More dirt and squalor but India still at its best

Trip Start Dec 29, 2010
Trip End Dec 05, 2011

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I was a bit harsh with my initial impression of Varanasi, as much the cause of the rubbish and squalor of the place as the general chaos and disorganisation of India which does get frustrating. So we returned in the late afternoon with some trepidation as to what the Ganges might have in store for us.  We left Benjamin behind with Georgie not wishing to subject him to any more chaos, dirt and god knows what else.

The walk down to the river itself was hectic to the extreme, more of the same. Today was a festival day, when Hindus from the East of India partake in a Festival of Nature, so the streets were crowded with people carrying offerings to the river, and many people dressed in their finest for the occasion.  Once again Manjeet was our salvation, steering us in a relaxed manner throughout the chaos and onto a boat which was waiting for us by one of the ghats.  

However, the boat trip was a wonderful way to see people bathing in the Ganges, praying and sending their offerings out into the water.  The ghats (steps leading down to the water), the temples and former maharajas palaces all provide a spectacular backdrop to the river, a sight which probably hasn't changed in hundreds of years. The scene was fantastic and very much one of the sights of India.

The water from the Ganges is still considered holy and capable of washing away a lifetime of sins so many people dunk themselves right under despite the horrendous pollution.  Water that is safe for bathing should have less than 500 faecal coliform bacteria per litre of water - the Ganges has 1.5 million!    So, even Brad decided against a ritual dunking.  

The city is also the sight of many cremations and there are a couple of ghats were this takes place.  The boat trip took us close by, but thankfully it was fairly difficult for the children to make out what was going on.  We did, however, see a dead body floating in the river which we all mistook for a dead cow at first glance.  Thankfully it was so horrendously bloated that the kids weren't at all bothered, and hardly gave it a second glance, although a closer look by Brad revealed an exposed skull and rather scary rotting eyeball.  

As another way of bringing the Ganges and the ceremonies alive to the kids we had agreed agrees ago that we would have a ritual burning of the Father Christmas letters. Normally they get burnt in the fire at home and go up the chimney to Father Christmas, but given that was not possible we burnt them in the Ganges and let the ashes float down the holy river to him.

Manjeet spotted another body of a holy priest floating face up, still wearing his orange robes and clutching his prayer beads.  We all looked at it, rather horrified that it really was rather freshly dead.......and then the priest's other hand moved, signalling that he was very much alive and just praying while floating at pace down the river.  Phew!

Next stop on the boat trip was Dasaswamedh ghat, from where the main river worship ceremony takes place at sunset every evening. It was beautiful to watch:  5 men performed the well choreographed ceremony with candles and lanterns in front of a crowd of people sitting on the ghat and boats crammed with tourists on the river itself.  

After partaking in the worship of the holy Ganga we then went to worship at the Golden Arches and treated the children to chicken mcnuggets for tea.  Well deserved after another full-on experience.  

Georgie and Brad got up at the ungodly hour of 5am to go back to the Ganges to see the dawn gathering.  Another chance to see the photogenic Indians going about their rituals in their holiest of holy cities.  

The afternoon was spent at Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, and which is one of the Buddhist faith's four important sites (and the only one in India, the others being in Nepal).  Rightly so, it proved a bit too much for the children ("not another temple") so we bribed them with another trip to McDonalds for icecream on the way home.    Truth be told, it was a little bit boring for the rest of us:  unfortunately what is an incredibly important landmark is now tainted by too many beggars and touts who are literally hanging on the railings of the temple trying to get your attention.  

To mark our last night with Manjeet, the 4 of us (me, Brad, Manjeet and Georgie) had a nice meal at the Taj hotel.  It gave us the chance to thank him properly for doing such an amazing job of guiding us during much of our time in India.  We are all genuinely sad to see him go. He has done a great job of seeing us through the most hectic part of India, full of interesting information and about the places we visited, happy to shepherd us through the most packed of places and always quick to put one of the boys on his shoulders when tiredness was getting the better of them. Katherine and i have certainly learnt a lot more about India than we would from a guide book.
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