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Published: October 26th 2009
We changed taxis at the border - the area was totally chaotic and I'm sure a lot of smuggling goes on undetected there. The immigration desk was a table in the main street - we didn't even see any customs officers. Totally crazy - people and trucks loaded up with goods everywhere and absolutely no order at all. Our new driver spoke hardly any English. It was a long drive to Varanasi - we could have caught a train part of the way but you still had a 2-3 hours drive to the train station so we decided to just take a taxi the whole way. The day turned into the worst day of our trip so far! The roads were very busy, with crowds of people walking along them. We hadn't realised that a similar festival as the Nepalese Dasian festival was being celebrated in India as well. All along the roadside large gaily coloured tents were erected with the same icons as we had seen in Nepal in them. The areas around them were strung with lights and dozens of stalls selling religious items surrounded each one. And they all had many loud speakers blasting, at top volume, religious
songs. Every tent was surrounded with people worshiping - including many large family groups all dressed in their best clothes. Many of the tents had small fun fairs set up as well to add to the chaos. It appeared that it was a public holiday in India as well.
The taxi couldn't travel very fast as there were constantly people walking along the road edges and massed onto the roads around the tents. At first it was exciting to watch but the novelty soon wore off. I think it had a lot to do with the blaring music - every time the car stopped it seemed to be in front of a loud speaker! And then the car started making a loud noise - one of the wheel bearings had broken. The driver had a lot of trouble trying to find somebody to repair it despite the fact that there were dozens of road side workshops. Nobody wanted to do as they were closing for the day and heading off to celebrations that evening. Eventually he found somebody and two hours later we were off again - half an hour later it went again but the driver ignored it this
time and we drove the last two hours into Varanasi with a loud noise coming from below as as well. By then it was getting dark - we were certainly much later then we expected to be - and we soon realised that our driver had never been to Varanasi before and had absolutely no idea of where to go!
Varanasi is on the Ganges River - the holiest river in India - and the riverbank is edged with the old town - a web of narrow alleys that cars cannot get into - you can only walk through them in many places as they are very narrow. We had planned on staying at a hotel in the midst of these alleys but changed our minds very quickly upon our arrival in Varanasi. When we arrived it was very dark - no lights on anywhere (the daily power blackout) except around the religious tents which were lit up in all their gaudy splendor thanks to generators. By this time our young driver had had enough - he was on the verge of tears! He kept stopping to ask for directions and each time he did the car would be surrounded
Carrying an idol to the River Ganges
One of the many 'mini' idols that the children carried in early in the evening
by rickshaw drivers all arguing and shouting directions. In the end he almost begged us to get out of the car and go with a rickshaw - I refused to move as Jerry and I would have had to take separate rickshaws into the ghats. Eventually Jerry found a English speaking teacher who with his family perched on the back of his motorbike led our taxi to a big hotel on the edge of the city where we paid off our driver - I guess he then spent the night asleep on the back seat of his car before his long trip back to the border.
The hotel was an oasis of calm and we ended up staying there for two nights before moving to a guest house on the ghats. Our first day in Varanasi was spent wandering around the ghat areas. We caught a auto rickshaw from our hotel which dropped us as far as he could and then we walked the rest of the way. It was absolutely medieval - really fascinating but also incredibly dirty! A city of narrow alleys, steps and tiny little booth stalls - very slippery with water in places and covered in
cow dung. The ghats were thronged with people - the riverbank is lined with bathing ghats (rows of steps leading down into the river) and from these people bath and wash. The water was very polluted - we met a doctor who told us the levels of bad organisms in it are 1 million per *** - in the US the water is considered dangerous at 500 per ***! We weren't planning on drinking any.....
We found the hotel we had been planning on staying in - it was right beside the burning ghats - and the room we planned on spending a couple of nights overlooked the ghat where the men ritually bathed after a family cremation. The burning ghats operate 24 hours a day and have eight burning areas. They are surrounded by enormous piles of logs which are weighed out on large scales - just enough to burn a body in two hours. The air was full of ash and smoke and whilst we wandered we were passed by many funeral processions - men carrying bodies wrapped in red and gold cloth on wooden trays through the narrow alleys to the burning ghat. It averaged 3000 rupees
to burn a body - a lot of money in India - the cost depended on the amount and type of wood used. The wealthy mainly used sandalwood (the most expensive) whilst the poorer people could only add sandalwood chips to other wood. The funeral party (men only) wore white, the men closest to the deceased had their heads shaved at the ghats and then dressed in long strips of calico. After the burning they would walk to the next ghat and bathe together. It was fascinating to stand above the burning ghats and watch - you were quite welcome to do it - but couldn't for very long as your eyes would start to burn from the smoke. Small children, religious men and people who have a genetic disease which turns their skin white ( we've seen many of then here) aren't burnt but are put into the Ganges River, their bodies weighed down with bricks. Sadly one day we were on the river on a boat when we saw a man holding his dead toddler buying some bricks (to weigh down his body). We saw him later in a boat going out to the middle of the river
with his son's body. Another group of women were waiting on shore with a small bundle - the body of a baby - it was the only time we saw women involved. There were never any women around the burning ghats. Very, very sad....
That evening we found out that the largest festival in Varanasi was to be held - we were thrilled as it was totally unexpected. All the icons that we had seen in the roadside temples were to be immersed in rivers and of course if at all possible the Ganges River was the river of choice for the immersion. We headed back to the ghats at 4pm - already they were busy with family groups. The men and boys in these groups were carrying the icons on wooden trays down to the riverbank and loading them onto the wooden row boats. A lot of the men were covered in pink tika powder and the women had red feet and hands from vermilion dye. The icon was drummed down the steps by groups of men with large wooden drums and at the base of the steps we saw teenage boys welcoming it by blowing into conch shells.
