North India Unplugged Trip - The Ghats of Varanasi

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May 8th 2013
Published: May 10th 2013
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Varanasi Street SceneVaranasi Street SceneVaranasi Street Scene

The driver is asleep in his rickshaw.
The overnight train to Varanasi was a fourteen hour trip. The mini van got us to Agra Fort station by 8.00pm, in plenty of time to catch the 9.00pm train. Once again, all luggage was piled up and we stood around it. Bishal gave us our carriage and seat numbers and it was up to us to get ourselves aboard. The train stopped for twenty minutes only, so there was no time to waste once it arrived. All luggage had to be stowed in our compartment, and we move as a team, making the boarding process as easy as possible for everyone.

We have air conditioned three tier sleepers, and they come with bedding, the same as the trip from Delhi to Jaisalmer. I have no complaints as to the cleanliness of these trains. They are a little cramped, and if you sit up in bed you'll bang your head, but that's to be expected. The air conditioning has worked well both times but the toilets are smelly and not very nice by the end of the trip. We all anticipate this, so everyone uses the loo before we leave the hotel and travels with tissues and hand sanitizer - problem solved. We also make sure we stock up on water, fruit or snacks, which can be purchased at the station, as no food is available on board.

We arrived in Varanasi at 11.00am, and have all luggage out from under the seats, ready to disembark as soon as the train stops. We were surrounded by the usual swarm of tuk tuk drivers as soon as we leave the station, and Bishal sorted our transport for us. We are squashed in, three per tuk tuk plus luggage, and endure another uncomfortable, and rather long ride to our accomodation, Hotel Haifa. Beats me why an extra tuk tuk can't be hired to take some of the luggage and make the trip a little easier on everyone.

We settled into our rooms and later met for lunch in the restaurant. Wifi here cost 100 rupees ($2) a day and was available only in the lobby. The air con was free, which was just as well as the hotel seemed to have a lot of power outages which, strangely enough, only affected the air conditioning. If we complained often enough it was switched on, only to be switched off again an hour later.

Bishal planned an orientation walk at 5.30pm, but I headed out on my own after lunch. Seems the hotel isn't far from Assi Ghat (steps leading to the river) so I asked directions and found the way myself. But, the heat got the better of me, and I headed back to the hotel, where I showered and slept for the next two hours.

Varanasi is a holy city and one of the oldest living cities in the world, with a continuous history dating back 3,000 to 5,000 years. Today, it retains much of the allure of the ancient world. The center of the Hindu world, Varanasi touts an unrivaled diversity and a unique sense that can be experienced nowhere else.

The banks of the Ganges River, built high with 18th century pavilions, temples and terraces, are lined with an endless chain of stone steps - the ghats - progressing along the whole of the waterfront. It was here that I ventured out during the afternoon and where Bishal took us again for our orientation walk later in the day.

The walk finished at Dasaswamedh Ghat about an hour later. We were just in time
Varanasi Street SceneVaranasi Street SceneVaranasi Street Scene

Rundown buildings are in every street scene here.
to watch the Ganga Aarti, a ritual which is held here every night. Ganga Aarti is a show stopper. It starts soon after sundown and goes on for an hour and half. The preparation in the lead up to the Aarti sets the tone for the evening ahead. It all begins with young priests organising their prayer instruments on their respective platforms – all seven of them. Visitors start taking their seats while locals can be seen buying flowers and other items from shops around selling pooja-related stuff.

The big fire lit lamps look beautiful as darkness envelops the area. The group of young priests began proceedings in a well orchestrated manner, synchronizing their movement with lamps in hand, to the rhythmic chants of hymns and beat of cymbals. Loudspeakers, floodlights and the continuous rings of bells further enhanced the drama surrounding the event. It is a spectacle and done with great pomp and show. Many opt to witness the Aarti sitting in a boat on the Ganges, for its lovely visual perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and had an excellent view of the proceedings, from an elevated balcony complete with a plastic chair, which I paid 50
The Ganges RiverThe Ganges RiverThe Ganges River

Boats in the Ganges River near Assi Ghat, just down the road from the hotel.
rupees for. Afterwards I walked back to the hotel via the ghats, in the company of one of the men in the group. I wouldn't have attempted it on my own as a lot of the ghats are dimly lit, and we got back to the hotel without any problems.

Bishal had planned a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges for the next morning (Wednesday) so we gathered on the front steps of the hotel at 5.00am. It's an easy walk to Assi Ghat where our boat, shaped like an oversized rowboat, is waiting. Our boatman uses oars and the current to move us down river. Other boats are out as well, but none have motors running. Even in the middle of the Ganges at this early hour we can't escape vendors trying to sell stuff, and boats approach with stock laid out for us to look at and hopefully buy. But we aren't out here to shop and they soon move on.

We drift along the gnats for over an hour, giving us plenty of time to take photos and watch devotees swim, bathe and wash their clothes in the water. We passed the most confronting ghat,
Assi GhatAssi GhatAssi Ghat

A street stall on Assi Ghat.
Manikarnika (also known simply as the burning ghat) which is the place where the majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi.

Hindus believe cremation will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. You'll come face to face with death at Manikarnika Ghat. Piles of firewood line the shore and the fires continually burn with the stream of dead bodies, each wrapped in red and gold cloth and carried through the lanes on makeshift stretchers by the doms, a caste of untouchables that handle the corpses and supervise the burning ghat.

