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India 2014 - Varanasi

INDIA | Friday, 5 December 2014 | Views [405]

From Delhi, we got an overnight train to Varanasi. Varanasi is famous for being the "holiest place" in India. It is right on the river Ganges, and is made up of a network of confusing, interconnecting alleyways, and a load of ghats, which are steps down to the river Ganges. Before we got to Varanasi, we were told to watch out because the touts and scammers are even worse than in Delhi. I didn't see how that would even be possible, and thankfully we didn't find that. Although we may have just gotten lucky.

On the first day, we arrived at about 8am, after a really bad night's sleep. We met a Polish lady who lives in Cyprus on the train, and she came with us and stayed at the same hotel. While waiting for breakfast, she organised one of the hotel workers to take us around and give us a tour. We went and had a nap and showers, and met at 12 for a tour.

Our guide took us through the narrow, twisting back alleys showing us local wares and points of interest as we headed to the river banks.  The banks of the Ganges are fascinating. As it is considered a holy river Indians use the water for every purpose imaginable. They wash in it, drink it, bless themselves in it, bathe in it, do their laundry in it and use it as a place to deposit the remains of their dead! When we descended the ghat to the river banks the first thing we notice is people washing in it and honestly, it's quite disgusting! The river is filthy, there are cow pats EVERYWHERE, it stinks and is full of refuse, rubbish and waste! The worst of it though is that it really is full of dead bodies!
We wandered along the riverfront with our guide pointing out temples, palaces and other sites to us until we reached an area known as the "burning ghat". This is essentially a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year crematorium, where they use a holy fire which has not been allowed to go out and is tended to around the clock. The practice, the history and the religion behind it are fascinating and it was genuinely interesting to watch.
The dead are placed on small funeral pyres, blessed and given offerings of sandalwood and butter before being cremated. You would expect such a place to be full of sorrow and weeping but because of the spiritual nature of the area it's the complete opposite. The families of the dead are there to celebrate life, the mourning happens later in private, and it makes for surreal viewing!
When the body is fully cremated they take the remaining bones (the hip bone of the females and the breast bone of the males) and cast them in the river, allowing the remaining ashes to be sifted through for valuables which the crematorium keeps (not such a spiritual act!) before being washed away.
People travel from all over to be burned on the banks of the Ganges. However, if the deceased is a child, a pregnant woman or has died from some form of poisoning or unnatural cause they are not allowed to be burned, and are simply thrown in the river.  This means that the river bed is literally covered in corpses so you can imagine my reluctance when our guide suggested I go for a swim!

In the afternoon we found a small bakery recommended in the guide book as it sold over 40 different types of cheese, 30 different breads and dozens of cold cuts and deli bits! After so long in Asia eating Kraft Single Cheese slices and sweet bread, we were in heaven. We spent hours in there in the afternoon and returned a further 3 times before we left Varanasi! That evening we met up with the Polish/Cypriot lady and went back down to the river. In the evening they hold a small religious ceremony on the river bank offering blessings and prayers. We stood and watched, and were surprised by the amount of "religious gurus" who attempted to scam us. One man walked up to us, and before I even knew what was happening, he had smeared a bindi spot on each of our foreheads and told us how we are blessed and gave us a blessing thing about " father mother sister brother blah blah blah". He then shoved a plate under our noses and asked for a donation. We told him we had no money, and refused to pay him. I have never been blessed and cursed by the same person, in such short succession. We then headed to a really nice rooftop restaurant overlooking the Ganges for dinner.

The following morning we woke early, went back to the river (it really is the main thing to do in Varanasi!) and took a sunrise boat ride. The views were spectacular. The architecture and history of the town make it really very beautiful and it was a good way to spend the morning. The rest of the day was pretty relaxed. We attempted to see a few more temples and museums but really were not interested so gave up after a short while and spent the afternoon relaxing!
We were planning to head to Agra the following day and everything in India had been going so smoothly we had been lulled into a false sense of security. I woke at about 4.30 in the morning not feeling very well. I lay in bed for a few minutes unsure what to do before making a very quick dash to the bathroom to be violently sick. I spent the next 12 hours within close proximity to the bathroom, never entirely sure what was going to happen and getting increasingly worried for the 12 hour train journey we had ahead of us.
Lucky for me, Meg had a solution. Valium! Take one, sleep like a baby, wake the next morning feeling refreshed and healthy. What could go wrong? I won't go into too much detail but needless to say sleeping pills and chronic diarrhea do not mix...

Tags: ganges, ghats, river, varanasi


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