Bathing at the Ghats of the Ganges

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January 11th 2011
Published: February 4th 2011
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Given that the prime object of my brief trip to India was to tour the Rajasthan region, I was not sure whether it was a wise decision or not to first make a significant detour to the east to Varanasi. It was, absolutely, in a number of different ways!

For those not familiar with this city, Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges and/or to cremate their loved ones. Varanasi is an auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers Hindus liberation from the cycle of birth and death. As such, the city is considered the beating heart of the Hindu universe, a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Ganges is viewed as a river of salvation, an everlasting symbol of hope to past, present and future generations. The is played out in open public, where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place on the city’s ghats, which are the steps that lead down onto the river.

Now we all have different things in life that give us a buzz – and sometimes one person’s buzz is another person’s misery. Such an example is the utter chaos and bedlam of day-to-day life on Indian streets, which I really enjoy. And Varanasi gave that to me in spades. It all started from the airport, which was some 25kms from my hotel in the centre of the city. The trip in took over an hour. “Boring”, you might say, but in fact it was quite the opposite. For almost the first time in my life, I actually wished a taxi trip from airport to hotel (of which I’ve done hundreds!) wouldn’t end, instead of the reverse. The whole trip in was the perfect illustration of the chaos on Indian roads, with a seething mass of people, animals and vehicles all competing for the same piece of space on poorly sealed, pot-holed, far too narrow roadways. The people were a mix of those just sitting or standing around, those actually walking along (often with a great load on their backs or balanced on their heads) and those just darting in and out of the traffic. The animals ranged from dogs to cows, chickens, donkeys and goats, most of them wandering aimlessly and quite oblivious to the traffic and bedlam around them. And the traffic was the full monty, from bicycles to bike rickshaws to auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks in other countries) to motor bikes to cars (many of them still the old Morris Ambassador taxis), trucks and buses. And do you think all the traffic was travelling on the left? No, why make it that simple? Everything was going in every direction, turning in front of each other, holding hands up to signify they want priority, and of course the incessant horn-blowing. Occasionally there was a ‘traffic cop’ holding a large wooden cane, which he would use to whack a car across its bonnet or a cyclist on his wheel to get him to stop for turning traffic. However, he was frequently ignored. And there was not a traffic light to be seen. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it! And we hadn’t even sighted the Ganges yet.

The Ganges was the next interesting experience. I didn’t reach Varanasi till around 5pm, basis my plane being delayed boarding at Delhi for 3 hours, then held a further hour on the tarmac, and then had to circle Varanasi for half an hour before getting a landing berth, which was then starting to make Indian Railways look efficient! So, by the time I checked in to the hotel, got my bearings and made it down to the river, I had missed the sunset. But I was just in time for the evening’s aarti prayer ritual, which goes for about an hour just after sunset each day. But to get there, I had to be rowed about a kilometre down the river. Under normal circs, this might have been nothing special, but this particular evening, the river was calm as a millpond, and there was a heavy low-lying mist, which together contributed to quite an eerie atmosphere, paddling along to the dimly-lit backdrop of the various edifices that rose up above the various ghats. The ceremony was interesting rather than spectacular, and I enjoyed taking photos of the crowd just as much as of the ceremony performers themselves.

The following morning, I managed to find myself a travelling companion. A delightful Chinese lady, running under the very un-Chinese name of Carol, was enquiring at the hotel desk how to get to Sarnath, the location where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. When she sighted me, she could tell I was a fountain of knowledge, so sought my assistance, but in fact I’d never even heard of the place! Upon which, she asked me if I’d like to join her on a search for the illusive Buddha, and not having had a better offer all day, I accepted her invitation. As well as being a most pleasant and interesting of companions, and being able to share our transport costs, she introduced me to the Chinese technique of bargaining with Indian rickshaw drivers and anyone else who offered us a price for any services. By the end of a scorching negotiation with Carol on a fixed price for a rickshaw ride, some of the drivers were almost offering to pay her for the privilege, she was that tough! As a standard, I generally counter them with half of their initial offer, and then move a little up from there just to make them feel they have had some sort of a win – this might leave me out of pocket by some 20-30 cents, but you at least have a happy operator. Carol would counter at about 10% of their original offer and work down from there. Things were obviously tough being brought up in the Communist Chinese regime of the 1970s! Anyway, we finally found our way out to Sarnath, and located the mighty Buddha’s sermon location, although he didn’t seem to have any sermons running on this day.

