cockroaches under my bed. ewwwwwwwwww. 1 of them was crawling on my blanket. WHY LORD WHY?????
Kat was just as freaked out by cockroaches as me, so we switched rooms. Shudder!
There was no pool in this hotel so our first stop was lunch. Then the rest of the gang were lured to see a family who made hand woven scarves out of real silk. I'd already experienced enough of these hard sell, tug-at-the-heartstrings situations and had no interest or money to buy real silk scarves, (I'd already bought loads in Pushkar), so I didn't want to go. Instead I decided to trundle round the town of Varanasi. The trip so far has been great, but we've been quite sheltered with private buses and fancy hotels and tuk tuks arranged for us, so I wanted to get back into the swing of mad India for a bit. Also I'd heard so many people speak so highly of Varanasi, I was dying to see for myself what they all found so magical. Would this finally be the place where I would witness some real genuine, not money-based, spirituality?? The cynic in me was not convinced. My case was helped when a genuine looking priest approached me and soothed me with his words. I sighed with relief and belief as he promised me he was a real priest and wished me long life, health and love. I relented and let him put a blob of holy dust on my forehead.
Then he put his hand out and said ''money please''.
No such thing as a free spiritual blessing anywhere in the world so I thought, as I remembered having to also put money in the money basket at mass at home.
Jeff and Maree had joined me on my trundle around Varanasi. We had a hard time bagging a tuk tuk driver to the ghats! For some reason, they all said no to us. Later we discovered they're not allowed down that far. So eventually we got to the ghats and saw all walks of people just hanging around. Old priesty looking dudes were hanging around collecting dosh and there was the usual crowd of cows and women selling bracelets and flowers. (the women were selling stuff, not the cows). So far I wasn't really impressed with the Varanasi ghats. It just looked like a load of steps leading down in to a pretty dirty river.
So after an hour, the three of us had had enough of the real India again. It. Was. Bonkers. Ten times more bonkers and noisy than Delhi or any of those places. So we hopped a tuk tuk to a fancy hotel for an expensive beer (Dublin prices!) and some free nuts. yahoo.
Later in the evening we got cycle rickshaws down to the ghats and Dushyant brought us on a sunset boat ride on the Ganges. The Ghats looked very different at night and the river had a nice blue glow.
We lit tiny candles and flowers, and made a wish on them and sent them off bobbing down the Ganges. We boated up and down the ghats and paused for a while near the cremation ghats, where we saw bodies being burnt.
Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism. Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. Hindus believe if you die and are cremated in Varanasi, that you escape the cycle of birth and rebirth, so everyone wants to die here and lots of people travel to Varanasi to die. There are lots of old homeless people just hanging around Varanasi. If you're one of the lucky ones, you'll die and be cremated in Varanasi. It was quite moving to see the bodies being burnt. The pyres were surrounded by the dead person's relatives but there was no weeping or tears, only joy that their loved one would be one with God (aka Shiva).
Also weirdly, there was no smell at all. No stench of burning flesh! The group members with medical backgrounds were astounded at this. I thought it was cos maybe the person had been covered with scented oil beforehand.
The flames were hypnotic and I thought this was the most spiritual and moving thing I'd seen in India so far. It was pretty cool.
After this there was a big flashy ceremony on the ghats with 5 priests dancing and shaking offerings such as piles of lit candles (dunno what they're called so here's a pic).
There was lots of chanting to bingy bongy music. The ghats were packed with people praying, chanting and clamouring to see the priests in action. On the river, tons of boats were filled with Indians and tourists all watching the ceremony, praying and taking pictures. We watched the Puja (ceremony) for half an hour. The others thought it was very spiritual. I thought it was cool, but I couldn't help but wonder how the government affords to put on this spectacular stage show every night of the year, while the Varanasi ghats are populated with hundreds of frail, old homeless people. :/
Anywho dinner was in the Brown Bread Bakery - a restaurant that donates some of its profits to a local school. It was a cool joint and there were some auld lads playing Sitar and flute in a little cubby hole behind us.
The dinner took aggggggggggggggggggges though - about 2 hours to arrive. This eased the hunger pains.
I poured this beer below... Disgraceful!! And me an Irishwoman.
The next morning, it was up and atom for a sunrise boat trip again on the Ganges. This was very peaceful and we set more floating candle wishes adrift on the river. We boated up and down again and saw many Indians taking the ''Holy Dip''. Basically they were washing, swimming and splish splashin about in the Ganges. :D The cremations were still going on too. Varanasi is the only place that the body burning can continue 24 hours a day.
Dushyant then invited us to join him dipping his feet in the Holy river. Most of us declined politely. Sandra went for it and had a holy dip.
While she was dipping, we saw a man having a seizure and foaming at the mouth on the ghat nearby. A lady was minding him and turned him on his side. It was a bit freaky.
After this Holy morning, we went back to the Brown Bread bakery for another long breakfast. Then we went to the school that the bakery supported. It was very cute and had children of all ages there. We watched and clapped as Kat (who had been volunteer teaching in India for 2 months) got up in front of the class and engaged all the kids in a rousing version of ''If you're happy and you know it clap your hands''. It was excellent. :D
On our way out of the school, there was a dying puppy in the alleyway which was very distressing. This combined with the dead bodies, dead rats, man seizing, sweltering heat, cow shite and flies everywhere and so much beeping, meant a few of us couldn't take it anymore. I was one of them. I had pretty much gotten used to the stuff everywhere in India by now, but Varanasi was a whole other level and we needed to get out of the stinky alleyways. We headed back to our hotel.