Monday, August 5, 2013

Final stop in India: Varanasi

So here's the spoiler: we survived India (occasionally against the odds). We arrived at our last Indian destination, Varanasi, by sleeper-train. It seems that we had run out of good luck with sleeper trains with our journey to Agra, because this time we were allocated two upper bunks, with my bed being above India's Champion Snorer. It was not just the volume of his snoring that won him that prestigious title and prevented us from sleeping; so strange and varied were the animal-like gutteral noises he produced that I couldn't go to sleep for fear that I would miss his most impressive sound yet.

It's fair to say that I found the idea of Varanasi a little intimidating. It's a place where Hindus go to die and to cremate their departed relatives, and a place which every single traveller we met who had been there described as “intense”. As with Delhi and Agra before it, expecting the worst actually resulted in a pleasant surprise upon arrival. Varanasi isn't the nicest place we have visited on this trip by a long shot, but we didn't receive the barrage of attention from rickshaw drivers, guesthouse operators etc that we had been warned about, and we found a decent guesthouse without a problem.

The main focus of Varanasi is the famous Ganges where millions of Hindus go each year for holy dips and blessings at the various ghats, and also where the deceased are publicly cremated. We were expecting to spend a lot of our time in Varanasi wandering around the various ghats watching the goings on and soaking up the atmosphere (and perhaps seeing some unpleasant sights in the process). Well, have I mentioned that it is the rainy season at the moment? Well it is, and as a result the Ganges is so high that it is impossible to walk around the ghats; the only way to access any of the ghats by foot is to navigate the maze-like alleyways in the river-side area and try to find an alleyway that leads to the river. This could have been good fun – you never really know what you're going to see around the next corner when you walk around areas like that - however, it being the rainy season, it was raining! This made the alleyways more like tributories than pathways. Consequently, our idea of discovering the ghats for ourselves was scuppered.

On our first evening we walked down to the Ganges to see the fire puja ceremony. The ceremony was really interesting – a group of Hindu men slowly moving various flaming holy objects whilst music played (I know, I really haven't done it justice with that description) The downside, however, was that it is a huge tourist trap, with a significant part of the large audience being westerners (including many who had paid to get a good view from boats on the river and the balconies of the overlooking buildings). Along with that comes the inevitable opportunists looking to take advantage, and on a number of occasions I felt my pockets being tapped by very young children who are clearly part of a pick-pocketing racket which also involves adults (presumably their parents). The ceremony is a really impressive spectacle and it was clear that for many of the Hindus in attendance it was an important and holy experience; however, as a result of the large non-Hindu audience and being a little on-edge, for me personally it felt a little more like a show for the tourists than something sacred.

The alternative option for visiting the ghats at this time of year is to view them by way of an early morning boat tour. So we got up at 4.30am (for the second time in three days) the following day and made our way to the river where we were able to join forces with three other tourists and negotiated a not-too-outrageous price for a boat tour. Once again our early rise was rewarded; the river was absolutely beautiful as the sun rose over the far bank, and our non-motorised boat was really peaceful.

For the first part of the tour we were travelling upstream and it's fair to say that our rower earned his money as the bloated river was really powerful. 

He was working much harder than it appears in this pic
We passed by a number of ghats where people were taking early morning dips, some praying, some receiving blessings, some washing themselves and some washing clothes. The atmosphere was really pleasant and relaxed, and with a combination of the low light and peacefulness at that time of day the Ganges really does have an air of something sacred about it, something that I was not really expecting to feel.

Also unexpected were the interesting pieces of street art along the river bank. I'm not sure how in keeping graffiti is with such a holy place, but it certainly created an interesting juxtaposition.

After a post-boat tour nap (is it still a nap if it takes place at 7am?) we made another attempt to see the ghats on foot, and in particular the ghat most popular for cremations.  However, by that time the roads leading up to the ghat area were grid-locked as a result of being 6 inches deep in water and despite the attempts of traffic police on stilts wearing florescent waterproofs to organise the chaos.  We waded through the calf-deep water (making a conscious effort to not look at what was floating in it) but unsurprisingly the ghats were inaccessible.  Consequently we decided that our time in Varanasi would be short and that we would head north to Nepal the following day.

Varanasi was far from my favourite place in India, but it was also more pleasant than some others would have you believe, and it is certainly interesting to visit anywhere so revered by the people of a particular religion. It was also fitting, as it is the end of the line for many Hindus, that it should also be our last stop on our India rollercoaster.

So that is India done. Well, about as much of India as one can realistically see in 3 months disrupted by a bout of dengue fever and without spending more time in transit than stationary. I dare say that we will make some attempt to sum India up in a more succinct way when we have had time to recover and reflect, however it really isn't somewhere that is suited to a succinct summary and there are a million and one additional things that we could have written about the country if we had the time (and if we thought anyone else would read it all) but none can really do it justice.

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