24th-26th April 2012.
Varanasi really is the city of many colours! It's noise, excitment and in your face culture-mixed of course with a large amount of cows, flys and dogs in varying different health conditions made Varanasi an incredible place to explore.
After a long trip from Pune via Delhi to arrive in Varanasi I was pretty tired and after a taxi ride into town in which I tried SO hard not to fall asleep, I meet up with Bron at the geusthouse. It was really pretty. The views of the Ganges were breathtaking and the room was air-con, huge beds with sofas and colourful wall hangings...plus the best shower ever!! The little hotel courtyard was pretty with a water fountain in the middle and vines crept up the walls. It was nice and cool-a heaven from outside where the heat and humidity were crazy.
After a bite to eat we headed out to explore. As we walked along the Ghats (edge of the river) it was easy to see that The Ganges meant so much to the people who lived nearby. It provided a livelyhood as well as being a communal bath, washing machine, religous ceromany place and of course a place to say goodbye to the dead. Or if you are a dog or baby, pregant, or have been bitten by a snake than the Ganges is also a place of burial. It was fasinating to just sit on some steps and just watch the world go by-fantastic for people watching! We were never alone for long as every few minutes there was someone coming over to ask for our picture or what country we were from or would we like to buy some postcards. But really I didn't mind because it all added to the electric atmosphere. On the way back from our walk we ended up befriending some of the local street kids. They were pretty funny and ran around like crazy people for the most part. They seemed impressed with our Hindi but once we had sat down at one of the Ghats and realised no we weren't going to give them any money they soon got bored and went on their merry way to find some other tourists.
As the sunset the river bank was lit up with hundreds of fairy lights and religous men came down from the temples ready to perform that evenings ganga aarti ceremony which took place at Dasaswamedh Ghat. It was a huge puja (which means respect, offerings or prayers.) Music blasted out through speakers and people clapped along with the drums whilst insense was burnt in epic proportions whilst sanskirt prayers were chanted. There was 5 men performing the ceromany and each movement they made was in time with each other; whether it be swinging the insense, clapping their hands, bowing down to pray or waving around a christmas tree of candles. It was really cool to watch. The audience of at least a few hundred-and that was just the river bank. On the river there were heaps of boats all full of tourists-foregin and Indian alike sitting with on of the best views of the ceromany. Anyway as I was saying everyone got really into it. There were bells high up along the river side and they had to be rung throughout the evening so the public took turns to ring them. It obviously was important for them as shoes had to be removed before sounding the bells and people were pretty overprotective of the bells once they finally got a turn. One man waited for a least half an hour whilst this other women looked as though she was in a world of her own, blissfully happy and seeminly unaware of her surroundings.
The ceromany finished an hour or so later and we made our way up into the maze of fly filed alleyways which made up the town. Dinner was at an awesome German bakery. It was so nice to have proper bread again! We had cheese and crusty bread and pasta. Yummy!! :D Back at the hotel I fell asleep almost instantly which was a good job to since the next morning was to be a very very early start...
We woke up the next day at 5am ish and walked down to the ghats to take a morning boat ride along the Ganges. As the sun rose high into the sky the buildings lite up and reflected off the water. There were lots of boats out on the river and even though it was early the sun was already hot! Our boat man gave explained to us about the buildings we passed and as we rowed back down the river we stopped to visit one of the famous 'Burning Ghats'. These are the ghats where the dead are cremiated. We met a priest and he showed us around and explained what happened in each area. It was very interesting and I wasn't sure how I would feel about walking around where people were being burnt but I actually found it a very peaceful place. The priest told us about the whys and the hows of Hindu cremations and I deffinatly learnt alot. The body is burnt in only sandelwood and takes 3hrs to complete, it is first dipped in The Ganges 3 times and laid down for the final time. Men of the family are ussually the only ones to observe the ceromany and stay for the whole time, he told us that women don't usually go because they cry and you cannot cry at the Ghat because otherwise the soul won't go up to heaven. There are some circumstances in which the body cannot be burnt such as being bitten by a snake, being pregnat, being a baby or child, being a holy man, being a leper or having small pox and if you commited suicide. The burning of the body is done to releasise the soul and then much to my suprise the people who work at the Ghat then go through the ashes to find any gold rings or jewlerry for keeps.
I was pretty shocked at this and found it a bit disrespectful but apparently it's ok and the families don't mind because the soul has already left. This also means that they don't collect the ashes of their dead. So as you can see I actually learnt quite alot for that early in the morning!
After our boat trip we went to the bakery for breakfast and after some super tasty cheese sandwiches we went back to the room to catch up on some sleep!! We had to change rooms for the second night but to be honest it really didn't matter. After our nap we ventured out again and spent a few hours walking along the riverside to the other end of the Ghats. It was a great walk with loads to see. I loved seeing all the dhobi wallas (washing men) doing all their washing and hundreds of beautifull, brightly coloured saris were laid out to dry along the banks of The Ganges. At the other end we had stone oven baked pizzas for lunch and apple pie. It was super tasty, but Mum it had nothing on yours!! Which by the way i'm super excited for having when I get back!! Has Sarah been over to fill up her tin much?? :D
On our way back we decided to sit and watch the world go by and ended up watching the evening ceromany down at one of the Ghats again. I'm really glad we did decide to because it must have been an aurspicous day since I have never seen so many wedding parties in one day! There were at least 15 couples throughout the evening along with their families. The brides looked stunning in their glittering red and gold saris and the men were in their best suits with fancy glittery turbans on their heads. I have to say though Indians don't do high heels well! They are bassically flip flops with tiny heels on-it's no wander they couldn't walk well the silly shoes gave no support what so ever!!! And also their saris must have weighed a ton! It was fun to see all the weddings going on, they all went down to the water to be blessed and with their feet painted red from the temple they boarded a boat for their boat ride before coming back to watch the Aarti ceromany. As much as I enjoyed watching all this I also felt sad for all the couples bar one that I saw. There was only one couple who were smiling and standing less than a few metres apart and who actually talked to each other, nevermind looking happy to be married. I couldn't see the advantage of having an arranged marrige when both the bride and groom looked so miserable. That's not to say that people are never happy with an arranged marridge, just the people I saw weren't. Regardless of all that they certainly weren't very gentelmany! The brides were tied to the groom with yellow scarves and instead of offering a hand of holding up layers upon layers of sari material whilst she climbed the steps, the groom just dragged by the scarf whilst she and her family hurried behind! But I guess it's tradition...
