Trip Start Oct 10, 2007
Trip End Jun 26, 2008

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Flag of India  ,
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Varanasi, the city of light, founded by Shiva, and one of the oldest living cities in the world.  The elderly come here to live out their final days, as anyone who dies there attains instant enlightenment.  A mere sip of the heavily polluted ganges would have enlightened us considerably, however the populace happily bathes, washes and drinks from it as a daily ritual and seem to suffer no ill effect.

We arrived fresh as a daisy from the 12 hour sleeper train, sprung with a sprightly step onto the welcoming platform, and then waited an hour for the booking office to open.  The Rough Guide had advised us not to attempt getting a rickshaw from the station itself, as Varanasi is rife with touts who will over-charge and take you to the wrong hotel, and be generally unpleasant and aggressive.  Several approached us in the station, and i instantly took against the ugliest which is a strange way of assessing someone's trustworthiness but Western standards die hard and actually it seems to work as well as anything else - who wouldn't rather be ripped off by someone attractive, hmmm?  We were advised in the tourist office to ask for the main Chowk (Square) and not advise which hotel we were going to, so when asked by the rickshaw driver i had to keep saying 'It doesn't matter' which sounded faintly ridiculous, and resulted in him sulking and dropping us off miles from where we wanted to be, but we felt victorious that at least we hadn't been taken to his uncle's silk factory, or a sound-alike fleapit.

The first thing we noticed as we negotiated our way through the winding narrow streets of the old city, in 30 degree heat with enourmous backpacks stuffed full of ethnic tat (me) and unecessary gadgets (him) was that the ground was covered in poo.  I know this is a favourite theme of mine, but the cows here roamed freely through the streets, there were a great many of them, and their bowel movements are clearly nothing if not regular, if not particularly solid.  Actually the cows were quite enourmous and several times we were squeezed into someone's doorway as one lumbered towards us.  They are not shy, and as we found later, like the new Daleks, they can do stairs, which is an evolution too far if you ask me.

The Shanti hotel was nice enough, with a sociable rooftop terrace overlooking the ganges and plains beyond (it looked a bit like Morecambe with the tide out), and a good view of the monkeys leaping from roof to roof.  It was the first place we'd been to that had any sort of backpacker 'scene', a phrase which usually fills me with dread, as it's normally the same dreadlocked arseholes trying to outdo each other with where they've been and what they've done.  Nepal seemed to be the trump card here, and if you'd had an audience with the Dalai Lama then so much the better.  I quite liked it, overheard some great conversations about bikini waxing from a couple of Australian girls who ate nothing but omlettes, but i think Andy tired of it, especially with little chance of practising his Hindi (he's learnt how to tell beggars to sod off now, which i imagine you don't get on a CD course from WH Smith, but it's handy).  We found a couple of nice restaurants for an evening meal, one (Ganga Fuji) which laid on free music so we spent an enjoyable hour watching a couple of blokes jamming on sitar and drums, whilst we sipped beer from a tea-pot.  Alcohol is frowned upon here, as seems to be the case in most of Northern India, and the restaurant owner made a big deal of closing windows and being very hush-hush as he proudly offered us his 'special tea'.  What we have noticed aswell is the sometimes random way of things in India, that seem apparently devoid of common sense, the cold beer in a warm tea-pot being a case in point, as with scalding hot chai and coffee being served in the heat-conducting miracle that is glass. 

We found Varanasi to be quite hard work, what with the relentless touts attaching themselves to us, and the heat and noise and stepping gingerly over mounds of poo in the overcrowded narrow streets, but it was actually a very vibrant place and away from the main cremation ghat we found friendly people, lots of life, colour and noise, and a really lively trading scene along the alleys, with a myriad of small shops selling lovely jewellery, silks and brass.  Never happier than when shopping, i spent a happy couple of hours trying on tops and deliberating over the merits of 2 (to Andy, identical) ankle bracelets before settling, as usual, for the more expensive.

Our hotel actually laid on free boat trips up the ganges at 5.30am to see sunrise, and 5pm to watch the sunset, and we took advantage of both (freebies are few and far between!) - a great experience, watching life get going in the morning along the river banks, people bathing, praying, meditating, conversing and washing clothes.  Life here starts with the sun rising and doesn't seem to die down much until the very early hours, when a lot of people just seem to lie down in the spot they've occupied all day for a couple of hours kip. 

The cremation ghat (Manikarnika) was just down from the hotel, and an interesting experience.  We'd read some quite ghoulish reviews on other travelpods with regards to the sights some people had seen, all burning flesh and hideous twisted faces of the dead, and i can only say i think they're trying to impress (or shock) people back home because from our point of view the cremation of the dead was carried out with dignity and respect and, as is the Indian way, an awful lot of noise!  The bodies are fully covered in different cloth according to age and sex, and carried by the men of the family down to the waters edge, where they are submersed for a while to rid the corspe of any bad karma.  The women of the family stay at home, as in the past apparently they have become over-emotional and flung themselves onto the fire and this is a nuisance, and also because they tend to cry, also a nuisance, and distracts the men from the work at hand.  The body is lifted onto the pile of smoking wood, still covered, and the men gather round to pay their respects and talk for the 2-3 hours it takes for the body to cremate.  We did once see a large foot protruding from a shroud, but it just made it more human somehow, and it was a fascinating experience to watch, quite medieval in a way with 4 or 5 fires all going at once at different stages, especially when viewed from the boat at a short distance.  All the while there is constant chatter from the relatives, occasionally raised urgent voices as another body is brought down to the water to rest, and the air is filled with the smell and smoke of burning wood.  Cows mooch past, goats leap around the steps, and everyone looks on with an air of calm and interest, it's part of the cycle of life rather than an occasion for despair, and for the deceased it's the fulfillment of perhaps a lifetime's ambition, to be laid to rest here.

Em x

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