Absolutely fascinating! After the icon was on board the boats a religious ceremony would take place before the boat was rowed offshore and the icon tipped overboard. More and more groups came down as the sun set but the real chaos didn't start until after dark. The family groups finished and the 'clubs' (which I think must have been community groups) started arriving. The icons were much larger and this time only the men were involved, mainly because it became more frenzied as the night wore on. The men were totally high - on alcohol and adrenaline. They were wringing with perspiration, chanting and dancing as they carried the icons down the steps. The icons were very large - made of a straw foundation and covered with mud. The mud is sculptured and then painted in vivid colours. The detail was finely finished, the faces were beautiful and all were dressed in glorious costumes. Every group had three icons - an elephant (a form of Ganesh I think) and two ' figures' (large breasts but with mustached faces).
When the figures arrived on the edge of the ghats all the men would become more frenzied and start to run in
circles with the heavy wooden trays above their heads. It became quite dangerous at times as you were unceremoniously pushed out of the way. There were so many icons waiting for boats to take them out that it became very crowded. In the midst of this people were letting off fireworks, vendors were selling snacks, salesmen were selling toys and balloons, religious stalls were doing a roaring trade in religious items, pilgrims were begging, families were enjoying the spectacle, cows and dogs were wandering around and many people were lighting little bowls of ghee and flowers and setting them adrift on the Ganges. It was a truly amazing experience! And all of this was being repeated on many of the other ghats along the river. The ghat beside us was the main ghat where every evening a puja (offering to the Gods) ceremony is held. It's wonderful to watch as it involves six men, dressed in red, gold and cream satin suits doing a synchronised series of movements using conch shells, silver candelabra glowing with fire, peacock feathers and horsetails. Prayers are broadcast whilst it is happening. A lot of people were watching the ceremony from boats on the river
- as we did a couple of nights later. All evening we went backwards and forwards between the two ghats watching the festivities. At one stage we went onto the street - there were dozens of floats loaded with the icons waiting for their turn on the bank. These floats were beautifully decorated as well with flashing lights and garlands of flowers. They were pulled by tractors, trucks and even rickshaws. We saw some icons precariously balanced on the back of bicycles even!
After five hours on the ghats we started to feel that it was time to leave. The atmosphere was becoming increasingly frenetic and I was becoming a target for the young men. They would run at me and start dancing right in front of me. The noise level also had become unbearable - all the floats had prayers playing at top volume and many were also accompanied by bands. Most of the floats had a generator attached as well running the lights and music so that added to the noise level as well. It took us a long time to find a rickshaw to take us to our hotel as all the streets around the area were
closed to transport. Eventually we found one after a long walk but we had a couple of nasty moments on the way back as the driver was forced off the road by groups of men with heavy sticks who were clearing the streets ahead of their floats. The whole way back to the hotel we passed floats and large groups of chanting men on their way to the riverbank. Our hotel was 10 klms from the river but all night long there was a constant stream of floats going past - all from outlying villages wanting to immerse their icons in the Ganges. That was the main day for immersion though there were some over the next two days. Sadly, though not surprisingly, three young men were drowned on the main ghats the evening we watched the festival.
Next morning the city was littered with debris and empty temple tent sites - at least we now knew what happened to the icons that had been taking up so much of the locals temple time for the last few weeks. I wonder what happened to the icons in the tents in Nepal - maybe they were immersed as well. So the
worst day of our trip was followed unexpectedly by one of the best days. That is the joy of traveling I guess. We spent one more night at the hotel on the edge of the city before spending two nights in the guest house on the river bank. We had an amazing view of the length of the river and spent many happy hours on the balcony watching life unfold in front of us. The rest of the time was spent sitting on the steps of the ghats watching people worship and bathe, wandering (and getting constantly lost in) the narrow alleyways, browsing the many tiny shops and just soaking up the atmosphere. We saw plenty of religious pilgrims and heavily armed police. A Hindu temple, coated in pure gold, was in the centre of the old town and very close to our guest house. It had at least half a dozen entrances, all off very narrow passageways and each entrance was guarded by many police who for once seemed to be doing thorough searches as people entered. Our guide book said that there was a lot of community tension which accounted for the heavy police presence. Non Hindus were
not allowed to enter the temple grounds so we only caught glimpses of the gold roof as we passed the entrances.
We had two boat trips on the Ganges - one at sunrise which was a great experience as we could see all the people bathing and praying along the bank. The water was filthy and full of debris from the immersion idols, garlands of flowers, human waste and rubbish. There were also dozens of water buffalo standing in the water. We got off the boat at Assi Ghat (one of the furtherest ghats and walked back along the river banks and surrounding streets to our guest house. On the way we went silk shopping in the Muslim silk markets. I had a great time - the whole shop was covered in streamers of stunning rivers of colour by the time we left. I did buy though! After a couple of days in the old town we moved back to our first hotel, initially planning to stay for a few more days, but due to shortage of seats on trains out of Varanasi,due to the festival, we had to take the only seats available to Siliguri (for Darjeeling) the next
Varanasi was a totally amazing city - full of colour, dirt (particularly the cow muck everywhere) and religious practices which astounded me. It had an amazing energy and when you were in the old city you could almost believe that you had stepped back in time. Life and death was really 'in your face' there - I'll never forget the crowds of mourners around the burning ghat, the sight of rows of red and gold wrapped corpses lined up awaiting cremation, the many people bathing and cleaning their teeth in Ganges water we would consider filthy and the constant procession of people heading towards the rivers' edge with their puja trays. The highlight though was the incredible festival we were lucky enough to experience.......
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