Friday, December 24, 2010

Full Day in Varanasi

Nothing like a speedy freezing moto-rickshaws ride to wake you up in the morning. We forced ourselves to get up at 5:45am so we could watch the morning action at the ghats along the Ganges. Really wanted to get some more sleep in, but knew this was our only full day in the holiest city in India so our will won out over our exhaustion.

There are over 80 ghats here and it's hard to tell where one ends and the next one begins. The morning was misty and breathtaking. We sat on the steps drinking chai and taking it all in. Birds were swarming in excitement while the city was already off to business of bathing and washing their clothes in the river. The sun broke through the low mist in the horizon and reflected across the broad stretch of the Ganga.

Once we had warmed up we walked through the "main" ghat where we had witnessed the puja the night before from a boat. We opted to watch from a boat the evening before to play it safe. There was a bombing there a little over two weeks ago killing 20 people. A handful were tourists, although tourists were not specifically the target. One the other side we climbed up to a rooftop restaurant and had breakfast. (rooftop cafes and restaurants are virtually necessary to get away from the attention given to us by everyone seeking money for something.)

We headed north along the river until we came upon the largest and most important ghat in all of India, the Manikarnika ghat. This is the main body burning ghat where not only the people of Varanasi bring their family to get cremated, but bodies from all over India are sent to be set a flame. An average of two hundred body's are cremated here every day.

We got there still very early in the morning durning their lest busy hours (only one customer) and a young man, one of the untouchables who worked there gave us a very interesting tour. The tour ended at the hospice overlooking the ghat the which was for the homeless/familyless. To this point we had been good about not giving any money donations or handouts to anyone, but we donated a few dollars in rupees to the lady running the hospice to supply wood. Families pay for the wood to cremate their loved ones. There are large scales use to weigh out wood for the burning. different wood has different prices, sandalwood being the most expensive. Bodies are given 3 hours to burn after which they are tossed into the river whether fully cooked or not. The more and better quality wood, the better the chances the job gets done. If your family is poor (or if they just don't like you and don't want to pay much), the greater your chances your half charred carcass get tossed into the river.

I learned a great deal of things that I don't have the time to type out, but some of the more interesting info was about who they would not cremate. They would not cremate children under 10 with the belief their body and energy was still a young flower that need to be absorbed back into the earth. This is also the same reason they will not cremate pregnant women. They will not cremate holy men (babas and sadhus) because they have spent their life purifying themselves are unattached to anything and not of the earth. They will not cremate lepers. In all of these cases the bodies are weighted and sunk to the bottom of the river without being burned. Anyone bitten by a white cobra is sent adrift down the Ganges after 3 days from the bite. Also, only people who have died from natural causes including sickness and starvation are burned at the ghat. Anyone killed in something like a car accident needed to be cremated in a separate indoor incinerator since they do not want to mix that type of karma with the energy of natural death.

I was happy to get such a good scoop on the whole burning body thing because a later visit rocked me to the core and I may have not been able to digest the situation as well without such background. I will dedicate a separate journal entry to this intense time.

The river and the ghats are not they only attraction to Varanasi. There are many temples and structure scatter around town. Some which we saw and some missed. We could not handle the idea of getting driven around in the crazy streets and decided to stay on foot.

It is easy to spend a whole day walking through the streets of the old town Varanasi. There are only thin ally's with no room for cars and rickshaws where you only have to paste yourself against walls to let the occasional motorcycles by. Moreover, this means we were free from constant honking that exists everyplace else. It was fun to get lost in theses street because you cannot get truly lost. Eventually you either end up on the river by the ghats or back in the newer part of town with all the traffic.

Every once in a while we would escape to the roof tops for another tea and snack. At one such roof top we watched dusk approach while the air was filled with hundreds upon hundreds of kites playing in the sky. After the sun was down we climbed to the highest, poshest restaurant over the river where we splurged for our fanciest meal of the trip while watching yet another plump moon light the magical city.

Location:Varanasi India

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