The morning we left Darjeeling the sun came out. Typical. 3 days of mist and now the sun. At least we got a view of the Himalayas. Towering over the valley is Khangchendzonga, its peak at 8598 metres making it the highest mountain in India and the worlds third highest after Everest and K2. It was what we had come to see so we were happy as we set off down the hill to Siliguri.
It was a fairly uneventful drive down in a four wheel drive jeep. As we reached the bottom of the winding mountain road and were approaching Siliguri a pig ran out in front of us. Our driver was alert and hit the brakes narrowly missing it. Not so lucky was the motorcyclist coming the other way. He braked hard but it was inevitable. He T boned the porker at about ten miles an hour. The pig squealed and ran off; the biker squealed and fell off. Fortunately he wasn't badly hurt and his bike had crash bars so it didn't suffer too much either. We helped brush him down and he looked a little shaken but still in one piece.
We continued on to Siliguri where we were spending the night before heading back to Calcutta. Siliguri is a transit town. It's three hours from Darjeeling and half an hour from the local airport. We went for a walk into the town to locate a bottle of red. As we walked along the dusty main street Jill didn't see the cow. She walked straight into it. In return it butted her with its horn giving her a big red wheal mark and a bruise. Anywhere else in the world it would have got a kick for its troubles but it's a bit of a delicate issue here so we walked on. We found our bottle of red and holed up in the hotel for the night.
Next morning we took a rickshaw to the airport and were soon back in Calcutta. The drive to the hotel was the usual thrill a second experience. We had returned to the hotel we had stayed in before. It's nice and clean and well located. Unfortunately it's an Indian hotel so as usual it never goes according to plan. Their booking process involves putting names in a book in pencil. On the first visit they couldn't find our booking and we got an upgraded room. This time was the same only they had to downgrade us. They proudly said they wouldn't charge us for the more expensive room. In return I gave them my opinion of their hotel management. In the end the room was ok once we found one where the wifi worked.
I've covered Calcutta previously so I won't dwell on it. The morning we were due to leave there were four taxis outside. I walked out and asked who will take us to the airport and how much? Competition always drives down prices. We took the cheapest albeit his car was a total s*** heap. Off we went at warp 9 having near death experiences every few hundred yards. The dashboard was not attached to anything and moved freely. At one point we took a corner and the driver's door flew open hitting a bollard. Taxis and rickshaws are a constant aggravation. You always know they are going to try and fleece you. Sure enough when we arrived at the airport I handed him the agreed fare. He then asked for an extra 50 rupees. Apparently two rucksacks equal an extra passenger. 'Oh' I said, 'are we talking about the same two rucksacks we had with us when you told me the fare?' Guess who didn't get an extra 50 rupees?
Our destination was Varanasi and it was a simple flight. We were met at the airport by a hotel pick up. Ok, let's do a few facts about Varanasi. It's home to 1.2 million people. It is one of the world's oldest continually populated cities dating back to 1200BC. It is the heart of the Hindu religion. The sacred Ganges river runs through it. For Hindus it is a place they aspire to visit during their lives. They believe that to die in Varanasi will free them from the eternal cycle of re-incarnation. To be cremated and scattered in the Ganges is what all Hindus want. It conjures up images of holy men, mysticism and life changing spiritual experiences. If it does, forget it. It is a stinking hell hole.
Let's start with the city. We thought we had seen some dirty overcrowded, chaotic places in India but they pale next to this place. The main city area is in three parts. The main streets which have no footpaths so motor vehicles weave and honk through pedestrians. Any side of the road will do to drive on. Add in herds of s*** covered cows and dogs and it's a gridlocked lung choking nightmare. Next to the main town is a maze of narrow streets. These are a mass of small shops selling just about everything. Cars can't get into them but that doesn't stop motorcycles hurtling down them. Add in some pedal cycles and more cows and it's pretty much impossible to move. The floors are awash with rubbish and cow s***, not that this stops people walking bare foot.
Beyond this is the Ganges and the Ghats. Ghats are basically a series of steep stepped embankments. There are lots of them along about a three mile stretch. Some have temples on them, some are used for bathing or laundry and some are used as cremation sites. More about that later. All are used as cattle pens and public urinals. In places the smell is unbearable. We are here in the winter so it's fairly cool. I can only imagine what it is like in the summer when the temperature can reach 45C.
Our hotel was right on the river near some of the more notable Ghats. It had great views from the terrace. We arrived in the afternoon and the taxi dropped us off away from the hotel as we had to walk through the narrow streets to get to it. A young lad had been dispatched to guide us. He offered to carry our bags but if anybody as much as looks at your bag here they want paying so we declined and carried our own. It was a challenging walk with a big rucksack. Mostly because Indians think they can walk through you. This meant that they were getting flattened by my rucksack. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.
