Witnessing life...and death by the Ganges


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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi
August 30th 2015
Published: November 27th 2015
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Dare a dip in the ganges

When we hear people talk about India, one of the first things they mention is the famous Ganges river. Even after hearing the stories, watching the documentaries and even reading various blogs on it, we knew we had to visit this holy city.

This is the city where Hindu's come to be put to rest. Like we said, we'd heard many of the stories and....well in all honesty for a long time we had been put off on coming to this place . Especially P! I mean who really wants to see the charred remains of someone floating down a river? Sorry to be soo blunt that's just what we heard.

Getting here should've been straight forward from Jaipur. We had the trains booked already and the tuk tuk ordered for the morning pick up. What could go wrong??

Well our first train was cancelled. This had us frantically trying to secure another ticket (hopefully with a seat) at the station for the next train. Eventually we secured a train 2 hours later and arrived in Delhi with a couple of hours to spare until our next train; the second leg of the journey from Delhi to Varanasi was just as confusing. Our tickets said Delhi on them and so we assumed it was from the Old Delhi station not realising there was also a New Delhi station!

Turns out we were at the wrong station. Why does this keep happening to us. We had 30 minutes before our trains departure! In usual Chris and P style, we made a mad dash to the metro station and arrived at Old Delhi station exhausted & sweaty with 2 mins to spare. Luck was with us once again. We managed to find our train which was running late. Saying that I never want to do that again. Running around (not jogging, literally running) trying to navigate busy walkways with our backpacks was challenging to say the least. We felt like our lungs were going to explode as we could barely catch our breaths. Catching a train in India just seems to be an ongoing nightmare - for us anyway.

Side note: There are direct trains available from Jaipur to Varanassi. Its just that going through Delhi and spending 5 hours there was the only route available the day we booked our
tickets.

Arriving in Varanasi, the scene was very much the same as in some of the busier cities we had visited in Rajasthan: rickshaws/autorickshaws, bikes/motorbikes, cows, many people going about their daily lives and fruits & veg sellers on the streets. The India we had came to know, hate and love.

After a quick clean up at the hostel we headed out and made a beeline for the closest ghat. We were based at the southern end of the ganges but it seemed all the 'action' took place in the north. Nevertheless we visited the Ghat around the corner from us - Assi Ghat. Nothing unusual to see, people just relaxing by the ganges from younger to older groups sat together, the odd holy man with long dreadlocks sat on their own at peace and the odd tourist here and there. It felt like a nice relaxing place for a local, unfortunately not as a tourist. There were a lot of boats here with boatmen selling way over inflated priced tours down the Ganges. With this unfortunately also came the hassle. Even after declining one offer to buy something or to take a boat ride, the next person would see your attempt to relax as an invite to try harder and more insistently than the last.

They would always approach Chris with their extended hand, ask him where he was from and then proceed to massage his hand. It was their way of promoting their masseuse business if their first sale attempt of a boat ride failed.

Chris found himself wrestling his hand back on a number of occasions. P found it funny, she had already experienced this. It was now Chris's turn. We both laughed at the friendliness of the people here who seemed genuinely nice and at the same time would not let go of your hand.

The ganges was as we expected in some ways. Life here was based around the water. Even so, being here and taking it all in still had us amazed and intrigued. People were bathing in the Ganges, whilst others were brushing their teeth, swimming or washing their clothes in it. So many people just enjoying the river or making use of it in one way or another. Compared to what we expected it had a lovely ambience to it even thought it was a light shock to see people seemingly bathing and drinking this water knowing what lies beneath these murky waters.

Prior to coming India we'd heard that there is special bacteria that 'eats bad bacteria' in the river - we were not quite sure how true that claim actually was and certainly did not want to try any of the above to test it out.

The main ghats in the north was a good 2 miles away from where we were staying. We decided we would walk it. We had barely walked 10 mins and were covered head to toe in our own sweat, the humidity here was sky high. In high season when the river is lower, its possible to walk beside the Ganges across all of the ghats but unfortunately for us it was monsoon season and the river was really high which made it impossible for anyone to walk north beyond the steps.

