Varanasi - The Holy City

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 15, 2010

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Posted by Kian.

We arrived in the holy city of Varanasi on a hot, hot Tuesday afternoon last week.  It was hot.  Kind of like walking around the inside of a giant blow dryer, with a bit of sand swirling around for good measure.

It was a small airport, the kind where you get off the plane, walk 30 metres, and you're in the terminal.  It was a small terminal, probably no bigger than a two bedroom apartment.  Conveniently, the luggage carousel was also small.  So small, in fact, that by the time Genevieve and I got in, it was already surrounded by a swarming plane-full of humanity waiting to get their luggage.  Further complicating matters were the luggage carts that people were using to transport their bags.  It was a boondoggle of pushing people and colliding carts.  Simply walking around was difficult.

But, dear reader, fear not, for I quickly devised a cunning plan to get our luggage.  It involved us going to the front of the luggage carousel, where there was a bit of extra space.  From there, we could catch of glimpse of the conveyor belt.  Once we spotted our luggage, we could wait for it to go around the circle, using that time to push to the front to grab our bags.  No problem!

So, we wrestled our way to the front of the conveyor belt where we could see the bags going around.  It was at this point that I realized my cunning plan had a fatal flaw:  The conveyor belt did not go around in a circle.  In fact, it simply ended at the other end of the room, where an airport employee was unloading the bags.  We found ourselves stuck in the exact opposite place where we should have been.

However, luckily for us, I quickly devised an EVEN MORE cunning plan to get our bags.  This plan involved us going to the other end of the belt where the employee was unloading the bags.  There, we would simply wait for him to off-load our bags, pick them up, and leave.  Brilliant.

Unfortunately, other passengers seemed to have also thought of this plan, for as we made our way to the other end of the room, we realized that, in reality, this plan was burdened with a similar, fatal flaw; namely, we could not get to the other end of the room as the plan necessitated.  Two cunning plans dashed in a matter of minutes.  Times were tough.

So, we decided to take a time out, work our way to the very back of the airport terminal where it was a little less crowded, and wait it out.  We figured things would calm down in about 20 or 30 minutes as people cleared out with their bags.

It was at this point, however, where my beautiful wife devised the most cunning plan yet!  She was to leave her carry on bag with me at the back, weasel her way to the front where the employee was offloading the luggage, and find our bags.  Sublime!  This plan could not fail.

And, indeed, shortly after, Genevieve emerged with my bag.  Ha-saa!  She came back to me to drop it off, and went back to collect hers, which came up shortly afterwards.  Ha-saa!  We were now ready to leave the airport.

After a surprisingly not-so-harrowing cab ride to our hotel, we checked in and beheld the holy Ganges river.  We had made it.  It was beautiful.  It was hot.

We took a quick nap, and went down the river to see Puja, a religious ritual performed by Brahmin priests in worship of the river, dawn and dusk, every day.  We had read of the tenacity of touts in Varanasi (touts are people who follow tourists around, trying to get them to stay at their hotel, eat at their restaurants, visit their shops, buy their stuff, etc.  These people often get commission from the store owners for bringing people in.), and, sure enough, within minutes we were surrounded. 

One fellow held out his hand for me to shake.  Not wanting to be rude, I took his hand.  However, I realized that, in fact, the hand shake was just a way to get a hold of my hand to begin a hand massage.  I didn't want a hand massage, so I pulled my hand away.  Another fellow approached Genevieve and started putting little stamps on her hand in an attempt to get her to buy some.  Genevieve also declined.

As the ceremony was starting, yet another fellow came up to us and started talking about his silk shop.  His name was Tony, and he spoke English quite well.  We weren't in the mood to go shopping, so we declined.  It was a this point that Tony informed us "that is no problem.  You see, some people have the good product.  I have the bull-shit product.  Some people give you the good price.  I give you the bull-shit price."  I laughed out loud;  it was funny

Next thing you know, he is talking to us in French, saying he used to live in Boston.  He suggests going up to a balcony to get a better view of the ceremony.  I said, "OK, so how much will we have to give you for taking us there?"  He said, "No, God gave me two arms and two legs to work, I don't need you to give me any money."  This was a strange answer, because, for the most part our experience here has dictated that, if someone helps you, they will want money.  This is fine.  We are tourists.  People make their living off of us.  However, it can be tiring sometimes.

