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Published: January 15th 2010
So, alone at last.... Hugh had headed off for Darjeeling and I was on my way to Varanasi on the overnight train from Calcutta. Usual overnight trip - pretty noisy, vendors constantly up and down the train offering food and drinks, "Chai Chai, Coffee Coffee" is the constant background noise! I was in a 'cabin' with an Indian guy and his mother on their way home after a break in Calcutta. He's a teacher and explained that it had been so cold in Varanasi that they'd had to close the schools - didn't sound great to me!
So we arrived early the next morning and Varanasi was blanketed in fog and feeling pretty nippy! I settled in at the Elvis Guest House - couldn't resist it with that name and was told that the weather was unusually cold for this time of year but that they were sure it would brighten up, and it did later that afternoon, so I took my first walk along the Ganges. It was everything I'd heard and more - the river itself is filthy but nonetheless people are washing their clothes in it, bathing in it, washing their teeth in it, drinking from it
and burning their dead alongside it.
The ghats are busy from morning til night. There are a couple of 'burning' ghats and these seem to be constantly busy too - usually around 100 bodies are burnt each day but apparently the cold weather has resulted in a high number of deaths in recent weeks and there are more like 150-200 bodies being burnt each day - and it goes on 24 hours a day. Those in mourning bring their loved ones' bodies to the ghat fully wrapped in coloured silks and laid on a stretcher made from bamboo. The bodies are doused in the Ganges and then ceremonies performed which involve prayers, pouring more water from the river onto the body, sprinkling various spices and flowers over the body which is then eventually set up on a carefully stacked set of logs (the size, type, weight of the logs are precisely calculated to ensure that the body burns efficiently) and set alight. The mourners then sit around while the body burns - this usually takes around 3 hours. From what I saw it would appear that the lower half burns through first. As the cloths burn from the body
you can clearly see the faces of the dead. Once the body is burned through the ashes are scattered into the river. It's quite pricey to have someone cremated in this manner because of the cost of the wood but there is a cheaper option in the form of an electric cremation plant from which the mourners can collect the ashes for scattering into the river. Apparently anyone can be burned and have their ashes scattered here apart from five groups - children aged under 5, pregnant women, anyone who has died from snake bite (no idea!!!), sadhu's (holy men), anyone who had leprosy - these poor unfortunates can still go into the Ganges but they're wrapped in cloth, tied with stones and dropped in.
You're not allowed to take pictures of the burning ghats - which is understandable, but the locals are more than happy for you to stand and watch and amongst all the mourning there are goats wandering around, kids playing and people taking mobile phone calls - it all feels a bit bizarre.
Each evening there are huge Puja services along the river - I thought initially that these were staged for tourists but
hundreds of Indians also attend. They involve the Brahman (priests) carrying out a long and complicated ceremony and culminate in people lighting candles and floating them off down the river in the moonlight as a tribute to Mother Ganga - it's supposed to bring good Karma - it's very moving to see all the candles bobbing away down the river. I lit a candle and sent it on it's way thinking of those amongst my family and friends who have passed on and trying desperately not to fall in and get an unscheduled bath!
Unfortunately because of the weather it's been pretty misty most mornings so an early morning boat trip - which is essential in Varanasi - has been out of the question. I did the trip early one afternoon though once the sun had burnt through the mist and it was lovely to see all the ghats from the river - you really see the contrast of cremations going on within yards of kids playing and cows, goats and buffalo wandering around.
Amongst all this death and ceremony life for those living in Varanassi goes on as 'normal' and one of the favourite pastimes for kids
and adults alike is flying kites - the sky is full of little triangles of colour and everywhere you walk you're tangling your legs in string! There are also games of football and cricket going on along the ghats too so it's a real hive of activity.
It is bloomin' cold though - even the goats wear jumpers, I'm not kidding (boom! boom!) - check out the photo. I've wisely invested in some thermals and a hat and gloves and am seeing it as acclimatisation for Nepal - though part of me is tempted to fly back south to the sun! The benefit of the cold though is that there are no mozzies and it doesn't smell and given the state of the Ganges and the number of cows, buffaloes and goats wandering around and pooing everywhere I'm sure it's pretty nasty in the warmer weather. When you walk down the streets there are lots of little fires lit everywhere with people warming their hands.
Lala, the guy who owns the guesthouse has taken it upon himself to make sure I'm OK and drives me around on his moped if I need anything! The other day he insisted
I try some paan - which is betel nut, mixed with calcium and various herbs and bits and pieces, wrapped in a leaf. You chew it and then spit out this disgusting red spit - you see this all over the roads and pavements, it looks like there's been a bloodbath. The people who chew this (lots of them, men and women) have a really vile habit of talking with a mouthful of spit - it's like when you try to speak while brushing your teeth so you hardly move your lower jaw! The betel nut stains your teeth, gums and lips red so it looks like you're about to lose your teeth. Anyway I lasted about 2 chews before I had to spit the whole lot out - it was disgusting and that was when they'd used coconut to sweeten it for me!
I've met a lovely French guy called Patrick who I've been hanging out with in Varanasi and am looking forward to meeting lots of other interesting folk along the way. Patrick told me that it's really cheap in India to get your eyes tested and buy glasses and contact lenses - he had his tested
and had new glasses made for less than a tenner in under an hour - bet you can't do that at Specsavers!! He'd had to lend me his reading glasses cos I couldn't read the Lonely Planet map clearly and I think he was hinting that I could just get myself a pair!
Whilst in Varanasi I met a British girl who had come to India 10 years ago and hasn't been home since - she's now training to be a Sadhu - she speaks fluent Hindi and is learning Sanskrit - she lives in the foothills of the Himalayas and sounded very well spoken so I'm guessing her life is a bit of a contrast to her old British life- she certainly seemed very content with her lifestyle. This is not a hint - I AM coming home!
I'm actually sending this now from Nepal - had a bit of a nightmare the last couple of days and was unable to get to an internet cafe to get this sent but am settled again now so will update on Himalayan adventures and yeti spotting soon....
lots of love
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