Things we have learnt:
Maggie has just had what she described as the most memorable day of her life. For her, yesterday on the banks of the Ganges was nirvana, and had she died then, she would have died happy. And of course, as those of you in know will know, it’s a very auspicious place to die. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We learnt that Indian Rail, which must carry the population of Australia on its trains every day, still has a way to go. We learnt that while there is more room in a compartment for two on IR than there is on Amtrak, at least with Amtrak there’s going to be at least one person who will help you find your seat. Our guide, who had been specifically tasked to take us to the station and get us in the right spot, first took us into the open carriage 3 level sleepers. He could see the obvious horror on my face with the idea of spending a night cheek by jowl with 200 other burping, farting passengers stacked three high so swiftly backed us out onto the platform. Next he got us into the right car, but into a compartment that already had a very nice Indian family of six who didn’t seem to be the slightest bit interested in sharing their four berths with two extras. Finally, we found our good-sized, two-person compartment. We learned that when you travel Indian Rail, no one makes your bed up for you. We learned that unlike Thai Railways, there’s no comfy mattress, and unlike Vietnam Railways, no comforting doona. Unlike Amtrak and Turkish Rail, IR trains are “dry”, (damn, I just hate it when that happens), but like Thai Railways, your food, when delivered to your seat, is surprisingly tasty. And finally, in common with Turkish Rail and Amtrak, we arrived at our destination nearly an hour late.
Maggie has been waiting “her whole life” to visit Varanasi, and she was over-joyed by the experience. On our first afternoon we were taken to the banks of the Ganges to witness the evening Aarti ceremony. In the car on the way down to the river, (the Varanasi traffic makes Hanoi look like Centennial Park on a car free day), Maggie and the guide got into a deep and meaningful about Hindu spirituality and the meaning of life in general. The guide was so happy to have someone he could relate to he took us “off-piste” and gave us a cultural tour of the alleyways of the old town. Although this provided fascinating insights into the lives of the micro-merchants who ply their trade in the depths of the old city, it was not without its challenges. The sacred cows of India roam freely, often adding to the traffic chaos, and as in Delhi, the pariah dogs add their faeces to the piles of dung left by the cows. Beetle leaf is spat everywhere. So, it’s as important to look down, as it is to look up.
When we reached the river where the Aarti was about to begin, Maggie had her forehead painted by an itinerant priest, and after arguing about the price – he wanted 200, we paid 20rp, our guide decided to give Maggie a special treat. He hired a boat and the boatman rowed us a km down the river to the Ghats where the cremations were taking place. This has to be one of the most amazing experiences of all time. Looking at it in the early evening from the river was like looking into the heart of Dante’s inferno. We counted at least a dozen cremations in progress and each is fuelled with over 300kgs of wood. I had read that Sandalwood was the preferred timber but the guide said this has been banned as the Sandalwood forests were being significantly depleted. The process, which you really don’t want me to go into detail over, takes only three hours (and 300kg of wood) and what I thought was a very wonderful thing is that the eldest son lights the pyre and the family waits for the three hours until their loved one is reduced to ashes and then consumed by the holy water of the Ganges. This obviously provides an opportunity for refection, contemplation and a (somewhat smoky) chance of closure. And in our society we just have the little curtains closing and a swell of recorded music.
When the colourful Aarti ceremony concluded we ate dinner on a rooftop restaurant and watched the full moon rise over the Ganges. It had been, as Maggie said, the most memorable day of her life.
As was the tuk-tuk ride home. Very memorable!
But there still was more to come. Next morning, an hour before dawn, we were collected from the hotel and dropped near the Ganges with our guide. The affable Dr Ajay Singh seemed to know everyone and later we found that he was serving his second term as secretary of the Indian Tourist Guides Assn. His PHD is in Indian history, which makes him an even greater authority on his country’s story. We discussed the Muslin issue, and he reminded us that centuries before the Taliban and ISIS were destroying religious monuments in the Middle East, their forerunners had occupied India for 600 years and had destroyed Hindu shrines and Buddhist temples throughout his country.
We sat together as the sky lightened and drunk sweet Marsala chai from small single-use clay pots and then walked down the steep Ghats to where our jolly boatman was waiting. As the sun rose over the Ganges in the east and with the full moon setting to the west, we rowed past the now extinguished pyres from the previous night, past pilgrims bathing in the (apparently quite chilly) water of the Ganges and past the beautiful palaces that line the riverbank.
Our boatman dropped us at the cremation Ghat where now only one new funeral pyre was burning, and we walked through the narrow lanes marvelling at the huge piles of timber available for purchase for the cremations. We were pushed roughly aside as a family came bustling past, carrying the body of their loved one down to the Ghat. And we learned that in the narrow alleyways of Varanasi, if you’re going one way and a cow comes toward you, it’s better to back out and retrace your steps.
After breakfast, we visited the nearby town of Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon. There was once a great temple and stupa here which contained the Budda’s ashes, but all this was destroyed by the Moghuls and now only the foundations remain. The local museum contains some relics from the site – a lot reside in the British Museum and the locals only have what the British didn’t want or couldn’t carry, but all the Buddha statues in the museum all have their noses broken off, which was the first act of the invaders.
In the evening of our last day in Varanasi, we again visited the Ghats for the Aarti ceremony, this time watching it from the landside as the eight priests carry out their hour-long evening blessing of the river. It’s an extremely memorable sight.
10,000 pilgrims a day visit Varanasi. As a Hindu, it is your scared duty to visit the Vishwanath Temple and to bath in the Ganges at least once in your lifetime. There are a lot of people pushing and bustling from one place to another. There are plenty of scams and hustles to be avoided and there are beggars everywhere, predominantly around the Ghats. The roads are crowded and there are no footpaths. The drivers use their horns continually and so the old part of the city particularly is noisy and loud, and for some tourists, could be especially confronting. We not tourists, we’re travellers so we loved it all.
And now we’re off to Khajuraho to see the famous temples, which, according to Lonely Planet, feature superb examples of Indo-Aryan carvings, mostly about women and sex.
So I suggest you pour yourself a cold Kingfisher, and we’ll meet back here in a couple of days.
The Varanasi pix are here: