Nothing can ever prepare you for Varanasi, no books, no films, no documentaries, here seeing is believing and having the sense of smell, sight,taste and sound makes Varanasi impress on you an experience that is unique to every visitor. As with most places in India, its dirty, noisy, chaotic, crazy but here the notion is tinted with a holiness that seems to gloss over all this at times. On the Eastern side of Uttar Pradesh and set on the banks of the mighty and sacred Ganges Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the most sacred cities in India.
Pilgrims from across the land and earth come here to bath and be reborn in the black waters where others come to die. In Hindu religion it is believed that to die here and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges will liberate you from the re-cycle of birth and death – reincarnation, therefore millions flock here every year. As I arrived in the city after a run of the mill 16hr train ride, crossing over the Ganges on my tuk tuk you can feel the somber mood of the city as beyond the bridge through the shimmering early morning mist you could see the smoke and fire from the cremation points in the distance along the river.
The city is believed to be over 2000yrs old, and is a maze of winding and very narrow streets that add to the feeling of age. I was dropped off somewhere near my guesthouse and whilst attempting to find the guesthouse got lost in one of the many narrow street. It had been raining through the night and the narrow labyrinthine of streets were a littered with rubbish, aimlessly wandering cows, more rubbish and cow dung. Unluckily I only had on my flip flops which soon turned into ice skates on the muck. Covered in muck I arrived Puja guesthouse and straight to my modest room to wash the crap off.
The guesthouse was less than 30m from the western bank of the river and boasted an overlooking rooftop restaurant where you could just about see up and down the river. On the banks of the river there are around 100 Ghats (Hindu Place of Worship with steps leading down to the river) and each one each associated with different gods built by varying rulers / kings and all with personal significance to each Hindu depending on which God they worshiped. Apparently there are only around 36 million Hindu deities and one God to choose from in Hindu religion and thankfully not as many Ghats to worship each of them. The most popular Gods are Vishnu (the preserver). Shiva (the blue coloured destroyer), Kali (the all black terrible form of Devi) and Ganesh (the jolly pot belied elephant headed god of good fortune and remover of obsticals). Ganesh being the most popular of most gods.
The Ghats all preform varying purposes – bathing, offerings, ceremonies (Puja’s) and of course cremation. Hindus believe that bathing in the mighty Ganges aka Ganga aka The Great Mother remits you of your sins and the river is one of their Goddess. Now Ganga is not the pristine, unpolluted river that you’d expect a natural Goddess to be like. We’re in India here, the river is almost black due to the 30 sewers situated on its banks and is 3000x over the safe recommended bacterial bathing limit. It sends a shiver down your spine especially when you see many people drink this “holy” water.
Devote Hindus also believe that a persons soul is released from the cycle of birth and death upon dying here and often people will donate all their wealth and possessions to the hospice where they will die and get cremated. Cremation is only allowed for people who die of natural causes. Another important part of Hindu belief is Karma where doing good acts will lead to a better next life so Varanasi is also home to high numbers of beggars where pilgrims can re balance their karma by giving back to the poor.This tends to create a vicious circle as the more pilgrims give money it attracts more beggars to flock to Varanasi and there are more than a few there already, so much so that you cannot walk more then 10m with out having a begging bowl shoved in your groin.
Once washed and coffeed up I ambled down a narrow passage way towards the river followed of course by numerous beggars, hawkers and unoffical tour guides. I rounded the bend where i first saw the river but stacked all around me was 15ft high bundles of wood I then realised that I had ended up at Jalsain Ghat – Cremation central. When I reached the river I was shocked and speechless. In front of the Ghat were 3 cremations all in full swing. To see actual bodies burning away in front of you is a bit of a shock especially wen you see the odd hand or foot sticking out from the flames and these cremations happen 24 hours a day. The average body takes around 23kg of wood to cremate and each 1kg of wood costs around 600 Ruppies (£6) per kg, where the average daily income is 60 rp, therefore an expensive business.