After catching a rickshaw near the main ghat, we worked our way through the exceptionally narrow maze of alleys. We had to squeeze past people queuing up at the entrance to a holy well at one point, with motorbikes pushing their way through too.

We stopped by the famous lassi shop by the simple name of "Blue Lassi". The lassi's here were some of the best we'd ever tasted. P ordered apple whilst Chris ordered banana and apple. They were served in a round clay cup with a wooden spoon and pistachio nut sprinkled on top. We even made sure to return the following day for another one. Whilst enjoying our lassi we spotted a familiar face enter the small shop - Tamir - from Jaisalmer a few days ago! Due to the location of the shop, the seats face the narrow alleyway, so we just people watched as locals went about their daily business whilst slurping on our lassi's. From our seats we witnessed at least 4 bodies (wrapped up) being carried towards the cremation ghats. This must be a usual scene for the locals here. For us however as each group of men passed, carrying the wrapped elevated body above their heads singing and chanting as they passed, the hair on our arms stood on end.

We paid a visit to one of the cremation ghats and were led up the stairs of an old building overlooking the ghat by a young man. From this viewpoint we could see everything - the ganges, the ghats, the decorated 'mummies' awaiting to be cremated, the bodies currently burning away on the funeral pyre and also the cows nearby, casually munching on garlands that were once draped over the deceased. Our self appointed 'guide' told us that up to 250 cremations happen here daily. He also pointed out the separate areas where the higher caste and the lower castes were cremated. People of lower castes were burned at the foot of the ghat right next to the river whereas the higher caste were cremated upon a higher platform. Surprisingly it didn't actually smell bad at all. We were told that the wood has a special quality of absorbing smells, which is why it's so expensive yet very much needed for cremations.

Holy men, children, pregnant women, people bitten by snakes and animals are not to be cremated. They are just 'sent' down the river. We didn't stick around for the corpses to be sent along the ganges though. We know what happens to some of them - bones (especially women's pelvic and mens sternum bones) are dragged ashore by dogs and 'feasted on'. This is the same river locals bathe and wash clothes in. I guess when the river is deemed holy it takes on another different meaning to have your clothes washed here.

As we were about to leave, our 'guide' motioned to an elderly woman sat at the doorway with her hand out. He said she needed money to buy wood and that we should donate some money for her to buy a kilo. We'd read about this scam however, she was not related to any of the deceased outside, it was just a way of trying to get money out of tourists and it was a lot she was asking for. Our 'guide' even tried guilt tripping us when we refused, telling us "it's for the dead people" when it was clearly not. Then he told us he works for a company who arrange funerals through donations for families who cannot afford this. We were not slightly fooled by this very insistent teen. We gave him a tip for the knowledge he shared earlier on and went on our way. Its actually quite disturbing that they'd use somebody else's families tragedy as an opportunity to gain for themselves.

Speaking of opportunists, at one ghat we observed a couple of men in the ganges, heads emerging from the water and hands filled with 'gunk' from the river bed. We asked a local who we'd got speaking to what these men were doing. He told us that they were searching for jewellery and gold to sell to the jewellers. Bodies are sometimes burnt with some of their possessions, mainly jewellery. This is what the men in the water are looking for!

That evening at the ghat near our hotel we took a short half an hour paddle boat ride along the ganges which was nice, as we got to see Varanasi from a different perspective. During the boat ride we got talking briefly to 2 young locals lads who invited us to sit with them on the steps of the ghat afterwards. We're generally quite wary of any local being 'friendly' but gave these guys the benefit of the doubt, plus we were going to sit their anyway for the evening show. They even bought us some lemon (with spice) tea and sweetcorn as we chatted away. One of them did ask us to try out 'his' restaurant in
Another busy day by the riverAnother busy day by the riverAnother busy day by the river

Bathers, laundry & worshippers
the morning, we agreed we would but later on decided against going to anybody's new restaurant. Not after what happened in Udaipur and becoming ill. Surprisingly he wasn't too pushy with it.