Anyhoo dinner was at the bakery again...we may have become a little adicted!! But it was nice to sit down after our little adventure... walking through the twisting and turning alleyways filled with everything from food to staues of gods, godesses, saris, jewlerry and much more. We walked along the main street and even though there was a powercut candles lite the vegtable stores and flouresent baulbs lite up the shoe shops. We thought we were heading in the right direction for home. No, no we were not! After walking for an hour or so in the wrong direction we ended up where we started and then found our way back. It was really very entertaining. :D During that evenings powercut we entertained ourselves by watching the Vicar of Dibley!! Woop! :D
Next day-up early and after breakfast on the rooftop over looking The Ganges followed by some serious haggling we boarded a motorboat to take us up river to Ramnagar Fort. The journey took about an hour and was full of suprises. I have mentioned before some of the things that get put in the Ganges but after seeing several dead dogs, heaps of rubbish, mud, dirty washing, people bathing, flowers, offerings, bodies and smelling the smell I really didn't explect to see what we saw next.
As the boat started to overheat and run out of power we wondered of we would ever reach our destination! The pontoon bridge was in sight and we could see the fort. As the boat man fourght with the engine we enjoyed the view and much to our suprise saw the biggest tortoise I have ever seen in the water!!! Seriously I was shocked as was Bron and it was so big-it's head and neck almost a metre long! After that we thought we should maybe hold back judgement on the condition of the river water as I really hadn't thought that anything could live in there! Several minutes later we saw schools of flying fish jumping out of the water and their scales shimmered in the sunlight, it was magical. Maybe the Ganges does have healing properties after all?
We arrived at the fort and walked up the sandy road to the enterance. It was clear this side of Varanasi was much less visited by tourists. The town was really nice and old fashioned. Inside the fort was the most bizarre musuem I think I've ever visited! There was such a mix from everything to old english cars, swords, guns, paintings and thrones that go on top of elephants in war!!! We had a great time wandering through the halls of randomness and had wuite a following by the time we got to the enterance to the temple. We made friends with a family who although we couldn't speak the same language treated us like they'd known us forever! We had photos with heaps of people (suprise suprise!! :) ) At the other side of an underground passage was a temple with beautiful paintings on the walls and offered a great view of the river. Goodbyes said we walked back to our boat to find our boat man was taking a bath! So we walked slowly to give him time to dress and then the three of us headed back in the afternoon sun to get our taxi back to the airport. I was plenty pink by the time we got back-why I didn't put suncream on I do not know!! Back at the hotel the receptionist annouced that our taxi wasn't coming-Problem!!! But they gave us a bit of a refund and we shared with another girl going to the airport so really it worked to our advantage.
As I pushed the trolley through the airport it became quite clear that this was a job I shouldn't be aloud to do!! I only clipped a few people's ankles... :P The airport was super tiny, so small that there was only one place to get food and they went around individually telling people what gate number they were! We got told to go to one downstairs but by the time it came to boarding that gate was labelled with a different flight so we went upstairs and found what we thought was our gate. And it was...sort of. As we qued up to board the plane the guy in front of us showed his pass and was escourted down stairs onto the tarmac to board at the backside of the plane. Bron and I laughed and said something along the lines of "haha imagine queing up in the wrong line-wouldn't it be funny if we were sitting next to him and we hadn't had to change ques!!!" YES, yes it would be very funny, unfortuently for everybody else on the plane as well as us! Our seats were 3 rows from the back-something we realised as we boarded from the front of the plane as the other half came surging towards us. In fits of giggles we squeezed and pushed pass all the other passangers. We were the only forginers as it was, so of course we had a fair few strange looks! SO FUNNY!!!! :D We finally got to our seats to find, of course the man from the que!!! It was helarious and I'm sure he must have thought we were crazy. So that was that and the flight was fairly uneventful until we arrived over Delhi. There was turbulance. I now know why when the seat belt sign is on you wear your belt-tight. There was some kind of thunderstorm in Delhi so as we flew through black clouds it was inevitable that we would hit at least one big air pocket. And we did. I swear there was at least a metre gap between the seat and some people's bums!! The whole plane screamed in unison-I think many had not flown very often if at all. As we all tightned our belts the guy sat next to me looked a little worse for wear and another asked if this was common in my experience. NO was what I wanted to say but I think he was looking for reasurance that we weren't going nto die! So I said not quite this bad but when I left the UK for Sydney there was alot of turbulance as I recall!
So after a very eventful journey we arrived in Delhi and it was time to say goodbye to Bron. It was really sad as ever with saying goodbye to someone from the Sangam family. It was now off into Delhi for the next stage of my Indian adventure...