"Holy Cow!!": def - bovine that is holy in Hindu religion and therefore free to roam ANYWHERE it pleases, whether it be pasture, city, or insanely narrow lanes.
"Holy Sh*t!!": def - excrement from above creature that falls ANYWHERE the creature roams.
"I just don't know what to say about what I'm seeing": def - I'll try but you won't believe me anyway.
So we arrived in Varanasi after a 14hour train journey from Kolkata. The train station was pretty mad, but after a while we sorted out an auto-rickshaw to cart us to our guesthouse. But as we started driving through the packed-with-people, strewn-with-rubble, invaded-by-various-animals streets, we started to get a little... let's call it uncomfortable.
The guy dropped us off on what turned out to be the edge of the old city from where we walked for about 20min through 1m wide lanes (with backpacks!), where whatever we thought we saw in the road leading up the old city seamed to originate, thrive and then die. There were holy cows (and I am talking fully grown bovine animals here) peacefully swaying passed all the people or laying across the full width of the lanes, dogs laying on every possible surface, shop owners cooking chapattis and curries, sweet shops working with lots of cooked sugar and milk, incense, cooking oils. And all of these really strong smells mix with all the smells of all the by-product of all these people and animals and shops. Then we were getting really uncomfortable.And then every now and again, a procession of about 20 people singing and playing cymbals, carrying the richly decorated and gold cloth wrapped corpse of a recently deceased would come passed us on their way to Manikarnika Ghat to be cremated. Needless to say, all this was a bit much for us - we were totally FREAKED OUT. For a moment (or 3) I thought to myself. "Maybe I'm not cut out for this. Maybe we should leave".
We were stunned and awed and disgusted all at the same time and tried to figure out how to handle this insane place while we were having lunch (in the safety of the guesthouse's restaurant). But we decided that we can't be such little girls and that we have to give it another chance. And we couldn't get a train to our next stop for 3 days.
So Varanasi (on the banks of the Ganges River) is a very holy place for the Hindu religion. They believe that if you die here, you will be freed from the eternal cycle of re-incarnation, and if you are cremated here, it bodes very well for your next life - hence all the funeral processions. They also make pilgrimages here to receive blessings by bathing in the river and drinking some of the water. It is estimated that up to 60 000 people per day bathe in the river at various places, and they do up to 200 cremations per day (the 2 main crematorium "piers" on the river are open 24h a day).According to Hindu belief, some people may not be cremated: Holy Men, pregnant women, babies and lepers (not sure of the logic behind the last). Therefore these people are sunken to the bottom of the Ganges. Besides all the bathing, drinking, swimming and washing of clothes, throwing of ashes and sinking of corpses, the water buffalo also find solace from the heat in the muddy river water and seem to almost hang around there all day. And of course there are also a few sewage outlets that empty into the river. That is besides the cleaning action that the daily monsoon rains have on the streets, washing all the by-product of all the people and animals and shops into the river. Basically, this is probably not the safest water in the world but still all these activities go on here daily. And it seems absolutely disgusting to us, but all the people gurgling the water seem quite content, so who are we to judge?!?
I am not sure if my description has done it justice, maybe combined with the photos it will be a better picture. This has by far been the strangest place we have visited so far. Shock and awe. Strangely enough, we've come to like it. Just not on an empty stomach!