And all my favourite parts of India rolled into one old city.
17.01.2011 - 18.01.2011
Varanasi. The religious centre of India. Pilgrims from all over the country arrive in hoards every day, by every means possible, to bathe in the sacred waters, cremate their deceased, bless newborns, and so on. Because so many people here are from elsewhere, and devotedly focussed on their pilgrimage, we, as tourists, had relatively little unwanted attention inflicted upon us. No one really cared what you were doing, because the majority of people there were doing something similar.
After checking into our hotel, I introduced the O'Malleys to the joys of autorickshaw rides; the little dramatic tiff to reach an agreement on price, followed by a rollercoaster ride, where you fear for the lives of yourself, but also everyone else in the vicinity. Thrown off in the middle of nowhere, we followed pilgrims towards to water, before ducking off into a side alley, a bazaar, glittering with golden bangles, colourful textiles, incredible smells (good and bad), and fresh fruit and vegetables. Down some steps, and out onto a ghat, I was taken aback by the sight before us. Not just the sheer number of people washing in the water, selling boat rides, or rowing down the river, but also the openness of the other side. I hadn't realised before how big the sand plain on the other side was until I got here. Bascally, there is Varanasi, a crazy ancient city. Then there's the Ganges, the sacred river. And on the other side of it, there is a huge expanse of off-white pebbles and sand, nearly as far as the eye can see, which cannot be built on because it is flooded during monsoon season. So, people sprawl everywhere on one side, and on the other is just barren, white silence. Some people ride ponies across the plain. That's all. There's just nothing there.
Starting at Lalita Ghat, we walked south along the river, watching pilgrims bathe in the holy water, while locals washed their clothes beside them. The sun was drifting away, so the floodplain was doused in peachy light, and everything would have been perfectly serene, but being in India, there were of course dozens of men chasing us, trying to sell us a boat ride. I would have kicked them up the bum, but I don't think that would be okay in Varanasi.
We finally did take a boat ride, just as the sun set. We agreed on one hour. He rowed for two. But it was breathtaking, so we didn't mind. A little girl jumped on the boat as we were about to leave, selling candles to float on the water. The boats are made from leaves, heated, pressed into a boat shape, and dried hard, with flowers, usually rose petals, surrounding a single, handmade candle. This is one of the few parts of Varanasi culture that we could partake in: you place the flower on the water, and say your name as you release it. I imagine it is to ask for blessings from the river.
So we headed north, in darkness by this stage, the ghats lit up by street-lights and fire. At pm, the nightly dances and music started, where a whole series of ghats were lit up with flames, lights, singing, dancers and beds of marigolds. Candles drifted about in the dark water, and finally died out, halfway across. The furthest point we reached was Manikarnika Ghat, the famous site where people cremate their deceased. Apparently the process takes about 3 hours, and costs around 5,000 rupees ($120), and supposedly, 2 trees worth of wood. Our rower/guide said that two trees are planted for every child born, and perhaps this is why.
I am generally fairly spooky. I can't stand graveyards, am a little bit scared of the dark, and CANNOT STAND dark water. Yet there we were, sitting in a pitch black river, watch bodies being burned, and I felt incredibly calm. To see the families sitting in groups on the steps, watching, while somebody made their exit from the physical world, was quite humbling, and it sort of made sense. People are born, people die; these are facts of life. There were no cries from the families; it was quite quiet, and a cow stood in the middle of it all, watching. The only people moving were the blokes (and boys) putting wood on the fires.
There were at least 8 cremations taking place when we were there, and our guide said that they go on like this, all day and night. 6 were on the main part of the ghat, and the there were two on a rooftop above the whole lot. These were people of a high caste. Well separated from everyone else. But then there are some people who are not allowed to be cremated. I have heard that the lowest caste, the untouchables, may not be burned. Our guide also said that lepers, babies,people who died of smallpox, and a few others, are not burned. I don't know what happens to them!
Afterwards, I attempted to find the 'Our Pick' for Lonely Planet restaurants, the bloody Brown Bread Bakery. It was really hard to find, because the Indians wouldn't let us go down the alley to get there, because there was some stupid temple in the way. Whatever, temple, who do you think you are, anyway.
The food took forever to come, they forgot Bron's dish til we were all eating ours, and then they realised that they didn't have any chicken, and no one could be bothered going and finding another one in an alley, apparently. It was yum.
Home again, and the Bron-Joss-Hil autorickshaw agreed to a Philip-Susan autorickshaw drag-race. It was jolly good fun, belting down the streets of Varanasi at top notch, dodging everything from men on bikes to trucks full of gravel. We cheated, by going around the wrong side of a traffic island, but we were totally victorious anyway.
Because no one else actually got that much sleep on the night train (only weirdos like me sleep better on night trains than in real beds), we had a sleep in. After a buffet breakfast, where getting a plate AND toast AND butter AND jam was a bit of a struggle, we autorickshawed back into town. I tried to find a mosque, LP map failed, so I gave up, and we just wandered down back streets for a few hours. And it was amazing. This wasn't tourist/pilgrim-aimed markets; these markets were for the locals, selling fruit and veg, desserts, kitchen supplies, handyman supplies, and so on. It was AMAZING. Taking a guess, we took a left turn to try and reach the water, which it did, but it was only when I saw the heat waves rising over the edge that I realised we'd hit the one ghat that was NOT okay to walk into. The cremation ghat. Awkwardly, we tiptoed away, and tried again.
Then I found a sugarcane juice stall, I enjoyed my last one, possibly for a very long time. Sob. The bloke selling it to me said 10 rupees. I gave him 10 rupees. Then he shouted 'TEN RUPEES' and I shouted 'I GAVE YOU TEN RUPEES', and whatever the issue had been, was suddenly resolved. It's amazing what confidence/shouting can achieve.
Lunch, at an equally yummy but marginally faster restaurant. I had chicken yakisoba, which, kind of like the spaghetti bolognese I once ordered, was really just normal Indian noodles with some vegetables and spices. You're really better off just ordering Indian food in India, although discovering the Indianised version of overseas equivalents is always pretty entertaining.
In the afternoon, we visited a temple at the university, which was quite nice, and the fort, which had seen better days. The highlight was probably crossing a pontoon bridge in an autorickshaw. Terrifying, yet you have to laugh, because it was SO bumpy!
We then spent about nine years trying to get from one corner of town to the other through peak hour traffic. We all nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning, our autorickshaw broke down, so we got another driver/autorickshaw set, Bron got bucked out into the traffic jam, and it was all generally just a pretty fun experience.