The City of......

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2013

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Friday, December 14, 2012

Our day in Varanasi started with boat ride on the Ganges River as it is best time to view the ghats with the sunrising. There are 84 ghats  (steps leading down to the river) some being public and some private where people come to the river not only for the ritual bath but also to wash clothes, do yoga, offer blessings, sell flowers, and just about anything else you can think off including cricket games.

We got on the boat at the Assi Ghat which is one of the biggest and important as this is close to where the River Assi meets the Ganges and pilgrims come to worship a Shiva lingam (phallic image of Shiva) under a peepul tree. The fog and mist was still upon us so it was hard to see much or get clear pictures on the way up the river.  We stopped mid-way to purchase floating candles and marigold flowers to make a blessing and place in the river.  The thought was nice but with the wind, no sooner did we place them in the water they were blown out or dumped over.  Continuing on we went as far as Manikarnika ghat which is the main burning ghat for cremation; the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated.  Because it is so sacred, photography is not allowed which is probably just as well.  We did see two bodies in the process of being cremated and one waiting on a bamboo stretcher swathed in orange cloth on the steps.  The bodies are carried to the ghat by outkasts known as doms and doused in the Ganges prior to cremation.  There are also huge piles of wood stacked along the top of the ghat and each log is weighed on giant scales so that the price of the cremation can be calculated.  Each type of wood has a different price with Sandelwood being the most expensive.  There is an art to knowing just how much wood is needed to completely incinerate the corpse.  The cremation is started by putting the fire in the mouth.

Heading back down the river, the sun had risen and the fog cleared enough so we could see things a bit clearer.  Mostly men where bathing in the river but a few women as well.  There were also lots of men doing laundry in the river, beating the clothes against flat rocks that had been set up for that purpose.  Up from the river there was a general hubbub of activity going on as well as lots of people just sitting and talking. Getting off the boat we had about an hour to kill before breakfast so started off on foot to walk down the ghats.  Walking was a totally different perspective from the boat.  You were more up close to the activities allowing a closer look, especially to how they were making the blessings to the various temples along the ghats, bathing, doing laundry and the ritual of men getting their head shave when their wife has died.  Unfortunately we also got a visual and whiff of the not so unpleasant side of the ghats; that of it being used as a public restroom for number one and two.  I've heard Varanasi being referenced as "the city of life" and “the city of poo”.  Our visit to the ghats definitely confirms both of these.  Daily life of the Hindu’s was very much seen and heard on the ghats and for the poo there was all kinds; cow, goat, dog and human.  A completely foreign concept for a Western; human defecation in public is the norm here, and there are no consequences of where it is done.  That’s about all I need and will say about defecation while I’m here in India, knowing I will like step into all kinds more times then I care to think of right now.

Heading back to our hotel (Hotel Haifa) near the Assi ghat (a nice step up from the night before), we processed our Ganges River experience over breakfast.  I think the general consensus was that it was not as bad of an experience as we thought it would be.  The guide books I think have exaggerated to some extent and perhaps focus a bit too much on the cremation ghats and floating dead bodies (which we saw none)

After breakfast we hopped into some tuk tuk’s for a hair-raising ride around town to visit some temples, a silk factory and then of course a silk shop.  As we made our way around town we all took turns riding shotgun in the tuk tuk and I have to say sitting in the back is probably scarier than the front.  In the back you can’t see the front so think you are always going to crash into the thing be it a vehicle, person or animal.  We visited the following temples;

1)      New Vishwanath temple which was about 200yrs old and housed inside the campus of Benares Hindu University –

2)      Durga Temple built in the 18th century by a Bengali maharani.  It was beautiful outside and in as it was stained red with ochre.  This was my favourite temple of the three because there were so many people coming for blessing and offers.  It was amazing to sit there and listen to the sounds (bells ringing, chants, general chatter) and then to see all the different colours (saris worn by the women, flowers for offerings).  There was a newlywed couple there being blessed which was interesting to watch.

3)      Bharat Mata Temple (Mother of India) built in 1918 with the main feature being a marble relief map of the Indian subcontinent

Our last stop was the silk factory to see how both handmade and machine made silk was produced.  The factory was in many different small buildings in a small alley.  The buildings were very cramped and with little to no daily light.  The workers looked very bored though I sure very thankful to have the job.  You could hear some indie house music coming out of some buildings giving me hope that listening to music helped pass the time.  Afterwards it was the obligatory stop at the silk store.  The owner put on quite a show by whipping out bedcover after bedcover of really beautiful silk.  Unfortunately most of us on this trip either don’t have the budget or travelling for much longer and not able to carry stuff like this around.  After convincing him to show us scarves he got a better reaction and a few of us in the end bought some scarves.  Having given away all my scarves in Africa and falling in love with a handmade pashmina I caved hook, line and sinker.  We tried to bargain but the best we got was 10% off, but then having to pay by credit card another 3% was added back on; so not much of a deal in the end.  But I love my scarf!

Since we had been up at the crack of dawn and had to repeat the next day for a 400km/13hr drive (if all goes well) we had an early dinner at a pizzeria overlooking the Assi ghat.  Pizza already you say?  Well yes, the logic there being get it when you can as there are not a lot of places where you can get western food and while I love a good curry/dal it can get a bit boring when you have it for breakfast (yes it’s true), lunch and dinner. 
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