India: Varanasi – Day One
An important holy city for the Hindus on the Ganges river with thousands of temples with a crazy wild side.
We made an early start to get to the airport for our flight from Delhi to Varanasi. The sun was yet to rise, and luckily, so had many of the residents of Delhi, making our journey to the airport less frenetic than the way in. The security was tight getting into the terminal building, but we were soon checked in, only to find our flight had been delayed (a common occurrence in India).
The flight was short, and we were soon in our car on the way to our hotel. The airport is around 35km from the centre of the city and the first part of the journey was relatively calm. They are in the process of constructing a new road from the city to the airport, which will be great when it is finished, but for now, it was a cause for chaos (a taste of what was to come). Where buildings had been in the path of the road, they had simply knocked down the part that was in the way, leaving the rest of the building intact with people living in whatever had been left behind.
Amazing! As we had previously discovered there is no lane discipline in India, so when parts of the road ran out vehicles simply crossed to the other side and navigated their way through the oncoming traffic, using their horns to announce their presence. The basic rule seems to be if something bigger than you are coming in your direction you need to get out of the way. All the lorries carried a painted sign – “Blow Horn, Please!”
By the time we reached the city the traffic in Varanasi was in full flow. We have never seen anything like it, in fact, it is impossible to describe the total madness with experiencing it for yourself. Somehow everything worked, and we reached our point of departure from the car. The last quarter of a mile to our hotel, Suryauday Haveli, had to be traversed on foot. Luckily, our tour guide had called forward and some porters were on hand to carry our bags.
Now for a bit of background to Varanasi!
Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Benaras, this holy city is located in the southeastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It rests on the left bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges) and is one of the seven sacred spots for Hindus. Every devout Hindu wish to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the Ghats of the Ganga (the famous steps leading down to the water), walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and die here in old age. Many tourists come to Varanasi, but also many avoid it due to its reputation for being dirty and packed with people (all of which is true), preferring to stick to the golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). But it was one of the places I wanted to include on the tour precisely due to the reasons people miss coming – this is real India!
We had a warm welcome waiting for us. The service in hotels and restaurants (at least the ones we went to) was amazing; sometimes almost too much. For the first night, we were given a suite, and after dropping our bags in the room we headed to the roof terrace. The Suryauday Haveli overlooks the river Ganges, and we had a fabulous viewpoint to observe everything going on around us, both on and off the river. Below us was a Ghat, a series of steps that ran down to a small beach, with groups of people milling around. A small herd of water buffalo also seemed to live there, and occasionally got it in their mind to chase a person. The Ganges often floods during the monsoon season filling up the whole river basin (and parts of Varanasi), this being December the width of the river was more modest, but nonetheless inspiring due to its iconic status. We ordered some lunch and when it arrived we had to sit on guard to protect it from the local, marauding monkeys. We needn’t have worried too much, because as soon as they got too close a member of the hotel staff appeared from nowhere to chase them off with a big stick.
Refreshed, we decided to head out along the river, where it is possible to walk for four and a half miles. Not long after leaving, we came to one of the Ghats where the Hindus cremate their dead. Coming from a culture where putting your loved ones on what is essentially a bonfire (in fact some looked more like barbeques) it felt a very alien practice.
Just as we arrived we saw a group of men carrying a body on a stretcher down to the area where the cremations took place. We had not been there more than an hour or so and we were already being confronted with a dead body, which did make us feel a bit awkward. Although we were carrying our cameras, it didn’t seem appropriate to take pictures (the family were taking pictures as though it were a wedding), but nonetheless a tiny man approached us and told us to be respectful and not take any photos. He took us to one side and started to tell us about the ritual itself.
For the Hindus, Varanasi is very special, and many hope to spend their final days and hours in the city, so they can have their cremation by the Ganges and their ashes cast in the river. The cremations take place within hours of the person’s death. As we had observed the bodies are carried down to the river, by an all-male wedding cortege (apparently women get too emotional), their bodies wrapped in white cloth, a simple garland around their necks and covered with a brightly covered drape. The bodies are washed in the water of the Ganges and are carried back and placed on the funeral pyre. The chief mourner will be the older son in the case of the father or the youngest son in the case of the mother if there are no sons, other rules apply. He has his head shaved and wears a simple white robe. They perform the rites of washing the body and setting the fire on the pyre. Everyone hangs around until the body is fully burnt, which can take three or four hours, at which time ashes are taken and cast into the Ganges along with a major bone which has not been consumed in the fire. In the case of a woman this would be a hip bone and in the case of a man his sternum. After this, there is then a process of mourning.
