First of all to the good news - Best Avoided Airways finally confirmed my flight this morning, so I can now breathe easy and look forward to coming home on Sunday. Its a shame they didn't do it sooner because waiting for their second strike schedule did concern me throughout my time in Varanasi, but I'm just majorly relieved they haven't cancelled my flight.
Varanasi is another of Hinduism's most sacred cities. It is situated on the banks of the River Ganges at a point where the river bends north - something Hindu's consider to be very auspicious. The city is nicknamed the "city of lights" and is devoted to the God Shiva, but life here revolves solely around the river, which the Hindu's regard as holy. They believe that if they die here in Varanasi then they will be freed from the reincarnation cycle of death and rebirth. Based on that fact its a wonder that only 1.3 million people reside here, but apparently the local government has to constantly battle to keep the population down.
We arrived here from Agra after a 12 hour overnight train which left 45 minutes late and arrived 2 hours late. The train was very similar to our last one and perhaps a bit nicer, but I didn't get a good night's sleep. I find the narrow and short beds very uncomfortable and on this train I was situated next to the carriage door, and my feet were constantly bashed throughout the night as people went in and out. I have two further overnight trains in the next 3 nights, which I'm not looking forward to. When we arrived in Varanasi we caught autorickshaws to our hotel - something which is all part of our travel in India routine. However the traffic was absolutely insane and it took us almost 40 minutes just to do the 4km journey. According to our guide, Varanasi has the worst traffic in India and I could certainly see why. As ever it was a cocophony of deafening horns and angry drivers. You would think with all the traffic they'd be accustomed to delays, but they're really not. Every inch of road space is taken up by cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians, and nobody dare leave and inch in case someone takes advantage and pulls out in front of them. The exhaust fumes and smell was horrific and I had a headache by the time we checked in to our hotel.
Our hotel was another basic facility but in a good location by the most southerly of the 80 or so ghats (steps to the river). As ever we had a nice rooftop restaurant offering excellent city and river views, but the heat was rather uncomfortable when we ate lunch at 1pm. Varanasi is in the midst of a heatwave and on Monday it reached 42C here, whilst yesterday saw a 41C peak. This is the first time in my life that I've experienced 40 degrees, which was actually something I wanted to feel before my world trip finished! I would still maintain though that Malaysia and Singapore felt much hotter because of the humidity, even though temperatures there peaked at a mere 36C. There you would sweat bucketloads and be drenched within minutes of going outside, but here you can have a shower in your clothes and come out into the heat and be totally dry in five minutes.
After the worst of the afternoon heat had died down our guide Jitu took us for an orientation walk. Varanasi is another place that you simply have to visit to understand. Words and pictures cannot explain it or do it justice, but I'll do my best! It is a city that really shows off the cultural differences between our socieities, and its a place that I found to be very unique. A walk along the ghats is a good way to get a feel for the place. Here, you can see local life in action. Hindu's bathe and swim in the filthy Ganges. They wash clothes and perform prayer rituals side by side in a river considered to be one of the dirtiest in the world - yet so few of them seem to get ill. The Ganges here has 500 million particles of bad bacteria in it - a safe river for bathing should have less than 1.5 million. Some parts of the river are so heavily polluted (mostly by sewage from settlements further up the river) that no oxygen or life exists. Yet the Hindu's believe that the river has the power to heal, and you can really see from a walk through Varanasi just how central it is to their lives.
Two of the 80 ghats in Varanasi are designated as "burning ghats". Here, in full view of the public eye, people are cremated in open air, and have their ashes thrown in the river. We observed some cremations happening at the burning ghat near our hotel - the differences between western and Indian funeral ceremonies is incredible. First of all the bodies are wrapped in cloth and then carried by family members (who often seem to run) through the streets of Varanasi to the ghat. Only men are permitted to attend cremations as expressing emotion is forbidden - women are seen to have uncontrollable emotions so even if it is their husbands funeral they have no right to be there. Huge piles of wood are situated next to the burning ghat, and local workers weight up and price how much is needed to completely incinerate the corpse. A pile of wood is constructed by the riverside and the body placed on top, with more wood laid on top of it. Something is then sprinkled on to make it more flammable and it is then set alight - taking about two hours to burn through. The men tend to stand around whilst this happens, and afterwards they gather up the ashes in a bowl and throw them in the Ganges. To see this process in action was quite amazing, but the thing which most surprised me was how routine it seemed to all involved. Even though they were obviously cremating somebody very dear to them, none of the men were crying and none of them looked like they were having to hold back their emotions. There was no order to how they were stood, or how they were dressed, and to me they just looked like they were all stood around waiting for a meaningless pile of wood to burn through. The burning ghats were also filthy places full of litter and cows, and immediately alongside children were playing cricket and men were operating refreshment stalls. To me it seemed totally amazing to see this. There is no starker contrast between our cultures.