The bodies that are burned are brought to the bank of the river by the men of the family and they transport the covered body up on their shoulders on a wooden stretcher chanting “Shiva is god, Shiva is great” in Hindi. Once the body is rested near the Ghat the men then shave their heads in preparation for the burning. The area around the Ghat is pretty torrid and not for the faint hearted as once the embers die down the remains are pushed into the river where animal scavengers wade through the thick black goo looking for scraps. The heat from the fires is also very fierce and combine that with the mid day sun it becomes very hot. As everywhere in India there is a cheaper alternative to the fire cremation, if price is a problem. The electric cremation is this solution and sends a few thousand volts through the receivers body and frazzles the body to chard remains.
I stayed around for 30 minutes mostly in shock but moved on after enough morbid fascination. The rest of the walk along the river was far more sedate affair where numerous Hindus bathed (one of them alongside a bloated corpse), performed religious acts and cast out flowers into the river. There was no where you could go along the river without being pestered for money, palm reading, hair cuts, a shave, your ears waxed or a boat trip and of course your own personal guide for the day. The most infuriating thing was as soon as you got rid of one there was another to take his place, but you need to perfect your 1000 yard stare. I walked for about 2hrs taking in as many Ghats as possible before I had to escape back to the guesthouse to relative peace and quiet.
It was a relief to be sitting in the rooftop restaurant and watching the madness below rather than being in it!. That night I ventured down again into the madness and enlisted myself onto one of the river cruises. The small boat took me up the river where i watched a Pooja which is the a Hindu ceremony. The Pooja involved a lot of melonic chanting and waving of lanterns and was fascinating to watch although I was a little lost to as what was going on whilst getting pestered for everything under the sun. Things wrapped up around 10pm and I again escaped back to the guesthouse for peace and quiet.
The next day I visited the Nepali temple which was a short chipaty’s throw away from the guesthouse. The temple has ornate carvings of the Karma Sutra inside, however the only problem was that they only opened the temple when they felt like it! I visited the temple when it wasn’t open but all around the temple where beautiful carvings of wood and stone. Later that day I was on another overnight train so the rest of the day was spent weaving my way through the narrow back streets in search of the Vishanath or Golden Temple. The Golden Temple is on one of the most religious places in Varanasi and in India dedicated the Lord Shiva and unfortunately not a grandeur as the name suggests. Although the dome of the temple is plated in 800kg of pure gold (no photography was allowed here) the actual temple is very small and very busy. Built in 1776 it has been subjected to numerous terrorist attacks and therefore security into the place is very tight. Once inside and being one of the only white people there I was subjected to special treatment not only from the police. This special treatment involved trying to be fleeced for as much money as possible. Entering through three security checks I made it to the rather small temple which was the Golden Temple itself, then after being forced to buy a small parcel to offer to the gods (about £1) to actually gain entrance to the temple, I was then subjected to all mannerisms of ways to part with my money. The hassle factor inside the temple was almost as bad as outside which I found to be irritating in such a place of worship mostly due to pestering idiots trying to make a quick buck.
The inside of the temple was rather bland and a small well inside was where I had to deposit my offerings along with hundreds of others.I was then shown the door once it was known I had no more money or offerings to give. Charming! Night soon rolled through and it was back to the train station and onto an overnight train further West towards Delhi. To be honest I was getting quite agitated and annoyed with all the pestering and although I encountered plenty of it in SE Asia it was escalated to whole new level in India and it was becoming tiresome and energy sapping. It was also starting to taint the whole experience of India. It starts to get annoying when people ask you the same thing 20 times a day – do you want a hotel room, do you want to visit my shop, do you want to buy some hashish, do you want some food, do you… You start to loose your patience with people after a while, something you don’t want but it eventually happens. It was time to man up, harden up, get on with it. I was heading for India’s main tourist attraction – The Taj Mahal and here the touts and hawkers were of biblical proportions and it would only depress me more if I let them bug me too much. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.