Arrived at Varanasi a half an hour late (not bad). Got to the hotel and waited a few hours to check in. Went for a lovely breakfast and a quick look around the hotel area and gardens. Got in the rooms, showered and are now free until 1pm. Bliss. This hotel is really nice with beautiful gardens.
Varanasi (Banaras) is on the banks of the River Ganges (Ganga), and is considered one of the most sacred places on Earth. So spiritual is this place and river, the lucky ones come here to die. Many Hindus throughout the globe keep a vial full of water from this river in their homes, for those who will not be at the river when they die, the river will be put on their lips as they pass away.
We got some tuk tuks into Varanasi and then got on some bicycle rickshaws. I see a young boy on his bike caught in the melee and I panic a little for him. But, with no concern, he navigates his way through the mess. Walking through alleyways full of people, goats and cows, shops set up on platforms either side. Hassle, hassle, hassle. This place is more mental than Delhi. Its crazy busy.
We stop for lassi. As we leave, we make way for a procession carrying a bed of marigolds on their shoulders. It takes a moment before I realise that this is a the mortal vehicle of someone passed and this funeral procession is on its way to the burning Ghat. I can’t put into words, just yet how I felt. Brief shock, I guess.
I’m not sure I’m keen on Varanasi. Its full of tourists, the really fake traveler type who will undoubtedly bathe in the Ganga with only a shallow depth of understanding and end up with dysentery.
We walked along the Ghats (riverside areas reached by steps from the town) seeing life and death happen all around us. We saw the monk school children, the ones that do yoga each dawn and laugh hard for a few minutes each morning to clear away the evil spirits.
Further we go, into small alleyways, each side stacked high with logs of wood. So much of it. We were approaching the burning Ghat. The sacred place where the fortunate come to be cremated on the banks of the river. We got hassled by aggressive beggars and people trying to be guides (real guides require certification). There appears to be a drug problem here, looking into crazed eyes detached from reality, people vying for business amongst the Untouchables (those working with the dead – the lowest in the caste system. Their caste prevents their own bodies being cremated after death, they are just left to rot, or put in the river). Here Pradeep left us. He did not enter this area and we aren’t sure why. Was it because he couldn’t be with the Untouchables, or that he couldn’t enter the location of the aggressive businesses that seem to operate here? He kept an eye on us from afar.
We saw our first funeral pyre. I could feel the heat. It was sad and intense, yet at the same time being hassled by people to be your guide, or hire a tuk tuk was really crap. There was even a bloke selling candy floss. It’s more like the seaside than the most spiritual place on earth.
I don’t like it. This is not what I expected.
Later, we caught a boat that took us onto the river. We had a drummer and a sitar player who, once the engines were switched off, started to play as we drifted down the River Ganga. The sun set. It’s a beautiful river and very calm. We sat, soothed by the music on this still water, looking over to the Ghats, seeing pyres burn low, people bathe and the lights steadily flicker stronger as darkness fell.
We each had a few lotus leaves filled with rose petals and a light that we gently dropped into the river. Carefully placing these into the Ganga with a wish each time. I’m a bit angry and disappointed with Varanasi, but this moment touches me.
Sailing towards a Ghat, we experienced an amazing sight.
Hundreds of people on boats were congregating at the Ghat, hundreds of people gathered in on the Ghat on shore, all watching a massive prayer ceremony dedicated to Lord Brahma.
A river runs directly from heaven, onto Lord Shiva’s head so not to harm us mortals with its force. This water is the sacred river we float on now. Chai walas hop from boat to boat selling masala chai. Its noisy, but then we hear chants that rip through your soul and silences everyone. We stand and take it all in. The sounds and vision was incredible. Time stood still. And they do this every day.
Back to shore. Dinner and the scariest tuk tuk journey home.
An early night.