We decided to take him for his word, and we followed him up to a hotel balcony where we got a few chairs, paid too much for a cool bottle of water, and watched the rest of the ceremony.

Afterwards, Tony came up to us again, telling us about a restaurant he could recommend nearby, and talking again about his silk shop.  He invited us to come and have a look the following morning at 11am.  He also spoke of how Varanasi has changed during the last 15 years, with more and more touts becoming more and more aggressive.  He didn't like this.

It all seemed very genuine, but, we had a restaurant picked out from our guidebook, and we were going to walk farther down the ghats to go and find it.  (A ghat is a set of stairs leading down to a body of water, and in Varanasi they line the river so people can walk down and bathe.)  Tony still hadn't asked us for any money.  We were impressed.

So we said our goodbyes, saying we would think about coming to his shop (which was nearby) tomorrow.  We walked along the ghats, and found the place where we had to go up.  We walked up a narrow alley, dodging various forms of excrement and urine (the old part of Varanasi consists of a network of narrow alleyways.  They are beautiful an awe-inspiring, however, they are also littered with cow, dog, monkey and human waste.  It is a miracle we didn't step in anything while we were there...).  All of a sudden, it went completely dark.  The power was out.  We learned later that this was a daily occurrence in Varanasi, so much so that many hotels and restaurants have generators for back-up power.  However, on this occasion, we were caught completely off guard. 

We saw a glimmer of light up in front of us, and, figuring we were close to the restaurant, we continued on.  It was only a few paces more, however, when THIS ENORMOUS ROCK STARTED MOVING UP ABOVE US!!  Genevieve let out a big yelp, and I was totally freaked out.  We realized a second later, though, that this rock was in fact a giant black cow that had been sleeping in a loft next to where we were walking.  There were actually several large cows sleeping there.  Now, these cows are used to humans and very gentle, however, they still have giant, pointy horns, and they must have weighed a tonne, so Gen and I decided that we had had enough of this for one night, and made our way quickly back to the ghats.

And as we are walking back, who do we see?  Tony!  We chatted a bit more, and he agreed to help us get a bicycle-rickshaw (at the non-tourist price) to the restaurant he mentioned earlier.  He still didn't ask us for any money.  We said goodbye again, had a good meal at the restaurant, and turned in for the night.

The following morning, we found Tony where we had left him last night, and off we were to his silk shop.  It was a bit of a death march along the ghats (it was hot), up through the alleys and along the roads to his place.  But we arrived and sat down in this room filled with silk scarves and bed sheets.  We were treated to a cold mango juice, and the show began.  Row after row of beautiful, colourful sheets were lain out before us.  We were being totally razzle-dazzled, and it hit me, "Ahh, OK, Tony is a salesman.  He must hang out at the ghats trying to bring in customers."

Well, it worked.  After looking at all of the goods for about an hour, Gen and I finally bought this beautiful silk duvet cover for a ridiculously good price.  Yes, I just described my new silk duvet cover as beautiful.  Please don't take this as a sign of diminished manliness.  I run up hills for breakfast and do push-ups for dessert.  I am a beast. 

Anyways, Tony got us in a rickshaw back to our hotel, where we went down for our nap.  We were learning about the flow of life in Varanasi:  Wake up early, nap in the afternoon, and go out again at night.  It was amazing to see how busy the place was at 5.30am, and how dead it was at 2pm.  But it made sense.  It was hot.

That evening, after dinner, we decided to go to the burning ghats.  This is a special ghat where some Hindus go to get cremated.  They believe that if they are cremated at this place, they will go straight to heaven.  No purgatory.  No re-birth.  No worries. 

We had read in our guidebook that we would be pretty much guaranteed to be approached by either a priest or a guide at the burning ghats who would offer to take us to a spot with a "better view."  We were advised that if we "didn't want to pay, don't follow anyone."

Sure enough, as soon as we came within sight of the ghat, we were approached by a young boy.  He began talking to us in rather halting English, but we managed to decline his offers, and we continued on.

However, as we were walking, we were approached by another young, although slightly older, boy.  This guy was a pro.  He quickly launched into the history of the burning ghats.  He narrated Hindu beliefs and mythology.  Indeed, he seemed very genuine in his concern about our knowledge of the place.  He even had slogans:  "Burning is Learning" and "Cremation is Education."


