Fires of the Ganges

Trip Start Jan 08, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

We had to get a local train from Agra to Gwailor then our night train to Varanasi.

The cheap auto-rickshaw we negotiated in Agra turned out to be a complete shitter so I was having cows thinking that we wouldn't make the local 4.15pm train that would get us to Gwailor to connect with our night train. At Agra station the ticket lines were HUGE!! It was fast approaching 4.10. I was pacing the line trying to make someone take pity on me - which they did. This man said he would get us tickets but that as they print 6 people on one ticket, we would have to ride with his family. Fine! As long as I can get to Gwailor. We were rushing towards the platform when the guy realised the ticket man had ripped him off 100 rupees! So he had to race back, fight the swarms of other ticket purchasers and claim the rest of his money. Meanwhile, David, me, this guy's Dad, sister and sister-in-law, were racing towards the platform. Lucikly the train was a few minutes late but I had a rude shock when I saw the shitfight for the unreserved seating carriage. You've seen those images on tv of indian trains with loads of skinny men clinging on for dear life from the doors of speeding trains. That's real. The train pulled in and there was an almighty push towards the back door. The family got on ok. They didn't have bags, but David was carrying both my backpack and his own and was throwing small Indian men off the sides to scramble on. He pulled me inside and we squeezed into a small air pocket, unfortunately near the toilets. It was an incredibly uncomfortable two hours with us constantly getting squashed by oversided, sari wearing women and boney old men forcing their way into the toilets. Stupidly some fat inspectors boarded and checked everyone's tickets, fining ticketless passengers 700 rupees as they slowly fought their way through the sardine tin carriage. When they got to us and the family, they said they wanted to charge us an extra 50 rupees each and make us go into the reserved seating carriages, but our family man stuck up for us and said we wanted to have a 'real' Indian experience!!

We made it to Gwailor in one piece, and bid our ticket family farewell. We had a very spicy dinner at the train station and hopped on the train. It was great. There was no one on it. At Jhansi, people filled the spaces and naturally there was a tiff about seating arrangements. I was fine on my top berth reading, but poor David was getting mobbed by the fifty nosey parkers it takes to sort a problem. He had to break free and crush a few hands on the climb up and once the man's daughter had checked the ticket and he realised he was wrong, they all sat down very quietly.

Day 1

On arrival in Varanasi, the station was packed and we were immediately picked out as fresh meat by the rickshaw wallahs. It was like flies to shit. We had to run into the tourist information booth to get away. There are handy tourist police outside to help beat them off. I called our hotel who said they would be there to pick us up in 5 minutes. Five Croatian minutes later (45 reality minutes) we were in an auto-rickshaw picking our way slowly through the thick traffic. About 15 minutes later the guy says to get out as we have to walk and tells us to pay 50 rupees to the driver. You can imagine David's response. I'd be sorting that out with the hotel. I asked the young guy how far to the hotel. 5 minutes. I'm thinking this is going to be another Croatian 5 minutes. Twenty minutes later we arrived at our hotel. Our Irish mate, Frog, who was supposed to arrive earlier had not made it yet so we settled in and went for a wander through the lanes. We heard some chanting and were passed by a group of men carrying a body under a red and gold cloth, adorned with gold tinsel. We raced after them and found ourselves down at the main burning ghat, Manikarnika. Apparently this is one of the oldest and most sacred here. There were loads of bodies being burnt. Only men were present. There seemed to be a lack of emotion about the place though. A man came up to me and asked if we had this ritual in my country. I replied, of course, but the ceremony is different. He seemed satisfied with that. It was really amazing that we were so close to dead bodies being burnt. We could see them burning at all different stages. Those that were being lit and those that had been going for a while and those that were just about cooked. We saw heads with the hair catching alight and legs sticking out from the piles of wood. Some had skin bubbling and we could see the skeletons! The scorching flames and weight of the wood had twisted some skeletons so they seemed to be giving a final grotesque wave - or signalling for help! We walked a little way along the ghats watching various activities, washing clothes, taking a ritual dip or taking an soapy bath. I read in a book that the Ganges has amazing cleansing properties that have baffled scientists. The cholera microbe survived only three hours in that water whereas it survived a whole 24 hours in distilled water!! No wonder people drink the stuff.

The laneways are really interesting, once you get past the dung, dog shit and motorbikes. They're lined with hole-in-the-wall shops of all kinds. Chai, tailors, veg, shoe repairs, refreshments, cigarettes, shiny colourful bracelets, saris, almost anything. There are loads of little shrines everywhere too covered with flowers, rice and whatever else. It's a great place. Full of life (and death) and loads of character.

Frog rolled in about 9 hours late, so to help relax him we took him to see some dead people on fire and some street chai.

Day 2

After breakfast we went to have another look at the cremations again. It's actually quite expensive because you buy the wood according to weight and specific types cost more than others, for example, sandelwood is very expensive. The guys that actually build the pyres have quite a difficult job too. It takes experience to know how much wood to use. It seems to go on 24/7 too so deforestation is very much a problem. Wood is stacked high everywhere round the ghat.

We then went to look at Jantar Mantar, a rooftop observatory built in the 18th century. All the instruments are huge cement structures and there are so many monkeys around that the guy opening the door had to bring up a huge stick to keep them away. Frog and David picked on the poor guy and told him his massive antique sun dial was 10 minutes off and then proceeded to pretend to try to move it. The guy was freaking! The views from there of the river were fabulous though. David was still mucking about so we explained that he hadn't taken his pills that day. The guy kept his distance. Then we took a walk along the ghats just people watching.

Day 3

We got up early, met up with a couple of Swedes and the 5 (don't forget Frog!) of us went for a sunrise paddle down the Ganges. It was a beautiful sunrise. Gentle pinks first then when the sun was completely above the horizon, it was on fire! People were performing puja rituals along the water front, some people were being burnt, people were praying in the river or washing or whatever else they do in the Ganges. There were lots of little leaf bowls with flowers and candles bobbing gently down stream. It was really lovely. Although, the men wear this kind of triangle piece of cloth with a long tie at the front for bathing. It gapes a bit so we were faced with a few sets of fruit and veg, which wasn't so great to see before breakfast!

Frog was off to catch his train and we said goodbye to Erica and Heinrick. We took another wander round the lanes and along the ghats as we would be leaving tomorrow too. I had a small confrontation with the woman about the rickshaw fee but we compromised and I didn't pay anything.

Tomorrow morning we'll be making our way to Nepal. Varanasi is a fantastic place. I'll be back.
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