Monday, June 21, 2010

Varanasi, India

Our time spent in Agra had gotten away from us. After being sick we had missed a train to our next destination Varanasi. This meant that two more days were spent before we continued. Finally, we were able to get a couple seats, on the famously overcrowded India Railway, to the city of life and death. Varanasi famous for the Ghats along the edge of the sacred Ganges river. We only spent a short amount of time in this very dirty city because we opted to escape the heat and head for the mountains of Nepal, but the best thing that we did was the evening river boat tour.

We left with our guide in the late afternoon for the Sacred Ganges river. We were very happy we had a guide, as the traffic was horrendous and the walk through the narrow winding streets was confusing. Arriving at the Ghats, stairs leading down to the river, we were escorted to a boat. A young girl immediately wanted to sell us a candle and flowers in a small cardboard dish. After haggling over the price, I purchased two small "offerings" and snapped a photo with her consent. Chels and I placed our candle boats in the river, the young girl hopped out of the boat and we shoved off.

Our oar man was quiet. We soon discovered it was due to his lack of command of the English language. Throughout the trip we did discover that he had been rowing tourists up and down the river for many years. Fortunately we had done our research on the river and the activities which took place on its banks.

As dusk set in the river became creepy. The air was warm, thick, and pungent with odors of smoke and filth.

The ancient buildings, temples, and occasional hostel stared down the stairs at us. It was just the the three of us as we were slowly paddled along.

There were many idols perched along the banks which stared out at us too.

The stairs were quieter in the evening for the most part, as there were no vendors and fewer people coming to wash.

Due to the strong religious beliefs tied to the sacredness of the river, one of the primary practices that takes place are the cremations on the waters edge. It is the goal of many dedicated Hindus to make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to give berth and to die in the holy city. Many also come to be married. After death, the bodies are cremated on the steps and then the ashes are pushed into the river. All is tied to deep seated beliefs of reincarnation into the next life.

As we neared the burning ghats, our boatman advised that we withhold from taking photos when we got closer out of respect to the families. The pile of ashes on the banks covered up the stairs and formed a bit of a peninsula into the waters. We counted a total of seven fires burning that evening. It was very erie.

As we continued down the river, we watched as candles and other trash floated by. In the distance I saw a strange form approaching. I soon realized that it was a dead body. One that had not been fully burned. We recalled from our research that in some cases the family cannot afford enough wood for the cremation to fully take place, even yet the remainder of the body is still pushed into the Sacred Ganges. Chunks of charred wood also floated by our boat as the evening went on. It was shocking to say the least.

We spotted a number of cows roaming the banks of the river.

Amongst the ashes and body parts floating in the water, there also is a toxic amount of sewage. Millions of gallons of raw sewage run into the river from the city and upstream daily making the water extremely hazardous to ones health. We refrained from any form of contact with the water, but others were obliged to do laundry, bathe, swim, and to our horror, drink of the thick sluggish brew. It is believed that the holy waters of the Ganges can cleanse ones soul.

Along the river there were also ceremonies which took place late in the evening. Our boat driver paddled up beside other boats stopped to watch. The music was exotic and the rituals unusual. Notice the man going for a swim in the river. Yuck!

Many had come to observe and to participate.

Where the boats had come to gather, young children would go from boat to boat selling candles, snacks, and chai tea. We have heard that sometimes the tea has been made from river water.

We watched as the ceremonies preformed incense and offerings of fire and water.

One of the best decisions that we made in this incredibly dirty city was to stay at a nicer establishment which we could escape to. It was also a place that we could order off the menu knowing that it was safe for consumption.

Tasty lime and mint smoothie. I ordered one of my new favorites, fresh lime with soda water and a dash of sugar.

We were very anxous to leave India and head to the higher elevations where it would be cooler. India had taken its toll on us. We were ready for something a little less intense.


Jeff said...

The night river photos confirm an analogy I used before: They look like scenes from the film "Apocalypse Now." Marvelous pictures.

Jeff said...

So ... where'd you go next?

Jeff said...

Do I have to come to Missouri to see the rest?

Jessica said...

Wow, your adventures in India have been amazing and intense. It is cool to read about how you have navigated all of this.

Jeff said...

Hey! Are you still in Varanasi?

Helena said...


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