The banks of the holy Ganga

Posted: January 11, 2011 in India
Tags: , , , ,

How we dreaded the trip to Varanasi. We holed up in a semi-acceptable hotel restaurant in Gorakhpur for 4 hours then hit the station. Oh what unbridled chaos it is to be in an Indian station late at night. The notice boards don’t tally up with the ticket info. Everybody you ask gives you different answers to the same basic question: “what platform for Varanasi?”. Some people told us we had fake tickets even though we bought them at the station’s reservation office. Even with Muneeza’s impressive Hindi skills, we drew blanks. After 30mins of mental torture, we found a guy who spoke English and he explained that we had to wait for the train, now over 1hr late, and ask the Conductor to allocate us seats. Bingo! This we duly did and learned that they had to add extra carriages for the gora traveler. Another hour later and we had a carriage. Initially we thought we were in a packed 3 tier AC carriage only to be pointed next door to 1st class. Excitedly we stepped into our own private carriage.

Hours later we recoiled in horror as it emerged that 1st class has no AC heating and no blankets. For the luxury of your own cabin you get to freeze and freeze we did, all night. We ended up huddled together on one berth of our 4 berth cabin, hopelessly waiting for daylight and an ounce of warmth. We arrived in Varanasi over 3 hrs late, freezing cold and not looking forward to checking in to a hotel in one of the nosiest and busiest cities.

Hope springs eternal

The hotel sent a auto-rickshaw driver to meet us and he waited over 2hrs – that’s impressive. We got to the hotel and I was shown a room with AC heating that would cost R900, not bad for a major city. Amazingly the room was excellent quality: spotless, spacious, private balcony (small), clean bathroom, comfy beds, wall-mounted LCD TV and most importantly, a heater unit to take the sting out the freezing nights and mornings of Uttar Pradesh.

Despite the sleepless lethargy, the decent room pepped us up and we scrapped the plan to sleep for a few hours. Instead, spruced up and warm thanks to hot water, we wolfed down some tasty dal fry and veg curry and picked the nearest rickshaw to drop us at the main ghat by the river.

The holiest of rivers – Mother Ganga

Previously known as Kashi (City of Life), Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. The town sprawls outwards from the Ganges River, locally known as Ganga. Whilst the river dominates the cultural scene, it is the bustling streets of its markets that provide the heartbeat.

The spiritual side of Varanasi revolves around the ghats, long stretches of steps that lead down to the river. Hindu pilgrims come to the ghats lining the river for purification or to cremate family members. There are 2 burning ghats, Harishchandra and Manikarnika.We had read about the cremation ceremonies and Muneeza explained to me the significance. People actually come here to die because dying here offers moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It’s akin to the Buddhist belief that with the attainment of enlightenment, Nirvana, you can escape the cycle of rebirth.

However, no amount of reading can prepare you for the sight of family members watching as a body, barely covered in cloth, burns on the river bank as people walk by. Photos are understandly banned but we wouldn’t have wanted to be so intrusive anyway. Sometime you have to respect religion and nature and accept that some experience are for the memory not Facebook. It was a strange emotional reaction I had; it wasn’t sad or depressing despite the blatant spectre of death yet it was very eery because you could clearly see the body, the head and key features, enveloped by flames. I know we cremate people in the UK but without coffins, it is a very raw experience.

We spent a few hours walking up and down the riverside. I can see why the Hindus revere this stretch of water; not only is it beautiful but there is a calming peace in the air. I can’t put my finger on it but Varanasi definitely helps to cleanse the soul and make you feel relaxed (though the constant car horns try their best to shatter this feeling). We were rarely hassled by anyone despite it having a reputation for being tout heaven. Our experience was that of friendly people more intrigued by our presence and wanting to speak to us rather than pestering us into submission. I’ve started to realise that the Indian psyche is very different to the British and if you respond to the persistent offers of tours/trips/gifts with a warm smile and gentle rebuff (always nodding your head from side to side), most people will smile back and wave you goodbye. It pays to shed the British intolerance and impatience and realise that the style of approach here is more direct and at times bizarre but generally the Indian people are lovely and their smile infectious.

In the evening we booked a small tour through the hotel using their guide, Sky. It pained me to call him Sky as it envoked visions of born-again hippy trippy tree hugging festival crusties but he was insistent that I shouldn’t use his Hindu name. Chitan (I’m purifying the blog from hippiness) showed us around the Muslim quarter where we saw local peeps weaving saris the traditional way. Highly impressive. The experience was tainted by being taken to a shop where we were sold at for 20mins against our wishes. We left as quickly as politeness would allow.

We ended the tour with a boat trip up the Ganga towards the main ghat where a nightly ceremony takes place. Assuming our slot alongside the plethora of wooden boats, we took in the ganga aarti river worship ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. The ceremony take around 20mins and involves 5 Hindus singing prayers whilst circling a variety of smoke filled urns and candelabras in front of them. At night, backlit to the hilt, it’s a cool view. It was a wonderful trip and it was also intriguing to watch Hindus perform puja by the river, offering prayers for whatever was important to them; some pray thanks for the day’s trade, others for family members, other still for themselves. Before we left we bought a floating lotus flower candle, lit it and let it drift down the river; this supposedly brings good luck.

And on we move…

Ironically, despite Varanasi being the place I was least looking forward to due to its renowned hassles and unscrupulous touts, I really didn’t want to leave so soon. However, we’re packing in a lot in the first few weeks of the India leg so we jumped on the train early on 6th January and headed to Lucknow, birthplace of Muneeza’s nana abba (maternal grandfather).

love james & muneeza x

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