Jhansi to Varanasi

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Varanasi 12th June
The train from Jhansi to Varanassi in Uttar Pradesh was our first experience of travelling on the worlds largest train network. After an hour and a half's wait on the platform in 40 degree heat (10pm) we were more than ready for the train to arrive and to our pleasant surprise it was on time and comfortable (ish) with air conditioning and 3 tier bunkbeds. As with all transport in India it was full to capacity with the overspill luggage strewn in the corridors, judjing by the quantity and sheer bulk of the parcels being transported it appeared that everyone had decided to move house on the same night.

I had been allocated a top tier bunk, which meant that I didn't have room to sit up, the ceiling was about 18 inches from the end of my nose and the only views I could get were of magnolia sheet steel and rivets or the person on the opposite side of the 'bay' to me.
Our travelling companions were from the wealthier parts of Indian society, business men, families going on holiday etc and proved to be friendly and inquisitive about where we were going and who we were (there were only 4 other westeners on the whole train). The journey passed relatively quickly and we managed quite a good nights sleep.

We arrived in Varanassi (formerly known as Banares) mid morning and stepping off the aircon train emphased just how hot it was. The walk from the platform to the taxipark left us panting and streaked with sweat...luckily the hotel we had booked offered a collection service and so we were soon whisked away (in a three wheeled autorickshaw) to our hotel in the centre of town.

Varanassi is one of the oldest living cities in the world, it is situated on the west bank of the sacred river Ganges and dates back over 2000 years (although few bulidings are more than 200 years old) Its electricity supply must date back to its foundation judging by the frequent powercuts we encountered during our stay. Hindus beleive that simply by bathing in the sacred waters they can wash away all of their previous sin....I think I could do with a good scrub!

In total we spent 6 days in Varanassi but for most of that time we just relaxed. The previous three weeks of long car journeys, constant sightseeing in exciting new places and the stupifying heat had taken its toll, so we decided to 'crash' in Varanassi and recover.
(life on the road can be so hard... bet you feel really sorry for us, don't you!).

Sacred Ganges

Our first trip to the sacred (and filthy) river Ganges and its famed ghats was filled with anticipation, and the journey itself laced with more than a little fear... as we tore through the streets they became progressively narrower the closer we got to the Ganges. We scattered all before us and left a trail of swirling blue smoke in our wake as our demented driver thrashed his machine to its limits, snapping his wrist after each gearchange as if it were in spasm he hunched over the handlebars peering through the perspex windscreen 2 inches in front of his nose, as if trying to read the smallprint on his life insurance policy. He tried every manouvre he could think of to dislodge us from his rickshaw enroute, but we stubbornly clung on as if our lives depended on it (come to think of it ...it did) Eventually (and thankfully) the streets became too narrow to even allow our glorified motorbike to go any further so we came to a screeching halt and got out with the unsteady legs of a newborn foal and stuttered the remaining distance down thin busy streets that became no more than passageways, towards the river.

We had just about recovered from our high speed arrival by the time we rounded a tight corner 50 yards infront of us along a cramped dark passage, we were met by floods of bright mid morning sunlight temporarily blinding us, as our eyes adjusted we could see the vast green river spead out before us, calmly flowing past at the bottom of a large concrete platform fronted by steeply banked steps (a Ghat). As we looked upstream the gradually curving bank was made entirely of similar ghats, sprawling into the distance they displayed a mass of people engaged in a multitude of activities, boarding boats, washing, swimming, praying, sleeping, bartering or simply milling around taking in their surroundings (upto 60,000 people a day can visit the ghats). The majority were Indians going about their daily routines mixed with pilgrims, worshippers, and tourists (only a few foreigners). To our left was a large candy striped temple with goats littering the steps leading down to the waters edge.

The western bank of the river backing onto the old city is home to the ghats and is where the most intimate activities take place in public, apart from washing (religious), the more mundane laundry, and daily ablutions taking place we could clearly see groups of greaving relatives surrounding the dead bodies of their loved ones which were wrapped in white muslin cloth and lying on stretchers, awaiting their turn to be cremated.
The so called burning ghats are the other main reason that Hindus visit the banks of the Ganges. Dying in Varanassi which is thought to be the most auspicious of locations, is significant because it can release them from the cycle of birth and death known as Moksha.

