Judy's Journey - part 2: Varanasi
Part 2 sees the group visit Varanasi - the spiritual centre of India located on the Ganges (Ganga) the holy river of the Hindus.
Today we go to Varanasi - or Benares, as the Brits called it- incredible that an empire which could build edifices and infrastructure, could not pronounce the Hindi name, and had to rename the great Indian cities!
We check into Gateway Hotel- beds as hard as concrete, a far from memorable hotel, with rising damp in the corridors, giving rise to the premier Polish word of the trip -"szmierdze" (meaning “it smells!”)
We head off for an evening boat trip on the mighty Ganges. Transported by "Cyclo-lixer" (as our guide Sapan calls cycle rickshaws), we hit the narrow chaotic streets of Varanasi. Bums squeezed in pairs on our precarious seats, one foot braced against the metal bar, we catapult into the seething traffic- an onslaught of honking cars, beeping motor bikes, ringing belled carts, tooting bikes, mooing cows, sirens, a cacophony of continuous clamour! From all directions, simultaneously, we face the barrage of movement, wonderously escaping collision, as we proceed, along with the throngs, en route to the Ganges. We alight as progress becomes impossible, to continue on foot, wending our way single file, brushed by beggars, cajoled by young and old to buy their postcards, their bindis, their candles, their anything! Lining the streets are vendors selling marigolds, food, offerings. Cows meander unhindered down the centre of the roads, oblivious of the dangers. Some take a rest anywhere along the way. Avoiding the fresh dung becomes a sport, with an unfortunate outcome for the loser! ... L and myself being twice- blessed!
We reach the river edge, along with many, and our first-hand Ghat experience begins. Along the steps, squat families with children, individuals, holy and unholy, all descending to witness the special Hindu prayer ceremony. Balancing each step, we board a rickety timber boat, with bench seats and a strong oarsman. Pushing off, our view back towards the ghat is an amazing sight of a seething mass of people, dogs, boats, with a background of fading colour from the buildings and clothing, as the light evaporates before our eyes and evening descends. The gentle rhythmic sound of oar-dipping, and we slip thru the water, in a procession of boats, making our way toward the crematorial ghat, where platforms of flames, and plumes of smoke, rise mystically into the air, decomposing the shrouded bodies into smoke and ash. Unexpectedly there is no smell of burning flesh, (they use spices, herbs, butter and ghee to assist the burning and mask the smell) and one has to pinch oneself that this is a funeral of the dead and not a display of beautiful bonfires! We gape in awe, respectfully refrain from photography, and take in the scene before us. Then, turning the boat around, we return to the main ghat, the flotilla forming a pontoon of connecting boats, suspended on the still black water, waiting expectantly to witness the priests' ceremony on the platform of the river bank. Encircled by whisps of smoke, the priests clad in white garments, swing flames to the mesmerizing music, then blow conches, which pulsate hauntingly, sounding like shofars (rams horns) blown on the Jewish day of atonement. The unified silence of the hundreds of co-joined spectators and participants renders a spirituality that is breathtaking! Worshippers and tourists light candles cradled on marigolds, which they float down the river, making a secret wish as the little lights silently recede from view, swallowed up by the mighty Ganga.
Returning to the shore, we are greeted immediately by our postcard-brandishing young "boyfriends", who had pursued us all the way thru the streets to the river's edge, and had, as expected, waited faithfully for us to alight. We happily buy their merchandise for the princely sum of $2, and they equally happily escort us back. We push forward on foot thru the crowds amassing as the night descends, through the traffic, & the narrow streets of the old city. As L tries to photograph an approaching bull, she finds herself subject of his wrath, and is, shock!horror! butted Pamploma style, before the bull exits unassumingly, leaving us gaping, but fortunately no gaping hole in her thigh!
Back bumping along in our rickshaws, we glimpse the internal life along the way, peeping toms thru the shops, into the back rooms, where nocturnal activities of TV-viewing, bench-sleeping, pot-stewing inhabitants go about their domestic business.
