Varanasi, October 22-25

 “Varanasi will blow your mind, but you must see it for yourself to form your own impressions.” That’s what Günter told me when he promised to take me around the world.  One cannot sail to Varanasi, so it’s taken him twenty years to make this particular promise come true.  It is good that we did not delete this destination from our bucket list! This city of a little more than a million people is chaotic, colorful, and totally insane. As the Lonely Planet, India says, “Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.” It was certainly my most memorable stop in India.

Dating back to around 1200 B.C., Varanasi is also known as Kashi (City of Life) or Benares. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It is also one of the holiest sites in India, the “in” place for washing away one’s sins in the holy waters of the Ganges or cremating one’s loved ones. The city is an auspicious place to die, since dying here gives one moksha (liberation from life and death). The soul goes straight to heaven, thus ensuring that it will not be reborn into the next life as a rat—or as a politician!

New Delhi was benign compared to this place. I cannot imagine flying from any western country straight into in Varanasi! It’s raw, it’s real and it’s here and now. The sights, sounds, and smells assault my senses and really do blow my mind.

Our Delhi driver takes us to the airport, where we end up at the gate, waiting for our plane. There is scant seating along the wall. We stand in line for 1 ½ hours. All the while, the news travels from one passenger to another, like a game of “gossip:” The flight is delayed but is “scheduled” for the next hour! I sit in place, leaning against my daypack. “Only five minutes,” says an Indian guide for a tour group of Brits and Aussies. The next pronouncement is “only ten minutes,” and the one after that, “only 20 minutes.” Then the word comes back to the guide that it will be another hour. The entire tour group leaves to go to the upstairs restaurant. I grab a vacant seat while Günter roams the airport. After ten minutes, our plane is called—no warning, no explanation. I motion to Günter; we are loaded into a bus to board the plane. (This airport does have passenger loading bridges, but they are not used.) The 25-person tour group is still at the restaurant, so we wait until they are herded on. Welcome to travel in India!

An Enchanting-India representative takes us to the Gateway Hotel, clearly a grand opulent hotel of time gone by, ‘50s grandeur trying to regain its previous five-star status. Many of the pools have been drained and the fountains are still, but the flower gardens have been tilled and rosebushes have been planted in one of them. “I never promised you a rose garden,” hums Günter as we walk past. We have arrival teas in the reception, decorated in shades of pale green and chartreuse, with contrasting maroon pillows. Gold trim has been inlaid into the marble floors; leaf patterns have been etched into the tall, arched windows and the crystal chandelier. All this would be quite expensive to duplicate at today’s costs!

My most memorable impression of Varanasi is the Ganga Aarti, the evening prayer ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River. Our driver takes us as far as he can, then we walk with Beni, our guide, through the throngs of pilgrims, tourists, and touts to the ghats, long stretches of steps leading down to the water on the western bank. About 80 ghats border the river, but this ceremony always takes place at the Dasaswamedh, the liveliest and most colorful. The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Beni walks ahead of us and hires a boat and two boatmen; Günter and I follow her down the steps crowded with pilgrims, touts and begging children. One girl with black, pleading eyes wants to sell us lamps to put into the river. Beni tries to shake her off, telling her, “No, we’ll buy them down at the boat.” The girl follows us down to the boat.

The girl who sold us river offerings

“I want to buy them from her,” I tell Beni. We climb into the small rowboat. The two expert boatmen maneuver past the dozens of boats lined there, about six rows deep, while the girl runs along the dock.  When we reach the end of the dock, we purchase 5 lamps from her, each made with a floating base, a small tea candle, and six orange marigolds. After being underway for awhile, we light them, make a wish, and then float them on the fast-moving Ganges. We continue to watch and wish as the lights become smaller and smaller and finally disappear.

Lois makes a wish and drops the tea light into the Ganges

We are rowed past Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremations are done. No photos are allowed. We stop and drift while we watch silently. About eight fires are burning. That means that eight bodies are being cremated. The corpse is dunked in the Ganges prior to burning. Beni points out the huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat. “Every log is weighed on giant scales up there,” Beni points.  “Sandalwood is the most expensive, bought only by the rich. The wood is expensive because it has to be brought there through narrow streets. I’ll show you those tomorrow. The price of the cremation is calculated in advance. The family buys just enough wood to incinerate the body, but no more. Then it is slid back into the river. Sometimes the wood isn’t enough, and the body floats while before it sinks.”