Down and to the right of us we could see a spiral of blue grey smoke rising up in the still air, it was eminating from from a bright orange funeral pyre. This was Harishchandra Ghat a secondary burning ghat and one of the oldest in the city. The bodies are borne through the streets by the relatives, initially dipped into the Ganges and then cerimonially burned in the open for all to see. Several bodies at a time are burned on small platforms and the procession of new arrivals is never ending the buring continues 24 hours a day to keep up with demand. The wealthy use sandal wood emitting a fragrant smell during the cremation which takes on average 3 to 4 hours per body. The wood is weighed so that exactly the right amount is used (and charged for).

The principal funeral ghat, Manikarnika (the very wealthy /important are cremated here)is situated further upstream. Also at this location bodies are committed to the Ganges (with weights attached) without being cremated. According to Hindu religious belief there are five kinds of dead which are not allowed to be cremated, amongst these are pregnant women, snake bite victims, and children. The bodies of these people are wrapped in cloth weighted down and released into the river it is not unusual during a boat trip to see the odd corpse floating past! Due to the climate the whole process from death to 'dispatch' usually takes no more than two days.

At the risk of sounding ghoulish the burning ghats were facinating and because they were surrounded by so much life and activity they were made all the more poignant.
That evening we returned to the river and took a dusk boat ride along the busiest stretch of the river. I have never experienced anything that was half as atmospheric. Altars and shrines were lit up with a mixture of fairylights and burning torches groups of Priests and Holymen participated in ceremonies celebrating the holy Ganges and numerous Hindu deities by twirling containers of burning incense to a background of amplified music and chanting from the gathered crowds. Small flotillas of row boats of every size and description huddled together on the river around the ceremonies. They were full of wide eyed onlookers sat in silence. Bells, gongs and symbals all simultaneously rang, crashed and clanged loudly across the river filling the air with a cacophany of sound drawing in the crowds to watch the ceremonies unfold infront of them.

The burning ghats had taken on an eery feel in the darkness as we sat floating on the inky black water we couldn't help wondering about the people who were being turned into the piles of glowing ashes laying at the waters edge, and the grusome thought of all those dispatched into the water lurking beneath us. The only light came from the firey orange funeral pyres and bright spotlights of the shrines and temples as we made our silent progress from ghat to ghat, ceremony to ceremony transfixed by the scenes onshore. A small boy in a row boat no bigger than our hotel bathtub came along side and offered us two small floating prayer candles (for a small fee of course) we duly lit them made our wishes and watched as they slowly floated off flickering downstream jostled by the ripples from the passing boats...if ever wishes were to come true surley in this setting they should!

Silk Shopping
The following day we decided (well Jane did) that we should avail ourselves of the famous shopping opportunities in Varanassi, namely the world famous silk shops. After touring round for several hot sticky hours we settled on a family run business and sorted out some presents and gifts for ourselves and relatives (no clues you'll have to wait and see!) Due to the sheer quantity and bulk (over 16Kg)of our labours we decided to post a parcel home...not as easy as it sounds.
You have to wrap the parcel in a stitched sack and seal it with wax, the sacking has to be 'shrink wrap' tight and the postal and customs forms (beloved by all Indian beaurocrats) have to be completed in triplicate, sender and recipient info supplied in detail, weight, dimensions and contents list affixed...after all this has been clearly and correctly done and only then can you join a long slow moving que to get it posted! It is advisable to do the packing yourself and supply the materials (getting sacking thread and wax is not an easy task!). Thankfully we were given patient help from a rickshaw driver that befriended Jane, he was one of the most genuine people we met during our travels in India...Nandu couldn't do enough to help Jane and he didn't ask for payment in return, only the cost of ferrying her around to collect all the bits and peices needed. We used him for all our transport needs from then on and he was worth every rupee we paid him! A genuinely nice man! (if your thinking of visiting Varanassi we can supply his contact details).

