After a sticky few weeks in the south, a train ride to chennai, a hotel room filled with cockroaches and human hair (fair to say we didnt stay there!) and a day trip to Pondicherry we finally boarded out flight to Varanasi.
Morale was a little low among the travellers. The end of our time in the south hadn't served us well with Kelly being unwell and our accommodation leaving a lot to the imagination, we needed something to pick us up and India needed something to redeem itself.. Then along came Varanasi!
The holiest of seven city's in Hinduism, filled with spirituality and culture. Our heads lifted and our relationship with India was patched up.
Our first night in Varanasi began with a sunset boat ride on the Ganges. The Ganges is the most sacred river to hindus who refer to it as Ganga. Ganga is represented in the form of a goddess. Hindus believe bathing in the Ganga will free them from sin and as Ganga descended from heaven she is the way to pass into heaven after someone dies.
When I was researching I found a popular hymns dedicated to Ganga..
O Mother! ... Necklace adorning the worlds!
Banner rising to heaven!
I ask that I may leave of this body on your banks,
Drinking your water, rolling in your waves,
Remembering your name, bestowing my gaze upon you.
Along the Ganges are ghats (ghats are stairs leading to holy water). Most ghats are used for bathing, washing clothing and rituals, but there a some used for cremation. Cremation is done publicly, but strangely doesn't seem unnatural. Although you are seeing a fire and know there is a human in that flame it seems in a way peaceful. The family members (depending on who is performing the cremation, if a wife dies the husband will, if a man dies the son will etc) stay for around the 3 hours that it takes to burn the body. The price of cremation is expensive, and judged on the amount of wood used. Some wood is more expensive such as sandalwood but gives off a nicer smell. There is an electric crematorium close to the ghat which can offer cheaper cremation as there was too many cases of half burnt bodies floating down the Ganga. After the body is cremated, (even those not cremated near by) the ashes are poured into the Ganga. Apparently some bones don't burn so they are just thrown in. There are a few people that can't be burnt, pregnant women, children under 5, those that commit suicide, holy men, the poor, and those with leprosy, these people are wrapped and put in the Ganga.
The history of it is amazing and would need a lot of research to fully understand.
Everyday here is based around religion, not just Sunday mass like at home, or in most peoples cases mass on Christmas and Easter. There is a "holy" feel in the air. Every morning people bathe in the Ganga and pray, they wash their clothes in it as well, which surprised me as it is in the 5 most polluted Rivers.. Even with our guide assuring me it was clean, I declined the many invitations to have a dip. Every night people gather for ceremonies called 'Agni Pooja' which is a ritual of worship of fire filled with chants, music, fire and lights. People gather on the ghat or in boats in the Ganga. The ceremonies are lead by priests and everyone claps along! You can buy candles to light and put in the Ganga to represent a loved one that has passed.
The next morning we woke early to see the sunrise over the Ganga, our guide got us chai and took us to the other side of the river to show us a human skull. Death is not something that makes people uncomfortable over here. But i couldnt help but wonder whos head I was looking at. The rest of our day was spent looking at temples that are covered in monkeys, (very cute but vicious!) and watching how they make silk! The work that goes into it is incredible! All still man made!
I have photos that I need to upload to better explain the work.
The next day we went exploring, deciding to take a cycle rickshaw. Never again. I felt so guilty watching the man struggle up the hill and almost felt I should get out and help him push. He delivered us to the end of an alley way and after a bit of hunting we found "blue lassi" the most famous lassi place in Varanasi, which has been making lassi for 70 years! And lonely planet was right a must see and must taste!
We met a man that sold oils and as usual were conned into seeing his shop, we did purchase two oils that smelt amazing. Just can't say no! Although I did say no when he insisted on putting oil in my belly button. That's just too far for me. Poor Kelly wasnt quick enough, but now has a minty fresh belly!
After we made it back to our room (by auto rickshaw this time!) we had lunch and packed again!
Our train was leaving at 4:25pm but we had an hour or so to kill at the station. We were surrounded by people taking our photos, staring and ladies grabbing at us and screaming at the site of our piercings. They played our bongo (which we ended up giving them) insisting we clap along. Passed the time quickly.. Which is more then I can say for the 12 hour train trip. There was a problem with our ticket and our beds were full, so me and Kell attempted to share a bed.. Which is about half the width of A standard single bed..Never been so happy to get off a train!
In Agra now for 2 days, will see the taj tomorrow!