Come on baby light my fire

Trip Start Sep 19, 2002
Trip End Sep 22, 2003

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, August 5, 2003

5th August - We arrived in Varanasi on time but tired and feeling very grubby. Thankfully our bags were still with us after we padlocked them to the seat. Apparently not a day goes by on this journey without someone arriving without their backpack. The main budget area of Varanasi is down in the old town by the river but we thought we would rather stay away from the madness in the cantonment area. This turned out to be a very good choice as the hotel Surya was really nice. It is set overlooking beautiful gardens and has its own good reataurant. Our room was far better than the "decent" one in Calcutta and for half the price.

Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India. It is set on the banks of the river Ganges and people come to bathe in the holy waters. They also come here to die as this is a very sacred place to be cremated and have your ashes sprinkled in the Ganges.

As we only had a couple of days in Varanasi we had a quick shower and headed out again. We agreed a price with an autorickshaw for a few hours sightseeing and set off to try and get to the fort. The fort was on the other side of the river but the driver took us where we could get a boat to the fort. Unfortunately he dropped us miles from the fort and the boat would have cost a small fortune so we abondoned the idea. Instead he led us to one of the burning ghats (steps down to the water) where people are cremated. Before seeing it I had a vision of a huge blaze that you wouldn't be able to get near. Instead we saw what looked like about 6 small garden bonfires in varying stages. Some had been burning for a while where others had not yet been lit and you could see the shrouded body sitting on top. In one of the burning ones one of the workers was levering around a large log and we wondered why. It then dawned on us that it wasn't a log but a body where the arms and legs had burnt away. It was fascinating to see this sight although a little weird. The family of the deceased sit around watching this surrounded by the cows, dogs and goats that run free everywhere. There are a number of burning ghats at Varanasi and they all carry out numerous cremations each and every day. Luckily we didn't see any women committing sati which is where they throw themselves onto their dead husbands funeral pyre in self immolation. It's been outlawed for years but it does still happen as widows have a really hard time in India being women with no male support.

As well as burning people Varanasi is also famous for it's silk weaving and somehow our driver managed to con us into a silk shop. It was interesting to see the child labour doing the weaving but we really didn't want to be in the shop. The owner was very friendly (well he would be wouldn't he) and kept getting out more and more silks for us to see. LJ then said to me that she felt faint and needed to get back to the hotel. We made our excuses to the owner and he feigned concern. Once outside it turns out she was ok and had faked it to get out - how devious can you get?! Worn out we returned to the hotel and booked a more organised tour for the next morning.

6th - Up at 4.30am (yes AM!) to join our tour with four other English people and our guide Tripati. The reason for this early start was to do a boat trip on the Ganges at sunrise. We boarded our rowing boat at one of the ghats and our 2 oarsmen rowed us up and down the Ganges pointing out the various ghats and other sites. The sunrise was stunning especially against the backdrop of the Ganges. We were amazed at the number of people bathing in the river all along the riverbank. It was even more amazing to see people brushing their teeth and drinking the highly toxic water. Apparently, people who bathe in the river regularly live 10 years less than people who don't which makes you wonder why they think this is such a good idea. You have to realise that many of the sewers run straight into the river and the ashes of hundreds of people are also poured in each day. Apparently some people can't afford the cremation fees and are just dumped straight in the river. Our guidebook had warned that you might see the odd corpse floating by but luckily we missed this. After messing about on the river we were then taken to visit a couple of temples (which I can't remember the name of). The first was in the grounds of the university which is apparently the 3rd largest in the world. The second was really busy with a room packed with men frantically chanting away - and all this before I had even thought of breakfast! On the way back Tripati made a big play about the fact he was taking us to a government approved silk shop not one of the rip-off merchants that the rickshaw drivers take you too. Of the hundreds of shops in Varanasi guess what, we ended back at the shop we had escaped from the previous day. The owner was very pleased to see us and said he had prayed for LJ but we still didn't buy anything.

That evening we boarded another sleepless sleeper train bound for Delhi.
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