A very sobering sight, which reinforced the cycle of life and death here in Varanasi, and the important part the Ganges River plays, was seeing a bloated body floating face down in the water. We cruised past it, I gasped in shock, but the boatman just kept on going, as if he sees it every day. Other boats would have passed it too. Not a nice sight to start the day with.

Later that morning I tuk tukked to the old city to have a look around. The streets were busy with traffic and pedestrians. It reminded me of Delhi and the chaos in
Bathing in The GangesBathing in The GangesBathing in The Ganges

Devotees bath in the river.
the streets there. I enjoyed walking around, admiring the gorgeous saris and other items for sale, and ignoring the calls from vendors when I passed their stands or shops. They all want to make a sale but all I purchased were six mandarins, two of which I gave to a beggar woman. They disappeared into the folds of her sari in the blink of an eye. I wondered what else she might have stashed away in there...

I'm not tempted to buy as I don't want to carry anymore than necessary. I did enquire about the cost of silver jewellery again, but couldn't reach an agreement with the silversmith, who wanted double what I paid in Pushkar, so I didn't buy.

On Thursday morning, I decided to go to the burning ghat, where all the cremations are done, hoping for a closer look. I caught a tuk tuk outside the hotel and he dropped me at Dasaswamedh Ghat, or as close as he could get, as the road was closed to vehicles unless they paid a fee. That was fine, I walked the rest of the way, where I was approached by a man asking if I wanted a boat. We agreed on a 300 rupee fare ($5.50) for him to take me to the burning ghat, where he would then wait and bring me back.

As soon as I stepped ashore, I was met by a young man who volunteered to show me around and explain the burning process. He was one of the 'untouchables' who worked there. There was no way I could have walked around by myself. I was the only westerner, and female, in sight.

Only Hindu people are cremated here, and there are three levels where the different castes are burnt, caste meaning the social position of the person. Lower castes are burnt on the lower and middle levels, both being ground level, one a little higher than the other. Upper caste people are burnt on an open air platform surrounded by concrete railings and accessed via steps. This area is in the highest position, and overlooks the others. During the wet season, when the Ganges River rises, all castes have to be cremated here as the lower levels are under water.

On average, 250 people are cremated here every day. Fires burn around the clock and huge wood piles
Life On The GhatsLife On The GhatsLife On The Ghats

This woman has collected cow dung. it will be formed into patties, dried, and then used for fuel in their fires.
are everywhere. Lower castes use banyan tree wood and upper castes use more expensive sandalwood. Two bodies were burning when I was there, but there was absolutely no odour of death or burning flesh because of the wood used. I was shown a fire which never goes out. It has been burning for as long as cremations have been held here, and is the fire that every pyre is lit from, using straw to carry the flame. No accelerants are ever used to help start the fires.

No female family members are allowed at this ghat. The pyre is built and lit by the men. Reasons being that women cry and create too much emotion and, in times past, would throw themselves on the burning pyre and die alongside their loved one, a practice which is now illegal.

I was told that the chests of the men don't burn, as they are so strong from work, and the hips of women don't burn as they are strong from childbirth. These bones are removed from the pyre, after burning,and tossed into the Ganges. The family have no claim on the ashes which are shovelled into a pile everyday. These
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Good morning Varanasi! Street art.
ashes are then panned in the shallows of the Ganges and any traces of gold, from jewellery mainly, will be salvaged and sold.

I saw a big pile of sandstone slabs which are used to tie bodies to before they are dropped into the Ganges, as not everyone gets cremated here. Holy men, children under ten, pregnant women, cobra bite victims and leprosy victims don't get cremated. Hence the body in the river yesterday - it had probably come undone from its slab and risen to the surface. Nothing will be done about it, it will be allowed to continue drifting with the current and will eventually disappear.

I found the whole process fascinating and could stand and watch a body burn without revulsion. Probably because there was no smell and I know that this has been happening for hundreds of years and will continue to happen for hundreds more. An interesting morning!

I had a very hot walk along the ghats back to the hotel in the midday heat, after being dropped back at Dasaswamedh Ghat by the boatman. I had run out of cash, after paying the boatman and giving a donation to the hospice at the burning ghat, so had no option but to walk back. I spent the rest of the day close to the hotel, as we were leaving for the railway station at 5.00pm, to catch the overnight train to Kolkata.

Additional photos below
Photos: 50, Displayed: 30


The Ganges RiverThe Ganges River
The Ganges River

A view of the old town and the ghats surrounding the river.
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The Ghats

Approaching the main ghat where the aarti ceremony is held.
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The Ghats

Hindu painting on a tower at the main ghat.
The Aarti CeremonyThe Aarti Ceremony
The Aarti Ceremony

This was fascinatng to listen to and watch. So much atmosphere....
The Aarti CeremonyThe Aarti Ceremony
The Aarti Ceremony

One of the seven priests during the ceremony.
Boat VendorBoat Vendor
Boat Vendor

They never miss an opportunity to make a sale.
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The Ghats

Photo taken early in the morning from the river boat.
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The Ghats

Taken from the river boat early in the morning.

10th May 2013
The Ghats

Hi Deb, You took a photo of the guesthouse we stayed in! The cream building behind the sinking pile - we were very close to the action! Love the blog - bought backlots of memories. Xxx
11th May 2013

Glad to here you are doing well!
Hi Deb, our family is now back in France and reliable wifi and we are enjoying your blog. Glad to hear all is well!

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