The Holy One!!

Trip Start Sep 14, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2010

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Where I stayed
Temple Towers

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, September 24, 2009

We arrived at about 12.30 to Varanasi station. Taxi touts strangely find my hair a bit of a giveaway that we are not local and swoop with the speed of a kestrel immediately a foot is placed on the platform. I provided our first First-Aid moment when putting our backpacks into the old Ambassador taxi. I forgot that unlike modern cars where the boot lid is designed to be out of harms way when you open it, that of the 50 year Ambassador is actually cleverly designed to catch the left hand side of your scalp when you move back from the car. A small trickle of blood and some antiseptic cream later I was OK, Oh and the various swear words that I uttered. I said these same words and the fact that he was dishonest to the taxi driver who insisted on charging us 50% more than he quoted. As I was knackered and the realisation that I was arguing over 50pence dawned on me I felt that a few more expletives would do and I gave in.

In fact I have become very astute (apart from this one case) in negotiating hard with the bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws and taxis. Obviously they quote say 200 rupees, I say I paid 20 earlier in the day, they say 60, I say 25 and we settle on 30 to 40. Oh, I forgot that at some point I need to walk away towards another driver and show my back to my negotiating partner. It is only when you realise that all this effort is for saving around 10 pence that the famous, well it's a point of principle, and actually generally good fun, comes into play!

Varanasi takes you by surprise. It is madder, more chaotic, frenetic, and not the spiritual tranquil place I had as a preconceived idea. The roads are small and loaded with everything you can think of. Even more so than in the other cities you see the road pecking order; the low life is the pedestrian and nobody cares about them. Next are cycle rickshaws which can be very vulnerable to the auto rickshaws that barge them out of the way and then come the taxi cars which the auto rickshaw cowers down to at junctions. The king of the road is the bus and the steamroller is the lorry however all of them become cowardly sheep when faced with a sacred cow occupying the road. The cows, although clearly being totally stupid, do have a confident "you can’t touch me pal" look about them which reminds me of a night out in Liverpool.

We took a death defying drive down to the old town in an auto rickshaw which dropped us at the no motor traffic old town perimeter limit. According to the driver we had a five minute walk down to the Ganges river and the Ghats. The Ghats are the sacred steps on the banks of a river where people go to pray, wash, meditate, clean clothes, cremate dead people etc. They have steps leading down to them and they are the famous attraction for tourists in Varanasi, even Indian tourists. In fact they are rather pilgrims who come from all over the country to experience this oldest and most holy of Indian cities.

In walking down to the Ganges, Liz struck up a conversation with a youngish bloke who attached himself to our family. He was very pleasant and adamant that he was tired of hearing from foreigners about how they were ripped off by the local scams and he could show us the real Varanasi for no charge. Humm I thought, you are sooo right Liz said. Needless to say he had a shortcut, which we followed! In fact he took us through the very back, back streets which are five foot wide and still accommodate people, cows and motorbikes at four abreast! Issy started to get the wobbles and we reassured her whilst at the same time beginning to have second thoughts of our own. We saw small temples cut into the buildings which he explained to us and obviously a large slice of poverty and squalor that is difficult to imagine. We did get to the river and he joined us on a boat ride down along the bank where the true spectacle is laid out in front of you like a living National Geographic article. At the far end we came to the smaller of the two cremation ghats. From the boat we saw the fires and bodies wrapped up laid out for the ceremony. Isobel did not want to get off the boat but Aidan and I took the chance to go and see at closer hand the ghat. I was fairly transfixed but from what I remember our guide explained that the bodies are wrapped in a white sari which is then tied onto two long bamboo poles and again wrapped in coloured material. There are a number of blessings and anointments in the river before the body is finally cremated. The legs and pelvis are burnt first as this takes the longest for women, the breast bone and ribs for men, followed by the rest of the body. The ashes and any other bones that are not burnt fully are then placed in the river. The family must smash the skull to release the person into their next life. The crematory is privately run and costs a staggering 5000 ruppes (65) which is a huge amount for the locals. For those that cannot afford this there is a concrete electric cremation building just about next door which does it for 100 rupees and carts of the mish mash of ashes elsewhere. There was no wailing or tears at the site as the people believe that you need to experience death to understand life.

We also visited Ramenager Fort on the other side of the Ganges having taking an hour long cycle rickshaw to get to the bank of the river where the pontoon bridge should be.  I say should be as it is dismantled each year for the monsoons however our “pilot” did not tell us this until we were at the muddy waters edge and he introduced us to a boatman. How convenient. After much negotiation he took us across and we went round the rather shabby but interesting museum at the Fort.
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