Dear Blog Readers: Internets have been few and far between so I am posting 3 travelogues tonight. Hope this doesn't overwhelm you. We are currently in southern India and doing well. Hugs from us both.
India Travelogue #6
The morning was free to explore Khajuraho but we stayed in the hotel because we were both fighting colds. About noon we drove to the nearby airport for our flight to Varanassi. The airport procedures were different and more intensive than any we have experienced. Mayur collected our checked luggage and got it screened. We all had to put a tag on each of our carry-on bags and these got through the screening machine while we went into a cordoned off area where a woman guard patted us down and inspected every single thing in our pockets. Then they wanted to see everything in our carry-on bags. Once they were satisfied, they stamped our tags on each bag and also our boarding pass. You can't even carry on extra batteries for your camera! Once on board, it was only a 40 minute flight but they quickly served us ½ a veg sandwich and a fruit juice drink. At all the airports they don't have the extension bridges to the planes; you have to be bussed to the plane on the tarmac and then climb the mobile stairs.
When we arrived in Varanassi we were met by 2 cars which transported us to the hotel. Mayur said that Intrepid pays for the very expensive Palace on the Ganges Hotel because there is so much traffic in the old part of the city and especially along the river that it would take too much time to get in and out for the various activities if we stayed anywhere further away. As we traveled in, the streets became more narrow and convoluted and much more impacted. Everywhere there are people walking in the street, every inch alongside the road has a stall or store or someone selling something or even a street side restaurant, and the street itself is clogged with cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks. It is nuts. In about an hour, we reached our hotel which was a very nice one and located within 200 yards of the river – we could see it across the parking area and riverbank right in front. We were greeted by the staff with a flower lei and a tikka was put on our foreheads. We have learned to quickly wash these off because the paint stains your clothes if you smear it. There was a rooftop cafe and viewing platform where we could see a lot in the nearby streets and on the river.
Varanassi is one of the world's oldest cities, dating back to 1400BC, and is situated between 2 tributaries of the Ganga, the Varuna and Assi Rivers. The Ganga, which normally follows a southeasterly course, changes it path here and flows north through the city. This is considered very auspicious. Shiva is said to have poured the river Ganga down from the Himalayas and Buddah gave his first sermon just outside the city. It is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities of Hinuism. To die here is to receive an instant passport to heaven and release from the cycle of reincarnation.
The ghats are the areas of stone steps leading down the riverbank to the river and there are now more than 100, altogether covering 6 km of the river. They pretty much connect with each other all along the riverbank, and from a boat it looks like you are passing a continuous series of stadium seats made of stone. There are huge, tall stone buildings behind them, many of which used to be the homes and palaces of the various maharajas because they had to make a long journey to come here and they needed their household space once they arrived with all the hundreds of people in their retinue. Today a lot of these are hotels or guesthouses. It is one of the commands of Hinduism that at least once in the life of a devotee, they have to bathe in the Ganges at Varanassi. And many people who are old or sick come here to die. It has become quite a center for old people's homes.
Every night at sunset there is a ceremony call a puja at one of the central ghats. Almost as soon as we had checked into the hotel, Mayur hustled us down the muddy riverbank to get in our boat to travel down there to see it. There was still some light so we could see all the activity and buildings along the riverbank as we motored down there. We were told that we could take pictures of everything but not at the cremation ghats. These are platforms right near the water where huge piles of wood are topped by a dead body which is cremated, and then the ashes are pushed into the river. The male family members have their heads shaved in grief, and the eldest son lights the funeral pyre, but the females stay home. There were lots of boats of various sizes going up and down the river but most were heading for the Dasaswamedh Ghat where the main ceremony is held. By the time we got there, there were already lots of boats there and they were all tied together, so we joined them. There were kids selling tea and flowers and candles who walked nimbly across all the boats. Most of the boats were very old looking wooden ones, some were fairly large, like ours, and some were just row boats with 3 or 4 tourists in them. There were not just western tourists here; many of the boats were full of Indian tourists. And the steps of the ghats were absolutely packed with people.
In front of the ghat there were 7 platforms set up and because the water level of the Ganges had dropped recently, these were higher than the boats, so we could see them clearly even though there were lots of people in the boats in front of us. Big floodlights had been set up and also speakers, and we could hear the chanting. Seven priests came out and took their places on the platforms and then with much bell-ringing, singing and chanting went through a series of choreographed movements with candles, metal implements that gave off a lot of smoke, a christmas-tree shaped set of candles, and big fire burners. People were pulling on ropes that rang lots of bells during the whole thing. When it was over, our boat returned us to the hotel and we could see that there was activity at other ghats as well. We all walked around the block to a different hotel called the Haifa, where we ordered dinner. There were some nice choices for middle eastern food here, the best we have had since our trip to Syria.