The afternoon was spent back at the Ganges doing a trip up and down the various ghats (around 100 in all) with a most varied and interesting backdrop of former palaces and other interesting edifices. Perhaps the most ‘interesting’ part of the afternoon was our attendance at the cremations, for which they do around 200 per day. Not surprisingly, Carol got us ‘front row’ seats to the point where we were so near the various fires we almost got cremated ourselves. It was a little too graphic for my particular likings, especially watching the locals poke the odd foot or hand that had fallen out of the fire back in to complete the job, but an interesting experience.

To be honest, I had thought that the area around the Ghats would be pretty heavily geared towards the tourist, given the massive number that visit there each year. But on the contrary, there was almost no recognition of their needs, and certainly no Maccas or KFC or Starbucks for those that didn’t fancy the local fare. Furthermore, we were advised that no meat can be served within the vicinity of the Ganges, so for two days I turned Indian Vegetarian, taking in such well-known meals as Uthappam Dosa and Chole Bhature. When you find out what these are, can you drop me a line, but they tasted a bit like a potato fritter and chapatti respectively.

The next morning was a real experience. I had arranged to meet Carol for breakfast at 7.30am, at which time she advised me that she had heard the Dalai Lama was giving a live address up at Sarnath at 9am, and she was desperate to see him in person. The only two problems were that Sarnath was about an hour’s trip away, and also that she had to leave for the airport at 10am, so time was pretty tight all round. Being the massive Dalai Lama fan that I am, and having covered the Ganges sites to my satisfaction (and since I was due to leave around midday anyway), I decided again to accompany her. Carol first negotiated a rickshaw for the hour’s drive to Sarnath for about 5 cents (some licence used here), then absolutely berated the driver every time he hesitated on direction (which was often, as frankly I don’t think he knew where Sarnath was). However, we finally reached our destination a little after 9am. Two further problems then arose – we were required to have a photocopy of both our passports and visas as well as two passport photos to apply for entry to his address, and also, there was a line of at least 100 people queued up already, and they were processing delegates’ passes, as only the Indians can, at the rate of about 1 person a minute, documenting each delegates’ life story in massive detail (do you think the DL really cares about your mother’s maiden name and what date you got your Indian visa?). So entry by the 10am deadline looked distinctly unachievable.

‘Not so’, says Carol, ready to rise to any challenge! Having confirmed that I carried a couple of spare photos with my passport, she then ordered me to look after the bags and hand her my passport and the photos, and she would do the rest. Sure enough, less than 5 minutes later, she returned with the required photocopies, then miraculously, returned another 5 minutes later with our delegates’ passes. How she beat the huge queue, I have no idea, but ask no questions, you get told no lies! So there we are around 9.30 with all the required authorisations. There was another 5-10 minutes walk to the venue, which happened to be an area about the size of the Sydney Football Stadium, absolutely choc-a-bloc with delegates sitting cross-legged on the grass (they estimated there could have been 20,000 there, the majority Buddhist Monks in their red or orange robes) wedged in like sardines. The old DL was up on a throne about 100 metres away, barely visible from where we entered, giving the masses his words of wisdom, I’m assuming in Hindi. ‘No worries,’ says Carol, ‘’follow me’. Five minutes later, we are both sitting about 10 metres away from the big man in the best seats in the house, and we must have stayed there about 10 minutes before his minders came around and told us in no uncertain terms to bugger off (my words, not theirs!). To be frank, 10 minutes of the mighty one’s words of wisdom (in Hindi) covered our needs, so we departed and actually made it to the airport on time. A most amazing experience in many different ways!

So, it’s now off to Jaipur, the ‘Pink City’, with a transit stop and a change of planes in Delhi.

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