After check in we took a walk along the ghat it was busy with people. Some were beggars, some were washing, and some were sleeping. The locals come to bathe in the river each day so the water edge is busy with half naked men washing. The women pretty much stay clothed as they wash. Alongside this ritual there are boatmen touting their river trips. Kids come down to play cricket or badminton. There are also a selection of stalls selling bits and bobs. Mix in a few Sadhus or holy men and you have the picture. As you walk along you come to the laundry ghats. This is where the hotels etc send their washing to be done. Everything is washed in the river then dried on the steps, usually on top of the cow s*** that lays there.
Now you may think it's ok to wash things, including yourself in a river. Here's a few facts about the Ganges in Varanasi. To call it polluted is it a bit like saying Hitler was a naughty chap. Water that is safe for bathing should have fewer than 500 faecal coliform bacteria in every litre of water. The Ganges has 1.5 million. In parts it has gone beyond toxic to septic and there is no dissolved oxygen in it. This is primarily because the 35 outlets for the city sewage system empty raw sewage in to it. It is basically a tidal lavatory.
That evening we went to see the nightly blessing of the river. This consists of some chanting and waving incense burners around to music. We went for a nice curry in a roof top restaurant before inspecting our bed linen very carefully!!
We got up at 6am to go and watch the sunrise. Unfortunately it was quite misty so we went for a walk instead. We soon found our self at one of the 'burning ghats' where the cremations take place. This is a 24 hour a day operation and on busy days they can burn 200-300 bodies. It is a commercial operation and quite fascinating to watch. We were the only foreigners there at that time of the morning.
As we had driven from the airport we were overtaken by a jeep with a dead body strapped on the roof rack. Unlike Britain where burial and cremation are quite sanitised this is public and full on. Bodies are transported by any means possible to the maze of streets behind the ghat. They are then carried on a bamboo stretcher by the male members of the family. Women are not allowed and can't be burnt here. Second class as with every religion.
Immediately behind the cremation site is a large run down building. This acts as a hospice for those close to death before they are burned. The bodies are placed in a queuing system waiting their turn. This morning there was only one old chap and his family. The work is performed by the lowest caste known as doms or 'the untouchables'. We spoke with one of them and he believed it was his karma to be there. Brainwashed or what?
Cremations vary in cost. A cheap one can be as little as 250 rupees (about £3), or as much as 4000 rupees or more. The cost is determined by location i.e. on a pedestal or in the dirt, the size of the pyre and the wood scent used. The wood is carefully weighed both for burning and the fragrant wood that is scattered on the fire. Sandalwood is the top of the range.
When we arrived the old ash was being cleared from the sites (about 10 in all). Once it was ready a new pyre was constructed. Next 'dead Grandad' was bought down on his stretcher to the water's edge by his family. At this time he was shrouded. He was then laid in the river and splashed with the holy (septic) water while a cow looked on. Once done he was placed on his pyre. His face was uncovered and his flower garlands tossed to the side. The cow duly ate them.
The family walked around him five times symbolising the five elements. They then poured more water on him and sprinkled wood shavings about. We had been told it was forbidden to take photos. This of course does not apply to the resident photographer. They all gathered around grandad and had a last family shot. The family were not dressed for the occasion. They had their work clothes on and it looked rather like as part of their commute to the office they had decided to burn grandad on the way.
After a little bit of chanting some brushwood was lit and the main pyre ignited. Time for one more picture with the family as his face melts off. It will burn for a couple of hours and it is an art to complete the job with the wood that has been paid for. Periodically the corpse is hit to break up the bones. After the fire dies down the smouldering logs are taken by locals to keep warm and someone sifts through the ash looking for jewellery and gold teeth. The ashes are then scooped up and thrown in the river.
For poor people and women who die they are often brought to the river at night wrapped in cloth and weighed down. Their bodies are dumped in the river and sink to the bottom to rot. Of course sometimes they re-surface and float down river.
The cremations are fascinating to watch. I don't find it distasteful or unpleasant. If that's what you want at the end of your life and it gives you contentment then good for you. I've always said to Jill when I'm dead I don't much care. If you want to take me to the council dump in a hire van that's fine. In many ways this isn't much different.
After the burning it was time for breakfast on the terrace. Life goes on.
Next day we took a rowing boat trip on the river. No dead bodies floated by which was nice. It is only from the water that you get a true sense of the numbers of people on the ghats and the activity on the river. Today was a public holiday. It was the festival of Kumbh Mela. This is held every six years and is a Hindu biggie. It is held at four sites on the Ganges. Fortunately not in Varanasi. The nearest site is Alahmabad about 125 kms away. It is expected that around 40 million people will gather there making it the largest single human gathering ever. Varanasi had a kite festival instead.
We rounded the day off with a walk through the narrow streets. Armed police/Army were everywhere. They clearly feel vulnerable to a terrorist attack most probably from Pakistan. In the evening we sat on the balcony and had a nice meal and a few drinks with a pleasant young Welsh couple. We've met some lovely people on our travels. Next morning and it was time to head to the airport. We had the same driver that brought us to the hotel. He looks about 110 and not long before he'll be at the burning ghat. Next stop Amritsar and the Golden Temple.