He also told us that he was not a guide, but a volunteer who helped poor, elderly, dying people in a hospice nearby.  He said that we were under no obligation to pay, but, as the cost of buying wood for cremation is very expensive, anything we could give to help these poor people buy wood would be very much appreciated. 

He then said that if we came over this way, we would have a better view, and all of a sudden we were in an interesting situation:  If we moved at all from our standing place, it would be interpreted as "getting a better view," and we would be obligated to make a donation.  We looked at each other, admitted defeat, and moved over.

What we saw I will never forget.

About 8 fires, each with a body.  On the fire nearest to us you could clearly see the body burning, complete with one foot hanging over the edge.  The energy was palpable.  The boy explained that people of lower castes were cremated near the river, while higher caste folks were burned higher up the banks.  And, with all of the demand, the place was cremating people almost non-stop every day.  He said that the wood was from the banyan tree, which covered up the smell of the burning bodies (indeed, there was no foul smell at all coming from the fires). 

He asked us if we wanted to go even closer, but I felt a bit awkward, as we were basically intruding on the funerals of peoples' loved ones.  It was pitch black dark except for the light from the flames.  We had seen enough.

However, we did want to make sure that our donation went to the hospice, and not into this fellow's pocket, so he offered to take us up to where he volunteered.

Now, this is where preconceived notions will get you.  With my mind focused on the fires, I did not give a lot of thought to what this hospice would look like.  I was picturing a hospital-like scene, complete with nurses, doctors, beds with white sheets, IVs, the works.


This fellow led us up some steep stairs, the last of which we had to climb by the light of his cell phone as there was no electricity in the building.  We arrived at the top, where we found a large empty room.  No sanitation devices could be seen.  The floor was unfinished stone.  On it was a rail thin, very disheveled old man.  In the corner was a lump of cloth that (maybe?) someone was sleeping under.  Standing next to us was a leper, and our fellow shone his cell phone light on his wounds (Gen got a good look at this.  I had my head turned the other way). 

It wasn't long before I had contracted a major case of the heebie geebies, and I wanted to leave.  We gave the two patients a donation (which they immediately asked that we double), but we said no, and went back down the stairs.  We said goodbye to the young fellow, and went back to our hotel.

What to make of all of this?  Was this guy really a volunteer, or was it a scam with those old guys?  And what about the cost of wood?  Our guide said the wood would cost between 180-220 rupees per kilogram, and that it takes about 200 kilograms of wood to totally burn a body.  That means it takes, at minimum, 360,000 rupees to burn a body, or a bit more than $800 CDN.  With the average annual income of an Indian household being about $900 US, that is a lot of money.  What sacrifices are families making to cover this cost?  Is it only wealthy people who have the honour of getting cremated along the Ganges?  Who is in the banyan tree business, and how much money do they make?

Questions I don't think I will soon be able to answer.

The next morning Genevieve and I woke up at dawn to take a boat ride on the river.  India gets the award for the country with the most sight-seeing activities that take place at dawn.  It also gets the award for most food and drink listed on the menu that is unavailable.  It also gets the award for most light switches in hotel rooms that do nothing.  How many rooms have I been in that have a dozen light switches, but only 4 of them actually turn anything on.  Couple that with the fact that, in India, you flick a switch down to turn it on, and up to turn it of, and the result is you have little choice but to struggle.

But I'm off topic.  At the start of our boat trip, Gen got stung by a bee.  An enormous stinger was stuck in her neck.  I won't lie;  there were tears.  Thankfully, I managed to pull it out safely.  Our boatman then covered the sting with ash, and pronounced Genevieve "fine."  But, as we were heading out, she almost bashed her head against another boat.  It was only my lightning quick reflexes that saved her, as I pushed her head down and the boat away before she got hammered.  Then, later in the trip, she stuck her left hand in the Ganges river.  I have now labelled this her "Ganges hand," and, if I were you, I wouldn't let her touch anything with it if she is ever in your house.  If you could have seen the amount of things, dead and alive, that entered that river, you would understand why.

We killed the rest of the day, and went off to our train to Lucknow.

Certain things stand out for me from my travels:  The Great Wall of China, the Australian outback, the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico.  Varanasi is now firmly a part of that conversation.  It is a place like no other. 
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Colin on

Cool Travels, I got wet up to my ankles in mother Ganga. I guess no wlaking on your carpet!

Lori on

I'm glad you survived Gen :)

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