The boat turns and we head back for the Ganga Aarti. The ghat steps have filled to capacity. A group of musicians file toward a platform high over the river bank. I am transfixed. I feel as if I am watching the opening act of a life-and-death play from the buffer of the river, yet I am surrounded by boats painted in hues of the Caribbean. Surreal! The smoke from the burning ghats forms a smoky mist that rises from the Ganges. Although there is no dramatic sunset, the haze gradually turns to dark. Yellow street lamps beam onto steps filled with brilliant saris and light a stage with seated, white-robed figures. As the haunting sounds of the sitar begin, a hush falls over the crowd. After that, a choir performs a ritual chant that sounds medieval to me. A warm chill—is that even possible?—runs up my spine as life and death ramp to maximum intensity against a backdrop of molding mansions and decaying temples. The pageantry continues with bells, drums, incense, candles and song. Günter and I cannot understand the words, so we meditate and pray to our God. A spirit of prayer envelops the entire setting, interrupted occasionally by a light splash of oars.

We didn’t record this night service, but you can view videos by others at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQSA2jltbXA

The night is short because we have a 0500 pick-up to be back at the ghat before dawn. Sunrise on the Ganges is not to be missed, warn the guide books. The rising sun promises to bathe the temples and ghats lining the western bank in a heavenly golden light. I rouse myself, still wearing last night’s make-up, and strap on my cameras to photograph the scene. Beni hires two boatmen and we board the boat in the dark. The sky gradually lightens, but there is no golden globe this day. I’m not surprised, because so far, I have not seen a bright sunrise in India. “There it is—the sun!” Beni calls. We look toward the eastern bank to see a pale white ball that looks more like a moon surrounded by misty haze.  As we near the western bank, I notice more cremation fires burning. No wonder a “mist” hangs over this river!

Hazy sunrise over the river Ganges

By now, I know that we cannot photograph the burning ghats, so I ask if we can go closer at the bathing ghats. These provide world-class people watching. I find that people come to the ghats not only for bathing, but also to wash clothes, perform yoga, offer blessings, get massages, wash their buffalos, beg or give to beggars to improve their karma. As the sun rises, it burns off some of the smoke, and the buildings do take on a mellow glow.

Our boatsmen on the sunrise cruise along the ghats

Beni has the boat drop us off at a burning ghat so that we can walk the narrow back streets and watch a cremation from the shore—not that we asked her for this. I surmise that it comes with the tour. Huge stacks of firewood are stacked along the top ridge of the ghat. We climb the steps to visit The Scales, where the wood is weighed and a price is negotiated. The dead bodies are carried through the alleyways of the old city on bamboo stretchers swathed in cloth. The bodies used to be carried only by the “Untouchables” caste. Here, I must divert from my story to explain how the caste system works:

In Delhi, we watched a segment of a LaMonde TV special series on India about a man who is a cremator. An uneducated man, he makes four times that of an educated office worker. The TV crew follows him home after his work. He stops stops at a small neighborhood restaurant.

“What does he do?” the narrator asks a customer seated nearby.

“I think he works in an office near here.”

No one will admit that he has such a job. The man procures the wood for the cremation, the lighter fluid and butter to make the body burn, and the platform that slides the body into the Ganges. Then he lights the corpse, which burns for many hours.

The Indian constitution does not recognize the caste systems, but caste still wields considerable influence, especially in rural India. The caste one is born into determines the social standing within the community and influences one’s vocational and marriage prospects. Castes are further divided into thousands of jati, groups of “families” or social communities, sometimes—but not always—linked to occupation. Conservative Hindus not only marry someone of the same caste, but of the same jati.

Hindus are born into one of four castes: Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (laborers). They believe that the Brahmins emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation; Kshatriyas came from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and Shudras from his feet.