Change of Plan
After the taxing shopping trip we chilled out for a couple of days just wanderiung around the streets of the old city visiting a few local temples and planning our next move which should have been Nepal... but we had received some firsthand reports from people returning who spoke of 3 day enforced delays when crossing the border overland. They had been forced to camp out in holding areas or worse still not allowed to leave their transport for 48 hours (confined to their car or bus) until the authorities could arrange for a convoy to take them into the safer areas of the country. (note: there had been some mines explode killing soldiers and locals travelling on buses, as a result curfews had been put in place in some of the areas containing rebel activities including several larger towns near the border with India). We decided that this wasn't our idea of enjoyable travel and so decided to deffer our visit for another time when things had hopefully calmed down a bit.

So after sitting down with our map and numerous bottles of beer we came up with a plan to skirt along the foothills of the Himalaya covering Dera Dun and Chandigarh then up to the British hill station of Shimla through the Baspa, Spitti and Chamba valleys via the provinces of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh, making our way towards the holy Sikkh city of Amritsar in the far NW of the country where it borders Pakistan.
After my disappointment in Tibet (altitude sickness) and now further disappointment in not feeling safe to visit Nepal (a boyhood dream) I was determined to get my 'mountain fix' in the Indian Himalaya. This proved to be a great decision which led to both awe inspiring scenery, danger, excitement and a helicopter rescue, but more of that later.

River at Dawn
We had seen the Ganges at night and were told it was even more atmospheric at dawn so we arranged a boat trip. Rising at 5am we made our way to the river (a great time of day, the heat is tolerable and the streets although busy are far less frenetic). We arrived on the Ghats just as the sun began to rise. The whole horizon was bathed in a warm honey gold haze turning the placid waters from green to a silky beige colour, the ghats in contrast to our previous visit were virtually empty and peaceful. The whole scene was incredibly tranquil almost dreamlike. We slowly glided across the river the only sound was of the water lapping against the boards of the boat with each oar stroke, a low patchy mist shrouding the mirror surface of the river as dark brown silhouettes of distant boats drifted past...what an incredible experience. I rapidly filled up my digtal camera with photos vainly trying to capture the scene.
As the morning drew on we passed people beating the dirt from their clothes against the steps we even saw one man drinking the river water (I assume he is dead by now). Early morning worshippers plunged into the murky water and boatmen lay asleep on the banks under their upturned boats ...this was a truly memorable morning and one we both wanted to last far longer than the rising sun would allow.

Over the next couple of days the midday temperatures soared to record levels and the local papers were full of pictures of deserted ghats, and doubtless headlines which would translate as "PHOAR! WHAT A SCORCHER!" or something similar. It was so hot even the Indian pilgrims stayed away. After two days of doing 'nothing' we ventured out in it and suffered accordingly, after only a couple of hours we were little salty puddles of sweat, we looked as if we had been for a swim fully clothed!

On our last evening in Varanassi we felt drawn to the river for one final visit. We spent our time watching the other main religious activity in India ie an improptu cricket match. These matches can be found on any space large enough to accommodate a game, derelict land, streets, fields, inside shops...anywhere. They use whatever is handy to make stumps..piles of stones, clothes, branches of trees, anything. The games involve all ages and invariably cause a crowd to gather offering advice, cheering, geering and applauding ..without doubt cricket is the second (if not the first) religion in India!

So we sat on the steps with other onlookers cheering enthusiastically at every attempt to smash the ball into orbit and just chatting, swapping stories and pleasantries...the perfect way to end our time in this great city. As we made our way through the labarynth of streets back to our hotel we squeezed past several groups of relatives bearing their dead en route to the ghats we had just left.

It was time to move on and begin our newly planned journey through the Himalaya but to reach our next destination Dera Dunh we had a 17 hour train ride ...which proved to be a test of our patience, resolve and ability to deal with vermin!

We'll post again soon...love, Aubrey and Jane.
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perrycas on

nice little blog thanks for the info. I am gong to be in V in October while trying to sidestep activity in delhi. I read somewhere that there were a few probs with night visits to the ghats, you didnt seem to have them was your experience representative?

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