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Published: August 6th 2007
Life and death exist side by side, played out on the ghats alongside one of India's most holy rivers.
Life is evident everywhere: local kids playing a game of cricket; holy men covered in ash; boat men touting for a fare; washing being beaten on the banks of the river and laid out to dry; the faithful making offerings of flowers and candles; people bathing; men sitting around an open fire cooking lunch; friends swimming; toddlers playing in open doorways; goats looking for shade; fishing and tourist boats plying the waters; and meandering cows searching for food scraps.
Death lives there too. The "burning ghats" are funeral pyres where bodies are publicly burned on the banks of the Ganga. The dead are carried on stretchers in the blazing sun atop car roofs, or in the arms of family members; smoke rises from the pyres; incense scents the air; bodies are doused in the holy Ganga water; corpses burn and bones crack; a leg becomes loose and hangs beyond the reach of the flames; remnant bones are thrown into the river; and unsunken remains of the deceased float by.
Varanasi is a peculiar place. The holy River Ganga (Ganges)
flows through Varanasi, making it one India's most holy cities. Hindus believe that bathing in the river offers atonement for their sins and helps attain salvation. People come from far afield to die in Varanasi and have their bodies committed to the holy river, believing that doing so will ensure that they reach nirvana and escape the cycle of rebirth.
For a holy river it doesn't seem to be accorded much respect. It is highly polluted with industrial and human waste. Nearly one billion litres of untreated raw sewage is discharged into the river every day; ash and remnant bones from the pyres are thrown into the river; and unburnt human and livestock corpses float along the surface of the Ganga. But still people come here to swim, bathe in, and drink the holy river water, and the government seems reluctant to clean up the river.
Not keen on an absolving dip ourselves, we instead checked out the river on a sunrise boat trip. It was pretty spectacular being out on the water in the pre-dawn and then witnessing the religious ceremonies and people bathing and washing in the river. Our boat man was rather relaxed about the
whole trip and spent the majority of his time staring out the boat, chewing paan, yelling to his mates, and rowing just enough to keep the boat moving without breaking a sweat, and consequently taking us half the distance promised in the two hour trip.
We just happened to be out exploring the Ganga by boat on World Water Day. Varanasi's school children (and a few monks) had turned out en masse to create a human chain along the ghats to demonstrate their support for clean water and promote respect for the environment. Many carried banners with an enviro message, or simply just the school name. As the environmental crusaders stood with arms linked, we watched as an old woman in the foreground swept rubbish from the steps of the ghats into the river. Obviously the message was lost on some.
Walking along the Ghats we were approached by a young boy with a very concerned look on his face. Pointing at me he asked Dave in a hushed voice “What’s wrong with her?”. Confused we tried to work out the source of his alarm, and he eventually pointed (being careful not to touch) my arm. He was
distressed about my freckles thinking I had some weird (and possibly infectious) skin disorder. Perhaps a dip in the Ganga would cure me!
Dave and I had different feelings about Varanasi. Where Dave was quite taken with Varanasi, I didn't care for it much at all. Dave had never seen a dead body and while he found it confronting, he seemed to settle into the laid back nature of the place viewing everything with genuine curiosity.
It wasn't a bad place to chill out, but it wasn't particularly pretty either. A constant layer of smoke hung in the air, the river ran black with filth, and there was a dire lack of any greenery. So this combined with the fact that I was incredibly homesick gave the place a rather depressing air and I spent most of my time there being self-indulgently sad. I was missing a best friend's 30th in Melbourne, and one of my oldest and dearest friend's wedding in New Zealand (and catching up with the Taupo girls!), and just generally missing my old life and friends in Melbourne. I couldn't wait to leave and head North across the border for some clean air.
It appears that Nepal was just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, clear skies, magnificent mountain views and the plushest accomodation we've had in a long time (and a bargain at only $5AUD per night!).
Getting here was a little arduous - a overnight train, bus ride, and another overnight bus ride meant that we'd not showered for nearly three days and things were getting a little wiffy to say the least. We're all showered now and have settled into the beautiful and tranquil surroundings with a growing feeling that this is a place we'll stop for a while!
We LOVE Nepal.
INDIA: Delhi > Agra (by train) > Varanasi (by overnight train) > Gorakhpur (by train) > Saunali (by bus) > NEPAL:Belahiya (by cycle rickshaw) > Bhairawa (by bus) > Pokhara (by overnight bus)
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