Beneath these four main castes are the Dalits (formerly known as the Untouchables) who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners. The word “pariah” comes from the name of a Tamil Dalit group, the Paraiyars. But there is another layer: beneath the social heap are the Denotified Tribes (known as the Criminal Tribes until 1952 when a reform law recognized 198 tribes and castes). Many of these nomadic tribes are forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society. To improve the Dalit’s position, the Indian government sets aside public sector jobs, parliamentary seats, university spots. Today, these quotas encompass 25% of student positions and government jobs.

When Beni, who is a Brahmin educated as a chemist, tells us that these cremators are Untouchables, we know better, but don’t challenge her. Next, she takes us to a building at the top of the burning ghat to watch a cremation. Before I look down, the stench overwhelms me. I wish we had masks. I try not to open my mouth. My eyes smart. I can’t wait to leave.

We are asked for a donation and then we follow Beni through dark, narrow alleys that are actually the main streets of the old city. Cows wander through; we have to be careful not to step on cow pies and other filth. Babies play in the street. Günter stops to take a photo of a man plastered with white dust sitting in a doorway in a lotus position. He must be a “tourist guru” because he asks for a donation.

Guru in the doorway of a back street

Beni points us to the Vishwanath Temple, the most popular temple in Varanasi, dedicated to Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776, with the 800 kg of gold plating on the tower and dome supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later. The security is extreme, with soldiers all over the place. Bags, cameras, cell phones, have to be deposited. After we get through all of this, we find that we can only see the temple through a rope gate because we are not Hindu.

Why bother, then, with all the security rigmarole?

When we come out of the hubbub and return to our driver and car, I am quite ready to leave the old city.  Beni directs the driver to the Benares Hindu University where she obtained her degree. What a difference! The wide tree-lined streets and parks of the five-square-kilometer campus seem a world away.

Varanasi is famous for silk brocades and the gorgeous Banarasi saris worn by Indian women on important occasions such as attending a wedding. Beni takes us to The Mehta International, a silk weaving center where we admire tapestries, table runners, and saris woven with bright colors interlaced with gold thread. We watch the weavers at work at old silk handlooms. It can take two months for a weaver to make one sari. We learned that the complex device above some of the weavers uses punched cards to store the intricate instructions—forerunners of the punched card used in computer rooms until the 1960s.

So it follows that the artisans who were adapt at creating these decorative patterns were  equivalent to our modern day computer programmers. Amazing!

Beni also takes us to Vibgyor, a manufacturer and exporter of all types of glass beads, jewelry, wall hangings, and other handicrafts where we buy gifts to take back with us.

On our final full day in Varanasi, we take a day trip to Sarnath. Underway, we ask our driver to stop on the outskirts of a small town while we “walk a village.” We leave our bags in the car, parked alongside fields of grain and produce, carrying only the small Nikon digital and some change.  This is the best way, we’ve found, to interact with locals. We walk down the dusty main street, talking to locals using simple English words and hand signs. Soon I have a troupe of children following me, pointing and giggling with their hands over their mouths. I take photos of thatched huts, the convenient water wells and  hand pumps put alongside the road by the government, the family water buffalo or goat, and the family themselves when they permit me to do so. When I crouch down to take a photo of the stacks of cow pies heaped alongside a home (they use them as fuel for cooking) or slapped on a wall to dry, the children burst into laughter.

Sarnath, rediscovered by British archeologists in 1835, is known as one of the four important sites on the Buddhist circuit (the other three are located in Nepal). It’s a peaceful, laid-back town. In 640 A.D., Sarnath had a 100-meter high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries but soon after, Buddhism went into decline and when Muslim invaders destroyed the city’s buildings, Sarnath disappeared. We visit the Chaukhandi Stupa, a large ruined stupa that dates back to the 5th century, the spot where Buddha met his first disciples. At the modern temple of Mulgandha Kuti, we walk around a bodhi tree supposedly transplanted from the holy tree in Sri Lanka, which in turn is said to be the offspring of the original tree in Bodhgaya under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

The site where Buddha preached to his first disciples, Sarnath

Next stop: Khajuraho, a world heritage site famous for its erotic carvings.

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