Monday, October 31, 2011

Varanasi: Holy City of Chaos

Marigolds for Diwali
Last time we left you, we were boarding the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi.  We wanted to book a first class cabin, possibly even one for just us, but we ended up with the next class down in a shared, open compartment (no door, just a curtain separating us from the aisle) with a young Indian couple.  And, we had the upper berths which required a gymnastic climb that rewarded us with a thinly padded bunk bed and a tiny sleeping space in which to maneuver.  Anne got almost no sleep in this uncomfortable setting, and Frank was too damn tired to care.  It may be time to give up the overnight train idea, at least in third world countries.  However, in the morning, we had a great conversation with the Indian couple on the other side of the main aisle that helped to offset the discomfort.  Of course, the gent was an engineer like Frank, so this lead to instant bonding between the two.  Spending some time with local people was the main reason we wanted to take the train.
The crazy streets of Varanasi
By the way, practically everyone speaks English here.  The accents sometimes make it hard to decipher, but it is English.  In fact, Frank has been unable to learn much Hindi since nobody speaks it to us.  He asked a waiter at our last hotel how to say something in Hindi, and the man was silent for a moment and then said, “I have been working here for six years and always speaking English that now I forget my Hindi!”  Yes, even a Hindi speaking Indian couldn’t provide an answer for Frank, as he’d forgotten how to say it.
Our handler was waiting for us at the train station in Varanasi (Varanasi is inexplicably called Benares here in India), and he immediately took off at a remarkable pace through the train station with us in tow.  Boy, do these Indians move fast!  We stumbled along behind terrified of losing him in the crowds.
Alleyway in the Old City of Varanasi
We are staying at the Rashmi Guesthouse in the Old City.  We will talk more about the traffic, crowds etc. later, but the Old City makes Delhi’s busy shopping street Chandni Chowk (that we talked about in the last report) look like a walk in the park.  Our hotel is located on a precipice directly overlooking the Ganges, which places us right in the middle of the action.  The room is tiny, but the bed is big and comfortable, and the air conditioning is powerful (but it is so loud that Anne feels as if she is sleeping on the assembly line of some heavy machinery factory!).  The hotel also has an excellent rooftop restaurant where we ate breakfast every morning and also had dinner twice.
By the way, the air conditioning in each hotel room in this country does more than just the obvious cooling; it is great protection from the marauding mosquitos that will inevitably swoop down on you at night and have a feast.  It is good to keep the a/c in operation all night for protection against the flying insects that want a bite out of you.    
Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and believe me, in many ways not much has changed since its inception.  It is considered India’s holiest city, a place that all Hindus hope to see before they die. In fact, many come here with the hope that they will die here. The city has a population of 3 million people with an added influx of 25,000 pilgrims and 1,000 foreign tourists per day.
Trash in the polluted Ganges River
On our first night, we met our Varanasi guide who called himself “Singh”, and he walked us down the steep stone steps, called “ghats” to the Ganges, the most holy river.  By the way, this river is horribly polluted – our Lonely Planet guidebook said to avoid getting even a sprinkle on us!  At first, we thought Singh was a real nonstarter – initially, he was not much of a communicator.  But Frank worked his magic, and soon Singh was sharing all kinds of cynical insights and philosophy.  We really came to appreciate his unabashed frankness and his dry sense of humor.
The plan for this evening was to take a wooden boat ride out on the waters of the Ganges, then attend the celebration of the 7 Brahmin priests called “Ganga Aarti”.  For some reason, Singh chose an older man to row our decrepit boat – this guy must be the worst rower on the Ganges, can’t tell you how many other boats he bumped into (or nearly collided with).  We really thought we might be taking an unintended dip in the Ganges ourselves!  We rode down to the main cremation ghat called “Manikarnika” where the flames of the cremations along the river’s edge flared in the darkness. 
Singh explained that the body is burned as soon after death as possible.  Family members and friends maintain a vigil on the steps for the 3-½ hrs. (roughly) that it takes for the cremation to be completed.  The process is simple:  the body is draped in colorful white & gold material and placed on a stack of wood.  Another layer of wood is placed on the top of the body and then they add ghee (clarified butter) to cover the body, and make it burn well.  The composition of the wood is very important – sandalwood is a key component since it masks the smell of the burning flesh.  Afterwards, the ashes are dumped into the Ganges.   Singh told us that so much wood was being used for cremations, the countryside is slowly becoming deforested.
