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Published: April 22nd 2011
Bull at Assi Ghat
That's a lot of bull!
Note: We have finally successfully uploaded some photos!! Please revisit all previous entries to catch up on them...
We arrived in Varanasi train station around mid-day on Monday, April 18, a large, chaotic station brimming with people on the go, selling "street food", produce and crafts, or camped out on the expansive floors. It was hard to know if the campers were waiting for a train or living in the station.
We took a motorized rickshaw, the 3-wheeled, green and yellow "tuk-tuks", to our hotel through the greatest driving cacophony of blaring horns, congestion, and speed we've ever known. It feels like "bumper cars" in the amusement park only, somehow, magically, we never crash into each other. There are no traffic lights in this city of over 1,000,000 people, so drivers (on vehicles of every kind with pedestrians and animals everywhere) turn across traffic constantly, in miraculous patterns of interwoven give and take. We captured the whole experience on video, including a uniformed man (police?) striking a bicycle rickshaw driver. Apparently, there had been a minor collision with a car, and the rickshaw driver was being blamed. It felt to us like a caste system injustice.
Dawn on the ghats
Dawn on the ghats
Ganges View is gorgeous, located on Assi Ghat with fabulous views of the Ganges, one of India's 3 sacred rivers. It was built as a private residence around 1903 and is furnished with antiques, art and books. The attention to detail is superb and we feel quite pampered. The roof top terrace has the best view of sunrise over the Ganges. The clientele is largely Western, and we enjoyed dinner with 2 couples from France, Italy and Mexico on our first night.
"Ghat" refers to the system of steps extending from the buildings above to the river below where Hindu devotees bathe ritualistically. The ghats extend along the western bank of the river for perhaps 3 miles and are the main draw that brought us to Varanasi. Walking along the ghats provides a panorama of humanity: ritual bathers, sadhus (holy men/renunciates) sitting by shrines, boatmen offering outings on the river, vendors selling food, drink, flowers and crafts, children begging, herders bringing their cows to drink, boys playing cricket, poor people sleeping, people doing laundry, businesspeople on their way, middle-class families, girls walking together, boys walking together, touts (pushy tour guides drumming up business), tourists and the usual assortment of
cows, dogs and goats.
The pollution of the Ganges is finally being addressed by the government in a serious way. Sewers are being installed throughout the city along with sewage treatment plants, so hopefully, in a few years, the Ganges will be healthy again. As it is now, it is quite horrifying to watch people bathing in the river. To quote our guidebook: "Water that is safe for bathing should have less than 500 faecal coliform bacteria in every litre of water. Samples show this part of the Ganges has 1.5 million!"
We've taken this time to get some much needed rest in our fabulous hotel with walks along the ghats. On Wednesday, we had lunch at the Brown Bread Bakery whose mission supports a school for disadvantaged children, as well as a women's empowerment group offering fair paid work to local women, leading the way socially and environmentally. The food is organic wherever possible, and live music is offered in the evenings. We met a delightful young English couple who have been traveling throughout Asia for a year. We were so impressed with their tales of adventures, we invited them to dinner with us at our hotel
Washing laundry by the ghats
Washing laundry by the ghats
and enjoyed a lovely evening with them.
On Thursday. we took a taxi to Sarnath, just outside of Varanasi. Sarnath is one of the 4 sacred places of Buddhism. A giant stupa, 34 meters high and dating between 200BC and 400sAD, marks the place where the Buddha offered his first sermon. All of Sarnath is a magnet for Buddhists worldwide. There are several temples representing Buddhists from Japan, China, Thailand, Burma, and Tibet.
Thursday evening, we took a boat ride on the Ganges, past the main burning ghats at Marnikarnika Ghat where cremations take place 24 hours a day. There were half a dozen or more burning simultaneously, both along the water's edge, as well as higher up. We were told that there are about 150 cremations a day.
Every evening at 7pm, a puja (ritual) takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Thousands gather along the steps as several men, in choreographed precision, ring bells and wave large, elaborate, lit brass butter lamps. Singing and chanting, backed by tabla (Indian drum) and other instruments, is amplified. From our boat, which was hemmed in starboard to port with a hundred other boats, we had a fabulous view of the
puja. The entire effect was quite spectacular.
On the way back to Assi Ghat (upstream), our boat hitched a ride with a motorized boat and in the process, our boatman lost an oar (made from very thick bamboo). Luckily, the motorized boat was able to retrieve it. We were glad for the hitch as our boatman had a persistent cough and it didn't feel right to have him work so hard to row upstream.
This morning, our last full day in Varanasi, we took a dawn boat ride a short distance to a ghat where morning yoga takes place. It was wonderful to witness another Varanasi sunrise, this time from the water. En route, we were alerted by some people along the shore of a pigeon in the water, struggling with some fabric tangled around its leg. Happily, our boatman retrieved the bird and with Brian's help, they were able to free it. It was a pleasure to watch it fly to the shore where it rested for awhile, recovering from its ordeal.
As we walked back along the ghats, we observed the laundry business in action. Washers stood in the Ganges, beating each piece of laundry with a bamboo stick against a rock in the shallows. Others carried the washed laundry up to the higher ghats where it was laid out to dry on the steps, on the dirt, and hanging over railings. This was a big operation and we suddenly wondered if our hotel sheets are laundered in this way! Everything looked clean and colorful, yet it is hard to imagine how Ganges water and drying on dirt can produce cleanliness. As Brian keeps saying, "It's the magic of the Ganges!"
Just upstream from the main laundry ghat was another smaller cremation ghat. We had seen 3 cremations occurring here last night, during our evening row. Now, in the early morning, we watched the preparations and lighting of another. Only men were participating in the rituals, many of them bathing in the river as part of them. Our boat man had told us that after the cremation, any parts of the body remaining are thrown into the river. Though this may all sound terrible around the issue of cleaning up the Ganges, research has determined that 95% of Ganges pollution is sewage-based. With the sewage issue beginning to be addressed, it is hopeful that the timeless rituals of bathing, laundry, and cremations can continue in a clean and healthy river.
Tomorrow morning, Saturday, April 23, we fly from Varanasi to Kathmandu, Nepal, and say our goodbyes to the India portion of our Asian adventure...
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