I arrived this morning from Dehli into Benaras (Varanasi) and all I can say is wow. I'm quite speechless at the moment in this holy city. Bit of history about Benaras (thanks to Wikipedia): holy by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (5000 years of inhabitants). The culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the River Ganges and the river's religious importance. The city has been a cultural and religious centre in the north of India for several thousand years.
Upon arrival in Varanasi, I was greeted at the airport by a man from my hotel who was a kind looking grandfatherly type gentleman. I thought for sure that he would take his sweet time getting me into the thick of Varanasi safe and sound. Well appearances are dubious things and this "grandfatherly" type man was probably the most dangerous and risktaking drivers that I have had to date. Welcome to Varanasi Ashley!! Noteable images from coming to the city: single lane traffic in both directions becoming 4 lanes of traffic for donkeys pulling carts, loads of tandem riders on bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, tractors, cows galore, other cars, half semi's loaded high with thousands of pounds of potatoes; children defecating on the side of road; gorgeous dark skinned women in technicolour saris; roadside chai and pan wallahs serving up their delectable offerings; fruit sellers spreading out their wares on torn blankets; cows munching on piles of garbage; dogs fighting everywhere; goats jumping around; leprosy sufferers begging for handouts; men and children burning garbage on the roadside and the big sign welcoming me to the Holy City of Varanasi. Indeed.
I feel like I have stepped into Alice in Wonderland. This world is incredibly different from the south in EVERYWAY possible. I am surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who have come here to die and by those who dedicate much of their lives to existing in this chaos. I am in an orange technicolour world stunned with boats and beggars and scented with smoke from the ongoing buring pyres- reducing human flesh to ash. It is totally mindblowing and beautiful...I love it.
I checked into my hotel which has a beautiful terrace over looking the Holy Ganges river, and is a hop, skip, and a jump away from both the main ghat (Dasaswamedh Ghat) and the burning ghat (Manikarnika Ghat). I managed to meet up with Martin and Penelope (a wonderful friend of his) admist the chaos and we then met up with his friend Jordi and Jordi's fabulous and fiesty 71 yr old mother Gilly. We sat and had a chai at the main ghat and took in the scenery laid out in front of us. Today is a day dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of Learning and of Music) so there were many little celebrations happening around us: young pre and pubescent boys busting a move to Hindi infused techno, groups of drum laded youths dancing in the streets, women chanting and carrying a Saraswati statue. Penelope and I were completely in awe and couldn't stop our heads from spinning around. The first stop we went to was the burning ghat.
Bit of history: Manikarnika Ghat is the main cremation Ghat of Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred Ghats in Benaras. According to the Hindu mythology, being burned here provides an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and rebirths. Lying at the center of the five tirthas, Manikarnika Ghat symbolizes both creation and destruction. At Manikarnika Ghat, the mortal remains are consigned to flames with the prayers that the souls rest in eternal peace. There is a sacred well at the Manikarnika Ghat, called the Manikarnika Kund. Manikarnika Kund is said to be dug by Lord Vishnu at the time of creation while the hot ashes of the burnt bodies makes one remember the inevitable destruction of everything in the world. OK right...so what was it like? It was surprisingly peaceful and beautiful. The pyres are going all day and all night 365 days a year. I have no idea how many bodies are burned there but in the 45 minutes we were there 9 bodies were brought in and placed onto a pile of wood after being dipped in the Ganges. The bodies are carried in on elaborately decorated stretchers covered in shiny tinsely blankets. The bodies are wrapped underneath in white cloth. The body is laid to rest on the bank of the Ganges where holy water from the river is poured over top, or else the body is totally immersed in the river. The bearers bring the body up to laid wood piles and the body is then placed ontop. More wood is piled up ontop of the body before being set alight. Some bodies are burned in huge piles of wood, others just a wee bit. Apparently the more money you have the more wood you get. People often ask for donations that go towards the families' cost of the cremation. Men mill about (no women are present except tourists) and you can tell who the mourners are as they have completely shaved heads and are wearing a white lungi style skirt. Old men tended to the fires, and many more brought down seemingly impossible loads of chopped wood upon their backs.
I have to say that the atmosphere was really calm and peaceful. The thing that touched me the most was the fact that this ghat was quite crowded and everyone was honouring those who were laid to rest upon the fire. Death and cremation is a tangible part of the life here. For us in the west we fear and almost deny death- it is not openly discussed as it makes us all uncomfortable. Death in our culture is almost ignored regardless of the fact that this will is the fate of us all.
After this, Martin and Jordie took us to something that I have not experienced too much of yet here in India...SHOPPING!! We were taken to Martin's friends Premu's shop where we had delicious chai in rough clay cups (later to be smashed on the dirtroad) and marvelled at the rainbow and textures of thousands of pashmina and silk shawls. Us three women made quite a pile for ourselves (we get to sleep on our decisions and go back to decide tomorrow!). Penelope and I are itching to shop...I have finally found the shopping mecca that I was missing entirely in the South! We then wandered through maze like backstreets- watching the ground constantly for cow dung and upturned stones. Martin and Jordi know this town like the back of their hand thankfully and took us to see many hidden gems in the tiny cavernous streets. Martin and Jordi then took us on a magnificent sunset boatride up and down the Ganges where we watched people bathe, children fly kites, listened to temple bells and chants and admired 13th century palaces and buildings. At sunset the boat rowed us over the the Main Ghat where 2 massive Aarati (Prayers of Light) Pujas for the Ganga goddess were being held. Boats were lined up straight to the shore and tiny chai and candlewallahs jumped from boat to boat peddling their wares. The candles were lit, wished or prayed upon, and then set to float in the water. The Aarati was a massive affair- thousands of people suurounded the stages which had men doing symbolic gestures in all 4 directions with incense, massive candelabras and open flames. It was stunningly beautiful and I was deeply touched by the displayed reverence. After the Aarati we walked around the burning ghat a bit more before going to eat a delicious meal at a little hole in the wall (Hotel New Moon Star) on the main street. The main street was in complete chaos due to the Saraswati festival, and it was hard to move in the heaving and excited crowd. After our yummy and ridiculously cheap meal Martin and Penelope walked me back to my hotel. The dance party that was happening earlier had now moved in doors and as we walked past many teenage boys were doing their best dance moves to disco. It was quite funny and I loved how excited they were.
Tomorrow we are going to Sarnath to see the Buddhist Stupa there. It should be a lovely little jaunt outta town.