So this show we mentioned. Not knowing much about it, we'd heard there would be men dancing with fire overlooking the ganges to traditional music. This sounded like it'd be fun. Evening Aarti as it is known apparently happens at a number of ghats at the same time each evening. What the show was and what we had in mind were 2 different things. We pictured dangerous, well practiced tricks, juggling fire or something but it turned out to be a more spiritual and religious affair. Three men dressed in golden robes on platforms slowly moved in unison whilst holding a golden chalice with smoke billowing out of it. They would face the ganges, hold their chalices up high and almost in a similar way to tai chi - turn around slowly into a crouching position. Many locals and domestic tourists sat amongst us on the steps watching this 20min performance. When it ended everyone followed the men down to the ganges; some people flicked water over themselves, others washed their feet (Chris dipped a toe in and then proceeded to splash P just imagined P's face when some landed on it. Not impressed). Although I guess that what we came for to get close to the Ganges. P bought a small basket filled with flowers and a candle in the middle from a charming young girl (who seemed well educated and spoke perfect English) and sent it off into the river. The basket is supposed to bring you luck.

The following day we opted for the slightly longer motor boat ride along the ganges. This would take us further up the ganges to parts we hadn't seen before and also one of the burning ghats we visited the day prior. A couple of indian tourists on our boat had collected themselves 2 big bottles of river water as a souvenir (a popular thing to do here). The views from the ganges were quite impressive as we took in all the buildings and unused ghats as well as the greenery on the opposite side of the river to the more rural areas of Varanasi.

We enjoyed our time in Varanasi but after 3 weeks of hectic India we were definitely looking forward to some relaxation and a slower pace in South India. We just hope we have more luck catching a plane here than we do with trains..

Varanassi to Goa- flight (9300 rupees each) and taxi to airport in Varanassi and from airport in Goa

Accomadation: Hotel Ganesha.


Additional photos below
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28th November 2015

When I was 8 years old I visited India...
and saw vultures pick a dead body apart. That put me off India for life.
28th November 2015

at 8 years old
I'm not surprised you were put off. What a horrible experience. That was something I was concerned about experiencing myself but lucky for us we witnessed nothing like that at all. Just the ordinary life at the ganges which was nice to see.
28th November 2015

India's impressions and education
You are learning so many things on this section of your trip. Some impressions confirmed and some changed. It is always fascinating to sit and observe the life in the day of a local. Our different cultures, expectations and goals make the world go around. With your track record you should go to train stations earlier. :) You've contemplated life, death, rituals and ceremonies and as you say cows rule.
28th November 2015

Indias impressions and edication
Such a thought inducing place. Yes one of my top impressions is like you said cows rule. Did not expect that at all. You will be surprised when I say we were at the station 2 hours before the train was due to leave. However due to communication difficulties a few people gave us misleading information about the platform was the train was to leave on. When we were certain 40 or so minutes before we were on the wrong platform that was when we finally were able to confirm we were at the wrong place. Our tickets were useless as it just said Delhi. Arrh. The last of our train issues if I remember correctly. 😄
28th November 2015
Man using captured monkeys to entertain locals

Life & death
A fascinating blog of humanity on show..watching life going by...death and beyond...and the myriad of ways to survive and make a buck. Happy days.
28th November 2015
Man using captured monkeys to entertain locals

Life and death
It certainly was a facinating place. Watching life unfold around the ganges and watching people trying to make ends meet really took us by surprise. But like you said it's one of those places that leaves you with some sort impression and causes some deep thought. Varanassi left us thinking more about our cultural differences and consequently differing perspectives.
29th November 2015

The one that got a way...
We really wanted to go to Varanasi, but we just couldn't fit it into our month there... so I really loved reading this post. I can imagine that it was a though provoking place. As Merry said, may be the train gods are trying to tell you something ;)
29th November 2015

The one that got away
After all the nervousness about going it turned out to be a real interesting place. Certainly thought provoking. We did witness some of the funeral pryres but it felt somewhat far removed. I cant exactly explain why. Luckily we didnt witness anything floating or anything being mauled by dogs or vultures so we were very fortunate in that sense. Certainly worth a visit on your next trip.
29th November 2015
Our first boat journey down the ganges

I'm guessing that this was BEFORE the 'splashing water on face' incident :D
29th November 2015
Our first boat journey down the ganges

Getting wet in the ganges
Haha im sure it was a similar face I gave although I think this face was given when Chris kept trying to take pictures of me and the whole boat was staring.

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