The twelve hour sleeper train to Varanasi became fourteen. Absolutely sick and tired of Indian trains that are uncomfortable, noisy and late, Mark struggles with his desire to continue travelling. If there was ever a challenge in the past one year, eight months and eight days for this (almost) 50 year old, Indian sleeper trains are the one for Mark. On this particular trip, a starving dog is seen ripping the tissue off of a beheaded dog who must have recently misjudged an approaching train.
Thankfully, the train trip is forgotten once we set out on foot to explore one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. Varanasi is everything we described about Pushkar
multiplied by 1.4 million! Stinky, overwrought with garbage, crumbling, dusty, dirty, shocking, impoverished and disturbing. As relentless as it is, there is a melodic rhythm to the chaos that the pungent smell of rotting garbage, feces and urine does not ruin.
Varanasi is intriguing. Not a place to live, or ever visit again, it is a city situated on the famous and controversial Ganges River where Hindu people come from all over to bathe in and wash away their sins. The sheer overload of all five senses is reason enough to visit this crazy city.
Narrow, disorienting, walkways between old, abandoned looking buildings in old Varanasi accommodate everything from food to kids toys not deemed “fun” by Western children.
While sitting and enjoying a lassi, the smell of curry, frying oil, and cow dung penetrated our noses. Additionally, incense from many processions of dead bodies wrapped in golden cloth and carried on wooden stretchers went by en route to be cremated at the sacred Manikarnaka Ghat (ghats are stairways leading into a body of water). As we enjoyed our last slurp of lassi, another procession went by; this time, the old ladies face is not wrapped and it is exposed for everyone to see. The experience was surreal.
Varanasi is one of seven holiest cities for Hinduism. Many Hindu’s believe an opportunity to die in this holy city offers moksha (the ability to break the cycle of death and rebirth). We hear that some older people make the decision to move into Varanasi in order to take their final breath. The belief system is a complete foreign concept to these roamingtwo but fascinating to watch none the less.
We walk to the Manikarnaka Ghat, the main cremation ghat. Large piles of wood are weighed in order to calculate the price of the cremation. Ashes fill the air and peacefully fall to the ground and on us. We are fortunate to see a cremation close up. Normally only men attend; however, on this particular early evening, we stood feet away from the intense flame and watched the remains of a pelvis and lower leg get incinerated.
Our walk continued to the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat. People were everywhere! People standing, sitting, laying, dipping, begging, massaging and chanting. The scene was, once again, surreal.
We took a sunset cruise as the Ganga Aarti ceremony (prayers for the Ganges river) began. Under the stars cruising by ghats (there are 87) reflecting on a day filled with disbelief and excitement is when it happened, goosebumps on top of goosebumps. Varanasi is awesome!
Sadly, as we wrap up this portion of our Northern India experience, Mark refers to his smile list. A short list, Mark noticed an obvious lack of smiling upon entry in this country and began recording the number of people who smiled during an interaction. An astonishing three people smiled in the past 21 days, not counting the selfie hungry teenagers. We hear the south is completely different from the north. Time will tell.
…Christine and Mark
($1 Canadian (CDN) equals approximately 50 Indian Rupees (INR))
- Ganges River sunset boat trip – 120 INR each, $2.35 CDN
- Ganges River sunrise boat trip – 60 INR each, $1.15 CDN
- Lassi at Blue Lassi (since 1925 – over 80 flavours) – 70 INR, $1.37 CDN
- Magnum ice cream bar – 75 INR, $1.48 CDN
- Thali plate, large – 280 INR, $5.50 CDN (+14% tax)
- Water 1 L – 20 INR, $0.40 CDN