Cremations along the Ganges
Although most of the bodies cremated here are people from Varanasi, some have their bodies shipped here just to be disposed of in this auspicious place.  Sickly and dying people often come here and stay in guesthouses just waiting to die.
Singh pointed out a man standing in the Ganges with water up to his waist in front of the cremation ghat. The man was holding a basket of wet ashes that he was sifting thru, looking for something.  Singh said that the man’s wife had probably died and he was searching through her ashes to retrieve valuables; i.e., the jewel that she would have worn in her nose, her toe ring, and/or other piercings.  The line between the pious and the practical is very thin here.
Singh also told us that wives no longer jump on their husband’s funeral pyres – in fact, it is a crime to do so.  Singh said that, in the past, most of the wives did not go voluntarily to their fiery demise, but were pushed onto the pyre by family members (who probably did not want to have to support a surviving widow), and who actually blamed the wife for their husband’s death.  (Don’t you love the way it is always the woman’s fault?) 
The celebration of Ganga Aarti along the Ganges
Being a woman in India can still be dangerous in spite of attempts to be more enlightened.  Anne has been reading the English language newspaper “The Hindustan Times,” a daily news rag about life in India.  A one-paragraph article described the death of a woman in one of the villages.  She was a married woman who had eloped with a man of the Untouchable Caste.  As the article states: “Her neighbors beat her to death, hung her body from a tree, and burnt her.”  The article made no mention of any arrests or charges to be made.
The faithful bathe in the polluted Ganges
After the cremation ghat, we watched the nightly “ganga aarti” ceremony on the largest ghat, one with a large platform area perfect for the performance.  Seven young Brahmin priests waved around flaming candelabras (what is it with these people and fire?) welcoming the god Shiva, while a chorus of the faithful danced and maintained a chanting rhythm in the background.
Just our luck, we got the
worst rower on the Ganges!
The next morning, we rejoined Singh on the ghats for a morning boat ride to see the sun rise on the Ganges.  This was an even better experience than the ride on the river the night before.  We had high hopes for a younger, more able rower, but Singh is a loyal guy and soon we were bumping our way up the river with the worst rower on the Ganges once again – the same old man we had last night!
Old lady brushing her teeth in
 the holy waters of the Ganges
The ghats were overflowing with the faithful preparing to greet the sun.  Varanasi faces toward the east by design so that the rising sun can purify the people of the city each day. Women wade into the waters fully dressed while the men strip down to just a loin cloth (and sometimes nothing at all).  Some people dive in while others use a cup to pour the river water over their heads.  People also come to the river for morning bathing; we observed one old woman industriously brushing her teeth with her finger.  The characters along the river are simply mind-boggling: thousands descending into the waters, cross-legged people meditating on the steps, religious types smearing themselves with ashes as they greet the day, Brahmin priests sitting in front of the temples protected by large, mushroom-like umbrellas, and laundry boys washing clothes in the filthy water.  (We are definitely sticking with hand washing in our hotel sink while we are here.)
Holy man smears himself in ashes as he mediatates
 by the Ganges
Frank spotted one of the coolest things – boys throwing strings out into the river as if they were casting a line for fishing (We knew that couldn’t be it because God knows nothing could live in this fetid water!)  Turns out, the string has a magnet on the end, and the boys are “fishing” for the steel coins that the pilgrims toss into the Ganges for good luck.  As Frank says, “Even the Hindus are capitalists at heart!”
The ghats along the Ganges
And the noise from the ghats – this is not some somber, respectful affair.  The air clatters with an incredible cacophony of racket.  Every pilgrim who enters one of the temples along the ghats rings a bell, believing that the vibration of the bell will send their wish to the gods.  (Singh said the gods must be very busy trying to sort out which of all these wishes to honor!)  At any rate, bells clang non-stop from every direction.
Sunrise on the holy Ganges River 
Soon the sun rises like a perfect red ball across the hazy, smoggy expanse of the Ganges, and the people of Varanasi proceed on their merry way to do the chores of daily life.  And tomorrow, this whole rigmarole will repeat itself as it has day after day for thousands of years. 
"Gods for sale" everywhere!