After watching a couple of corpses burning we then hit the backstreets of old town Varanasi, which reminded me a lot of Old Delhi. It was a place full of life and a vast array of smells - from flavoured incense sticks to cow pats. We then headed back to the town's main ghat and observed, along with hundreds of pilgrims, the evening prayers, which last one hour starting at 6.30pm. Well dressed Hindu priests performed many rituals to the sound of bells ringing in a ceremony designed to give thanks to the river. It was very atmospheric and it was nice to see the Hindu's all getting involved. To many a trip to Varanasi is a huge adventure of great spiritual significance, and whole villages empty to come on pilgrammages here. We saw lots of strange looking people from hilltribes, along with lots of the customary Hindu holy men. Hindu holy men are basically beggars which Hindu's are expected to give to. I doubt the legitimacy of many of them. They often ask you to take their picture for money and they never seem very holy when requesting their dues from shopkeepers and young child sellers. It seems like a good little earner to me. The genuine ones are mostly old and frail. They have no family and they are simply here in Varanasi waiting to die. Unlike other people though they are not cremated when they die. Like babies, and victims of smallpox (who are seen as a sacrifice to the God of smallpox), they are thrown straight into the Ganges when they die, and left to float away to the sea, or be eaten by an animal.
Yesterday morning we left behind this world of Hinduism and took a brief foray back into the realms of Buddhism on a trip to one of Buddhism's four most sacred sites. The village of Sarnath, 14km outside Varanasi, was where the Buddha preached his first sermon after he acheived enlightenment under a tree about 6 hours from here. Once again we had to brave the crazy traffic in rickshaws to get there. On route our rickshaw was pulled over by a group of men who demanded the poultry sum of 4 rupees (about 5p) for us to pass through their area. Our driver called it mafia tax! Sarnath itself is basically now a suburb of Varanasi, and it wasn't particularly nice. There were lots of beggars and hasslers about, many more than are in the centre of Varanasi. We visited a bland looking temple and memorial to the Buddha, but I was disappointed to see that next to no monks were there. Instead there were hordes of young Indian men who were all indiscreetly taking pictures of videos of the girls on my trip. They followed us on our walk round the nearby deer park and zoo (which barely contained any animals), and despite being about 30 they still found it funny to pelt a stag with rocks. The actual spot where Buddha gave his first sermon was marked by a very ugly tower, which was next door to a Jain Temple which had many pictures of naked men in! It didn't take us long to explore the area and we were soon heading back to our hotel. On the way back our rickshaw driver ended up behind a motorbike and trailer with a wrapped body on. The trailer had no sides so someone was sat on it holding the body still so it didn't slide off. Showing no respect whatsoever our driver went within feet of the corpses legs and was weaving all over the back of this trailer and blasting his horn till he got chance to overtake. The man on the trailer didn't seem remotely bothered, which is a far cry from how we would react in the western world!
In the afternoon I took a walk along most of the ghats and visited the second burning ghat - which was a lot busier than the first. Its a shame you can't take pictures of these ghats because they're an incredible scene. On this one you practically had to walk right by the flaming pyres to get through - there was no other way round. Above the ghat was a swimming pool with many bathers in. Legend has it it was created when Vishnu dropped his earring, and the resultant hole was filled with his sweat whilst he searched for it. On the walk back one of the more intelligent street sellers started a conversation with me, and told me all about her hippy friends - there are lots of hippies here. I bought a couple of floating candles off her along with 40p in English money because she was good conversation!
In the evening we took a rowing boat out to view sunset from the river, and I took the opportunity to let off my two candles (along with hordes of others provided for us) in our "wishing ceremony". We then viewed the evening prayers ceremony from the boat, before rowing back to base. On the way back there was a power cut (a very frequent occurance in Varanasi) and we were able to view each section of the town switching off one by one. From a scene of bright lights it became totally dark in about 10 seconds - thanfully most hotels and restaurants have backup power.
This morning I was back on the boat again for the quintessential Varanasi experience - a sunrise boat cruise. We left at about 5.45am, though it was pretty bright by that time even though the sun didn't come up till 6.15ish. Early morning is when the city comes alive. It is when most people come to the ghats to bathe and wash their clothes, and the place was packed. To see people drinking and brushing their teeth with the river water was incredible - there was such a lot going on. Men usually strip down to their boxers to wash, but women have to do it fully clothed. I saw the girl I'd spoken to the day before dive in in her sari, and she begged me to come in with her, but there was no chance of that! We cruised up to the second burning ghat and then turned round and headed back. It was such a beautiful light at that time in the morning and people were out singing and praying. I'm really glad I made the effort to get up for it. Perhaps the most memorable thing I'll take from that cruise though won't be the life I saw on the river, but the death. We rowed within feet of a floating corpse. The man had obviously been there a while as he was full of water, but nobody thought anything of it - it was just something the tourists took pictures of. I was thinking there'd be no better place to dispose of a murder victim. Nobody will ever exhume a body from this river, or ever do a post mortem. Its the perfect plan for an Indian serial killer!
Now I have just a few hours left in Varanasi before we take the overnight train to Calcutta, the final destination of our tour. I have just one night there before I turn round and head back to Delhi for my flight, but hopefully I'll update before I fly home. This afternoon we say goodbye to New Zealander Hannah, who is a bit of a hippy at heart. She is so in love with Varanasi she has decided to stay awhile and opted not to come to crazy Calcutta. I don't blame her as its really interesting here, but the hippy scene is not something I aspire to be part of. I look forward to Calcutta - the final sightseeing stop of my world tour!