Back in the hotel, we leave the chaos behind, and indulge in an Indian dinner, relishing the assortment of spiced food. We giggle as we recall V's incredulous question in response to Sapan's statistic of 12,000 "passens" attending the Ghats per day.... "12,000 possums?" she queries! Some things just get lost in translation or pronunciation!
Up at 4am, we are able to drive almost up to the edge of the Ganges, as the crowds, although gathering, are not as impassable as last night. As we approach we see many removing their saris and dotis as they immerse in the holy river, to wash away their physical and spiritual impurities. A woman starts screaming at another, invading her sac of rubbish, until she pulls out a beautiful deep blue sari, probably purloined from the bank as she bathed! Her shrill shrieks startle us, but more so, her slapping and striking of the thief, who seems to impassively take what's coming to her!
After a sudden slip & bumpy descent of the stone steps by B, we seat ourselves on another boat, and glide thru the water as the sun rises, a gleaming red disc, reflecting a red streak of a tail, like a comet, skimming along the glassy water in the mist of the morning. Bathers line the ghats, sudsing their bodies and hair; children leap and dive in play; men swim with strong strokes, toward the middle of the river. Men and women soak and beat their clothes on the riverbank, pounding out the day's dirt. Again we witness the funeral pyres, fewer in the early hours; one lone family member, silently farewelling his loved one, bent forward respectfully as tho in deep mournful conversation with the departing soul.
We leave the Ganges, relishing this exotic experience. A small girl diligently moulds cow dung into fuel pats which she aligns to dry in the sun ont the rooftop. We wend again thru the narrow alleys of old Varanasi, skillfully avoiding cow sprays and shit, hardly believing the filth which surrounds us super-clean westerners, but more so, amazed at the normality of it all in this environment! How accepting of life in all its glory and its putrifaction, are the people of Varanasi. It is what it is, raw and exposed, no fancy wrapping paper or disinfectant, to mask the truth of life in India. We fast backtrack down an alley and perch on a step, flattening ourselfasts against a wall, out of the way of a mad cow, zig-zagging down towards us, a crazed look on its face.... after L's earlier experience, we are not taking any chances!
We wind back through the old city of Varanasi, thru alleys sporting yellow signs of Yoga academies and Guest Houses, located thru timber doorways, up narrow staircases to higher ground, where they catch a breeze on days of stifling heat. We head to our hotel for a hearty breakfast.
Well fed, we return to the old city, and support the local economy, buying gifts of teas, perfumes, children's painted puzzles and dress-ups.
We approach the Vishwanath Golden Temple, one of the holiest Hindu temples, with two domes plated in 800 kg of gold. As this important visiting site for purification of Hindu pilgrims is also the site of a later built mosque, tensions have flared occasionally in the past, and security is very tight. One needs to leave passports at the entrance, and consequently, nervous about their disappearing, we do not enter the grounds, but stand on tip-toes on a ledge, to peer over the wall, and behold the surprising splendour of the sparkling gold spire.
We visit a silk weaving workshop, where demo looms are being worked to show the skills of the weavers creating the sari cloths. Upstairs, the real show begins! Bedspread after colorful bedspread is laid out before us; sari after magnificent sari is pulled out, followed by parcel after parcel of scarves of pashmina, silk & cashmere. A few purchases later, we thank our persuasive hosts and hotshoe it back to out hotel for a well earned rest! At dinner we marvel over the various scenes of the day, wondrous of how much we have seen in the course of 12 hours, and reflecting on each episode, as though viewing a diaroma through a lens, imprinting Varanasi forever, on our minds and souls!
I had attempted to obtain tickets for the Palace on Wheels (POW) from a specialist rail tour company in the United States, only to be informed that the ticket allocation has been exhausted on the date we wanted to travel. I incidentally mentioned this to Andre as part of a broaderPeter Bermingham