We retreated to our hotel to eat breakfast (and to try to process this whole overwhelming assault on our senses).  Then, Singh took us on a city tour.  A walk thru the dark, narrow alleyways of the Old City is just as mesmerizing as the ghats.  This is where residents live and work in dank hovels made of stone.  Shops offer all kinds of trinkets including small statues of Shiva and other Hindu deities – as Singh sarcastically says, “Gods for sale.”  Everything is dark and dirty – you have to watch where you step at all times because the sacred cows roam freely through here and leave their deposits everywhere.  And you also have to listen for the motorcycles that careen through streets that are only wide enough for a couple of pedestrians.
The main shopping street is even crazier with a mass of humanity like none we have ever seen.  It just so happens that we are here in Varanasi on the infamous Indian holiday called “Diwali”, the festival of lights. It is also one of the biggest shopping days of the year.  The street is packed with Hindu women in their finest silk garments and holiday saris, haggard pilgrims dressed in sackcloth leaning on wooden walking staffs looking like Old Testament prophets (it feels like the set of a Hollywood Biblical epic movie, but this is REAL), and beggars of all description, some with hideous deformities.
As we crossed the main street, a leper with bulbous lumps all over her face and neck startles Anne by grabbing her arm and begging for some money.  Meanwhile, another beggar lady with an infant child suckling on her breast puts her hand out to Frank for money, and utters something in Hindi in a most pathetic way.  We are heartbroken for these indigent, but we know we can do nothing for them that will alleviate their immediate suffering. The government requests that you give nothing to the beggars because it will only incite more begging.
Streets of Varanasi
We literally dive into our waiting vehicle, a classic Hindustan model, and drive away from the craziness of the Old City.  We visit one of the famous universities – Singh says, “Varanasi is about learning and burning.”  And then we drive to the Durga Temple, a blood red temple where animal sacrifices were performed not long ago (now banned).  The temple honors Durga, the consort of Shiva. 
Hindus worship hundreds of gods and each one has dozens of names (Shiva is known by 1008 alternate names) and is recognized by specific accoutrements making it absurdly confusing.  Just to give you a taste: Shiva carries a trident, rides on a bull and sits on a tiger skin to get re-energized by the tiger’s power (Singh says it’s like recharging a cell phone!).  Hinduism seems to be a remarkably flexible religion.  According to Singh, Hinduism is a very personal religion with no hard and fast rules – you decide which parts of it you want to follow (or not).
Diwali is sort of like Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one.  It is the biggest celebration on the Indian calendar. On the night before Diwali, firecrackers were exploding all over the city.  On  Diwali day, everything is decorated with orange marigolds (our hotel lobby was covered with them) and small clay pots filled with oil to provide a small flickering light in every doorway.  Our hotel had no “live” clay pots – instead they had a string of miniature Christmas-like lights sitting in plastic pots.  Modern technology!  On the night of Diwali, the sky was filled with fireworks going off all over the city.
Singh described another aspect of Diwali.  He said people make a wish for wealth on Diwali and many spend the holiday gambling for that wealth, some even end up bankrupted.  In fact, the Hindu word for bankrupt is diwala!  So, the Hindu people often say that “Diwali turns to Diwala”.
Local sitar player
There are so many simple issues in this country that make daily life more difficult than it has to be.  Some of you may probably know already, this is a society that thrives on tips for survival.  Everybody wants to be tipped for services rendered, and even for services not rendered (it seems).  Problem is, from our prospective, there is a fine line between “extra services rendered”, and “just doing your job.”  We have come to the conclusion, that after many days in India, we still don’t know squat about who gets tipped and who doesn’t.  When you stay at a hotel, everyone seems to want to be your friend; and, when you leave the hotel, you can just bet that everybody who even smiled at you will be standing around conveniently available to be handed some money. Everyone seems to have their hands out even when they do nothing.  In one instance, Frank failed to tip an old villager man who just happened to walk up to us (who we still feel did not deserve to be tipped), and he became irate as we exited his airspace; he walked with us saying stuff in Hindi that we did not understand, but his body language was clearly hostile and his less than friendly demeanor spoke volumes.  So, who do you tip, as well as how much?  It’s really something we need to explore, and perhaps when this trip is done, we can give you a better ‘tip’ on tips.  Or not.
We are so glad to have you following our adventures – thanks for traveling with us and Happy Diwali!
P.S.  Our friend Don Brown who also follows our travels,  sent us this comment that we absolutely love, regarding our last report.  He said, “I think you could visit hell and make it sound like heaven.”

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