Visiting the Ghats

Trip Start May 22, 2008
Trip End May 31, 2010

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, November 20, 2008

We thought we were ready for Varanasi, we heard about how intense the place can be, but I don't think anyone from the West can actually be ready for it completely.  For those of us who are on a budget, the place is even deeper.   Our 4 days there were filled with passionate ceremonies, mind-boggling poverty, awe-inspiring devotion, pinpoint mental images, violence, that went hand in hand with continuous begging, pestering, and haggling. 
We arrived at night and the train station is chaotic with travelers and locals waiting to get out.  Some people have a haunted look in their eyes, some have the look of desperation, some are fatigued, uncomfortable and some actually looked happy (maybe to leave?).  But nobody looked enlightened.   We are in Varanasi.  We found a room on the Assi Ghat and got a late dinner of pasta since the stomach wasn't up for Indian food yet.  The restaurant had a great view and an amazing apple pie a la mode.

The following morning we walk out of our hotel ready to see the sites and a young man about 15 approached us.  He asks all the typical questions, "where you from", "how long are you here", "first time to India", tells Eddie "you look Indian" and finally says, "I'll show are around, it helps my English".  This is where the we say no, we don't have money and can't afford to have someone show us around.  He said no it's free and continued to walk with us.  But we told him if you want to come it's on your own, so the three of us head to insanity of the Varanasi's Ghats.  A Ghat, in this case means a riverfront, but can also mean a mountain range.

There are several Ghat's along the river, we today we are heading to the Burning Ghat.  This is the Hindu come to be cremated by their families.  According to their religion, of course this is very simply put, but if you are cremated here all bad deeds will be erased and you ascend to your next life.  Imagine people from all over come here to die or participate in the final ceremony of their beloveds, but recently departed family members.  The emotions here are powerful.   As we walk towards the area, we are enveloped in smoke.  Our new companion tells us to follow him, to a point where we are actually starting to feel really uncomfortable and like some horrible voyeur, and quite honestly were where there to watch, but on our own we would have stayed a lot further away.  As we ascend the final set of stairs, he turns into this covered cement building with a fully open front facing the Ghat.  We are in a barn for water buffalo, it's only slightly smellier than the street and we are somewhat tucked away from most of the curious stares.  We watch as a group of bald men walk around the body of an old man a clocked in bright orange and gold robes.  They are move around the deceased, chanting and placing flowers over him.   On the final turn they douse liberally him in oils (the flammable kind).  Lastly, a solo man lights the torch and sets the body on fire.  Within 5 minutes the whole party moves away, the old man is left there to burn on his own. 

As we ponder what just happened right in front of our eyes, our escort ask if we have any questions.  I ask, "how come there are no women at the cremation", he explains that a long time ago women would throw, and sometimes expected to throw, themselves on the burning body of their husbands and now are band from attending.  He further explained that families buy the wood for the fires by weight and the richer your family the bigger your fire.  He says the bald heads are a sign of respect and morning.  He also said on busy days the Ghat can burn over 100 bodies.  As he's talking, a man walks up and demands that we pay him, since we are standing in "his" barn.  Our guys says, don't pay anything and walks us out, we really like this kid.  He shows us where the people are get their heads shaved and the wood weighing station.  Then we continue our walk to a more peaceful part of the river.  We see water buffalo bathing side by side with people looking to reap the benefits of the holy river.  There is garbage, rotting flowers from earlier offerings, oil slicks, and people washing their clothes and cleaning food.  The crazy thing is that we read that this section of the river is so polluted that there is only about 2% Oxygen in the water.  I'll have to look up what it should be, but it's nowhere near this extremely low amount.  After a sit and some picture taking we walk back through the Burning Ghat and see the body from earlier.  It's completely black, his head looks swollen and his arms and hands have constricted in such a way that they actually look like they are grasping for the sky. 
The following night all three of us go to the same area, but different Ghat to see nightly river ceremony.  The local vendors and beggars are looking at us trying to figure out how to they can sell us something.  The kid is doing a great job of keeping most people away.  He shows a good place to sit to watch the ceremony and tells us not to give the guy more that 10 rupees.  We give him some change for tea, he runs off only to return a bit later to make sure we are alright.  The ritual feels a bit touristy, since there are a lot of us there, but it is truly an honor to see it.  There is lots of chanting, bell ringing, and fire.  On the stroll back, we saw holy men completing small scale ceremonies.  At one point, the kid tells us we should get blessed by a Bhrama who is at the water's edge in a boat.  Eddie says we'll pass since there is a scam noted in all the travel books.  The kid says "no money, he's a holy man".  OK, we'll see.  This guru shakes our hand, asks us to sit and says no money all in good English. He asks some questions, then begins to chant and finishes by marking us with the third eye (red and yellow dot on the forehead).   We thank him, shake his hand and he doesn't let go of Eddie's asking him for a cash donation.  It's cool we give him a handful of coins, he looks at them says "it's not enough" and that "he gave us the $10 blessing".  Eddie give him a big smile, thanked him again and said "good luck" and "good night". 
On one of our last strolls around town, we managed to catch a glimpse of a groom procession, heading to the bride-to-be's family home.  It begins with hand held of lamps and crazy carnival type lights, followed by a mostly uniformed band with drums, horns, and an amplified stereo system.  The groom is next dressed in white and is on a highly decorated horse.  He is then followed by his family and friends.  It's totally chaotic because there are dozens of people standing around staring, motos driving through it and horns constantly honking because it is holding up traffic, not to mention that music is so loud that it's actually distorted.  As we get close to our hotel, we could hear music from an outdoor wedding reception nearby (complete with elephant) and fireworks being set off a few streets down.  It's Friday night, dig out the earplugs.  

The next day we set off to say goodbye to our companion.    He is visibly upset, one of his school friends, a young girl, was murdered the night before by a family member.  That's all he could say about it.   We handed him some money asking him to use it for his books.  He didn't want it, but we insisted.  We told him to be careful and continue to study.   He really is a good kid; we hope he makes it out.  

Oh I must mention that Eddie was so proud of himself for finding a really cheap and clean room for us.  It was only $4 a night, it was especially rewarding since we had paid $14 the first night.  Yeah, it was too good to be true.  He forgot to check the bathroom; it had a squat toilet (this is the kind where there is a place to put your feet and basically a hole).  "It's not that bad" is all he can come up with!! 
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