~And let us pursue that most tempting of
Friday, January 18, 2013
Varanasi, India – Where Hindus Go to Die
We stood on a wooden platform looking over the banks of the Ganges River. I held my blanket close around me, trying to keep warm. Dozens of square kites, about a foot across flew in the sky. People flew them from the rooftops, the small narrow alleys, small boats on the river, and from the ghats, which are staircases running right along the water. A nearby twelve-year-old was flying one, but it took a nose-dive and crashed to the ground right in front of us. He went running towards it, ducked around a wood funeral pyre, hurdled a dead body and picked up his kite. This is Varanasi; where Hindus go to die.
We arrived to Varansi right as it started getting dark. Fortunately, we met a couple Korean guys who were going to the same district we were, and so we shared a taxi. This had to be one of the scariest taxi rides ever. He wasn’t a crazy driver, he was incredibly slow, and then I came to conclusion he was basically blind. He had really thick glasses and would randomly stop in the middle of the road to look around when there was absolutely no one in front of him. He also drove in the middle of the road towards oncoming traffic, and he almost ran over a bicyclist. I really thought this was the end, and so I told Bryan I loved him for the last time. Luckily, we made it, and in the end, I sort of felt bad for the guy. He seemed like a really kind person, and I hope he can fix his glasses or eyes or stop driving taxis.
The first tout we met when we arrived in the Old Town district in Varanasi decided to show us how to get to our guesthouse even though we didn’t need his help. His name was Ravi. He had no desire to listen to me when I told him to leave us alone, and said some pretty rude things to me whenever I spoke my mind. He followed us the entire way, about a 15 minute walk, and never left us alone. For the most part, I received little respect as a woman when I spoke which meant Bryan did most of the talking in all of India.
Our guesthouse was pretty awesome and overlooked the Ganges, the sacred river and one of the most polluted in the world. However, this does not stop Hindus from bathing in it. They believe this river to be spiritually pure and that bathing in it will wipe away their sins. Hindus from all over India also go to Varanasi to die in order to be cremated on the banks of the river in order to be purified and to stop the cycle of reincarnation. There are five kinds of people who are put directly into the river and not cremated: holy men, pregnant women, people bit by cobras, people who had leprosy, and children under 14. This is because these people were already pure or had been purified, except for leprosy. I suppose they don’t want to burn them in the open air. So yes, all this is done in the same river. I decided to bathe myself…no, I’m just kidding. Apparently, many people get sick bathing in it, so I chose to not put my skin anywhere near it. We did see bodies being cremated along the banks. There were two main areas, the big burning ghat and the small one. The body is wrapped decoratively and then carried through the small, winding streets of Varanasi, and down to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher before being placed on big piles of wood. Loved ones are there through the entire process until the body is completely burned, except women. Apparently, women are not allowed because they cry. Hmmm.
We spent a lot of our time getting lost in Old Town while wondering through the narrow alley ways filled with chatty merchants, colorful handmade items and warm clothes (it was cold), decadent street food, and cow and dog poop. Thankfully, it is good luck to step in cow poop, or maybe that random guy was just trying to make me feel better. Anyway, I got lucky. This part of Varanasi reminded us a bit of Seville, Spain, only because it was so easy to get lost. It was fun for the most part, but it was not fun getting lost in the dark and then having the power inevitably go out. The power seemed to go off in all of Varanasi (and most other cities in India) every 10 minutes. After the first few times you got used to it. People didn’t even pause their conversations. This was when I really feared getting lucky. We kept meaning to bring our flashlight but always forgot. Also, tripping over a cow during power outage was another fear of mine as they are everywhere and took up the entire narrow alley. Thankfully, this did not happen.
Riding on a bicycle rickshaw was another highlight for me mostly because we were able to sit high up and look down upon the craziness of the roads. Motorbikes, taxis, buses, bicycle rickshaws, cows, dogs, buffalo, pedestrians, bicyclists and merchants with produce carts were mixed together in the non-existent lanes going in all sorts of directions. Crossing the road was rather difficult at times, and I’m not going to lie, I almost died…twice. Oh yeah, and a bicycle rickshaw ran over Bryan’s toes. He got mad and almost smacked a rickshaw. Fortunately, he decided against it, as smacking a metal carriage was more of a punishment for his hand than the rickshaw. The whole experience was quite chaotic to say the least, and eminently entertaining.
A couple days of being in Varanasi, our Dutch friends told us the Dalai Lama was going to be teaching in Sarnath, a city about 20 minutes away, give or take, depending on traffic and how many cows were in the road. How could we miss an opportunity like this? We arrived in Sarnath by auto rickshaw with our passports and a photo ready to fill out the registration paperwork. We received a badge and then made through security and the crowds before finding a place to sit. We bought a radio in order to hear his teachings in English but the radio broke after a minute. 20 minutes later Bryan came back with another, but we really didn’t understand the guy interpreting the speech very well. Oh well, we got to see the Dalai Lama, ya’ll!!
There are a total of 84 Ghats in Varanasi which are stairs that lead down to the banks of the river. Many of them have stories and tales behind them and can also be used for directional purposes. We spent a lot of time going up and down these ghats and walking along the river which was also thoroughly entertaining. The life of Varanasi happens on the ghats. Goats, cows, dogs, children flying kites, bodies being cremated, boat touts, foreigners, bathers, merchants of all kinds, cricket games and so much more. On the last day in Varanasi we decided to find a boat tout and spend an hour on the river to see it from a different point of view. It was just Bryan and me on a canoe-length rowboat, and our boat guy was older and very sweet. What a way to see the holiest and most interesting place in India.
Next, is one of the longest travel days ever and the Taj Mahal.
P.S. Sorry for the lack of pictures. It was nearly impossible to deal with pictures in Laos and India due to internet connection, but hopefully we’ll have some up soon.