The next morning we went back out on the river at 5:30AM and this time the boat was rowed along the riverbank so we could observe all the early morning activities. There were thousands of people washing at the ghats, some people were washing clothes as well. Some cremations were also happening, and we could see them more clearly today. Even animals such as goats and water buffalo were brought down to the river or wandered down on their own. There were several areas where we could see dirty water and probably also sewage flowing down the steps and into the river. Later we read in the newspaper that Varanassi produces 350 million liters of sewage a day but their treatment plants can only handle about a third of it; the rest goes untreated into the river. There are new plants being built to change this, but it will take a while. In the meantime, the water is horribly polluted and people are bathing in it by the thousands. Additionally, the cremation ashes are shoved into the river, and there are some bodies that are put into the river without cremation. Our boat brought us partway back and then we walked along the ghat walk and observed some of the groups of people who were worshiping at small shrines, gathering to chant or sing, or other activities. After breakfast at our hotel, we had a cycle rickshaw ride to the bazaars in the central area. What a chaotic ride through very busy and crowded streets, but it was fun! The seat wasn't very roomy either. Elaine and I barely both fit on it, and to think that we see Indian families riding in one! The guys riding these really earn their money. We then walked through part of the bazaar on a narrow sidewalk to a place where they sold silk and wool scarves, pashminas, tailor-made clothing, etc. When our group entered the room, the floor was like a big white mattress with all of the goods on the walls all around us. We sat on the floor and were served tea, Then the owner explained how to tell real silk from fake silk, all about combed cotton and wool, all about Jacquard weaving, etc. and he emphasized each point by throwing out scarves or other items which were examples. Pretty soon there were layers and layers of textiles on every available space on the floor. It was hard to choose a scarf because there were so many beautiful ones, and there was quite a variety of prices as well. We finally settled on 2 colorful silk scarves which only cost 500 rupees each (about $11). They will be useful when we enter temples and mosques and have to cover our heads. Everyone else was taking longer so we left and decided to walk along the ghats back to the hotel.
Since we were now alone, and not with Mayur, we were immediately bombarded by touts and vendors who wanted us to buy their stuff, or just guys who wanted to talk to us. Mayur always told us to just ignore people and not even talk to them, but at one point we had to ask for directions and a boy of about 14 attached himself to us. We tried to get rid of him but he continued to badger us until finally Elaine was very rude to him and told him to just go away. I think he thought we would give him some money just to get rid of him, but we wouldn't. Finally, he left. It is very sad that this happens in some foreign countries because we are forced to be rude to people and then they think all foreigners aren't nice. But if you are ever nice to someone, they either attach themselves to you or want something.
There was some difficulty on part of the walk along the ghats because there has been a big buildup of mud on some of the steps because of the high waters of only a short time ago. They brought in some big hoses and pumper boats and were hosing the mud back into the river. Within a few days, all the ghats will be cleared of mud again. I suppose the cost of this will be paid by the family that has the commission to maintain the ghats by imposing fees on the cremations. Only this one family sets the fees (based on ability to pay) and determines who gets to cremate their loved one there, and who doesn't. We noticed they had a rather ostentatious house right in the middle of the ghats, so all the fees aren't used for ghat maintenance and festival fees.
When we got back to our hotel, it was lunch time so we went to the nearby Aum Cafe. Some other American tourists who knew Mayur had told us about this place and that it was owned and run by a woman from Sonora, CA. On our way there we ran into her in the alleyway and asked her about her life. She has changed her name to Shavita, is in her 60's, has been there for 7 years, has adopted a 4 year old boy, and is running her place in conjunction with an Indian woman and her family. She decided to do this on her first visit to India when she felt this life change calling her. Her cafe serves only organic vegetarian food made with purified water, has wireless internet, and is somewhat of a hangout for young western tourists trying to find themselves. The food was good but kind of boring. She returns to Sonora for 3 months of the year and spends 9 months in Varanassi. Amazing!
That afternoon there were lots of drums and processions of people coming down to the ghats with huge baskets of sweets on their heads, for another special festival. We watched a lot of the activity from the rooftop of the hotel. Later, Mayur took us out on the boat again because he had arranged for a musician who played the sitar, and his drummer, to play for us for an hour. We had to go all the way across the river for this performance because there was so much noise from the festival and the thousands who were gathering. The music was good and being out on the water for the performance was magical. After an hour we returned to the shore to transfer the musicians to another boat and we returned to the middle of the river for the candle ceremony. By now it was dark. About a hundred candles which were nestled into little bowls with flower petals around them, were lit and then we released them onto the river. Mayur said to make a wish and if our candle was still lit when it reached the other end of the ghats, our wish would be granted. With all of them floating down the river together, it was hard to see which ones made it.