Varanassi / Sarnath, India (2nd November 2007)
Feeling clean and refreshed, we rejoined the group to have our initial orientation of Varanasi. As we were guided round the narrow alleyways full of small shops and stalls we learnt that Varanasi is known as one of the world's oldest living cities and is situated between 2 tributaries of the River Ganges, the Varuna and the Assi rivers. It is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities of Hinduism and it is said that to die here is to receive an instant passport to heaven and release from the cycle of reincarnation.
Our orientation took us along the The Ghats (steps leading to the river) to the area where most of the cremations on the Ganges take place. Instead of having children around our feet asking for money we were bombarded with children selling small flower baskets with a candle in the centre which is placed in the river and part of a candle flower ceremony. Even though cremations take place simultaneously on the Ganges it was still a little shocking for us to see more than one in progress. We were warned out of a certain area as this was for family only but we were shown to a place where we could see what was going on. There were three bodies being burned in three separate spots (where you are cremated often depends on your class) and as we didn't get to see the initial funeral ceremony it was hard to find the joy and happiness that the Hindu's experience when a loved one is cremated here. Not wanting to overstay our welcome we left and were guided to a boat and taken out onto the river to watch the sunset and experience the magical atmosphere of the flower ceremony that is performed every night. As we lit our candles and set them off into the river making our wish, a delicate melody of traditional live sitar and tabla played in the background. It was probably one of the first times we had experienced something spiritual and been able to enjoy it instead of struggling to understand what was going on, it was quite spectacular watching what you could call a show, on one of the Ghats whilst being surrounded by many many other people in boats mesmerized by what was going on, whilst all along the Ganges loads more bodys were still being burned. There was a bit of overkill as we were handled candle after candle, almost ruining the wish element of the ritual but as we were being rowed away from the ceremony all the lights on the riverbank went out (power cuts are very common), almost prompting you to plunge into deep thought and reflection. We strolled back to the hotel where we enjoyed a meal with the group before heading up to bed.
After what to us seemed like a lie in, we were down in the lobby area at 08.30am to meet our group and to start our final day in India. After being bundled into the back of a couple of white people carriers we headed off to spend the morning in Sarnath, where it is claimed that Buddha gave his first sermon to his people and followers. Now before going on to write about all the wonderful things we saw and did, I (Mark) would just like to put this question to you, is it necessary to put in huge letters down the side of our cars, 'TOURISTS ONBOARD' ? As if we don't already stick out like a sore thumb to every man and his dog on the street who wants to sell us stuff; this must surely just be a back up tactic to let them know? Anyway...
Arriving in Sarnath, it was absolutely scorching, again, at least in the mid 30's early 40's and this was only at 9am, by the time we left dinner it was well into the 40s! The entire town is full of temples, shrines and devotees and we spent the morning visiting the various monasteries and ruins, all of which are of particular significance to the followers of Buddhism as Sarnath has now become known as the birthplace of Buddhism. The main things we saw included The Bodhi Tree, which has been grown, supposedly, from a cutting taken from the original tree at Bodh Gaya sometime around 236 BC and The Archaeological Museum that displays relics found on the site including remains of the main shrine.
Although no different to any other day, today seemed to drag more than usual as just as we expected to be going back to the hotel we were informed we had another stop. When we finally left Sarnath we were taken back into Varanasi to a place where we could learn about silk, how it is made and how it is ever so slightly forced upon tourists to buy!! Yet again, as with the carpets, it was all very interesting but we never had any real intention of lugging around with us for the rest of our trip some overpriced souvenirs. A lot of the silk items they had were very beautiful from the small scarves to the full sized super king bed spread. There were plenty of things we could have bought but the same could be said for walking around John Lewis for an hour! Everyone else in our group spent at least £40 buying various pieces to take home for themselves and family members, leaving us feeling like the cheapskates of the group!
Being our last night in India we had no formal plans as a group to do anything which we found as quite a relief as it meant we could spend some time alone and prepare for another early start (4am), repacking our bags after getting some much needed laundry done. Tomorrow we set off for Nepal on a 6 hour journey by jeep, to the second country on our travels, and we are very excited...