We learnt that there are groups of people who are considered to be already spiritually clean and therefore do not require to be cremated. This includes pregnant women, holy men, children under two, lepers and those who die of snake bites. Instead of cremation these people are weighted down and dropped into the Ganges. The cremations in Varanasi take place 24 hours a day and total somewhere in the order of 200 each day.
Our new friend also explained that his family was a member of a caste, the Doms, that is responsible for maintaining the cremation grounds and the holy fire that was used to light the pyres. This fire has been maintained for thousands of years and it is only this fire that the Hindus believe can be used to light a pyre. The Doms make their living from death and cremation, charging families for their services. They are considered as Untouchables, but everyone, even the rich, wanting to use the cremation grounds and the sacred fire has to employ their services. From the cremation grounds by the river, our “friend” took us up the street past the huge piles of wood provided to mourners, for a fee, to use on the pyres. There are different types of wood depending on what could be afforded, the most expensive being sandalwood, which provides a sweet smell (better for masking the smell of burning flesh). We were also shown a more traditional crematorium. From here we were led through some very narrow alleys. I was becoming a bit concerned about being mugged or killed but eventually arrived at a small house where we could hear the clacking of a loom. Varanasi is famous for the production of very fine silk cloth, and our informal guide took us into to see the loom at work (more on silk cloth production later). He then led us some narrow stairs into a room, with a mattress covered floor and shelves packed with silk scarves, bed linen, table cloths and pashminas. As from nowhere another man appeared; an enthusiastic salesman with good English. From that point on we were shown dozens of products of all shapes and sizes. Karen selected a few items, we paid our money and our “guide” took us back to our hotel. It was obvious to us by this stage that we had been taken for a ride, and had not heeded the warning about hawkers, but having said that we had learned some interesting facts about the Hindu culture and its links to the Ganges and Karen did get a couple of silk scarves.
Our evening plans were an official tour, consisting of a boat ride on the river Ganges, followed by dinner. We were met by our guide around dusk and taken down the Ghat below our hotel and onto our boat. This was not a motor-powered boat, but instead was propelled by a young man with a set of oars that looked cobbled together with bits of driftwood, but they worked fine. We travelled down the river to the main cremation ground where about 15 cremations were in progress. We watched the rituals in complete fascination. The ceremonies were at various stages, we saw one body being washed, another pyre being set and others in full flame. One cremation had completed its cycle and the chief mourner collected what looked like a hip bone, walked down to the river and cast it into the water.
By this stage it was dark, and we set off down the river to the main event of the trip, the Aarti, a religious ceremony held nightly at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Before setting out on our trip we had bought some candles set in a cup of leaves from one of the small children hawking on the Ghat below the hotel. As we travelled towards the Aarti we lit these candles, tributes to family and friends struggling with illness, and set them afloat on the river. This was a truly profound spiritual moment.
The waters around Dashashwamedh Ghat were packed with boats full of tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga Aarti is a colourful ceremony that pays homage to Lord Shiva. The Aarti is performed by seven young priests who are pursuing their Vedas and Upanishads. The priests stood on a highly decorated platform and follow a highly choreographed ceremony involving mantra chants, conch blowing, incense and a seven-layered camphor lamp (something resembling an inverted chandelier with flames). The whole thing lasted 45 minutes and was fascinating to watch.
Equally fascinating was to watch the people and boats around us, it was somewhat chaotic as boats shuffled positions to get the best views, and at the same time, young men leapt, risking life and limb, from boat to boat trying to sell trinkets to the passengers. When all was done the armada of vessels set off in every direction, through which our oarsmen skillfully navigated our safe passage back to the hotel.
There was nothing else left for us to do except eat another tasty Indian meal. We dined in the hotel courtyard where the hotel had organized a group of musicians to play traditional Indian music. It was good, apart from the instrument that occasionally made the sound of a distressed mosquito. Karen, as is her want, went up to the band members to find out more about their craft and ended up singing some scales with them. Our waiter noticed Karen’s interest and said he could get hold of CDs of their music, we tried to ignore his offer and finished our meal and headed off to our room.