We packed early, paid our bill (6400INR – 2300INR per night plus food) and after a yummy breakfast Mike, Aad (Art), Vince and I said farewell to our new friends at Kunjpur Guest House, Sharmila, Sheesheila and Mr Nigan….and more…. unfortunately I can’t remember all their names???
We were on the road around 8.15am and the 130km trip to Varanasi took around 3 hours. There was lots of road kill the past two days…..mostly dogs, with some goats etc…..but today I saw my first dead cow on the road……wouldn’t want to be that person…..cows are sacred in India. The GPS took us to our hotel but the narrow busy road was manic to say the least…….all manor of vehicles, trucks, bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuk’s, cars, horse and bullock drawn carts and of course a multitude of pedestrian traffic. Our arrival did not go unnoticed and the ANIMAL was quickly surrounded by admirers. A bit of a tussle to find the correct parking for our hotel (someone was trying to get us to use a different paid parking area) and before we knew it we were all securely parked (a small elderly man with a very large stick and uniform on guard) and our luggage was taken up to our room. After the palatial home of Mr Nigan this noisy, small, smoke smelling room was a bit of a let down, considering it costs more….2800INR per night. But a COLD, refreshing shower made all the difference! Not!
My adventure jacket zipper has again broken …..been that way for several weeks now…..so we asked if there was anyone who could repair it. The front desk were most helpful….sending a staff member with us to show us the way along the many narrow streets to a small area where a man sat at an old Singer sewing machine. He spoke no English but I quickly showed him the problem and he directed me to a nearby shop where a young man immediately put on new parts to my zip in minutes and charged us only 60IRN….bargain! He also told us we should go to Sarnath, whilst we are visiting here.
Back at our hotel we had a bit of lunch and then met up with Aad (Art) and Mike to go for a walk to the nearby Ghatt. We are staying very near the Dashashwamedh Gatt, the main one in Varanasi on the Ganges River, but we ended up next to it at Dr Rajendra Prasad Ghat. Closeby is the Vishwanath Temple – there are two Hindu Legends about it, one says Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva and the other other says Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 horses during Dasa. It is only 0.7km from our hotel…so we walked through the colourful local market…..continually trying to avoid the many people trying to sell us something…….it really made us feel like ATM’s. Before too long we got our first view of the Ganges and then began to walk along the river passing various Ghat’s along the way until we reached Maha Smashana (the Big Burning Ghat).
Here we met Sandjee, who is a “volunteer” ….he told us we were not permitted to take photos, but was happy to explain to us what was going on and was a wealth of knowledge. Mike and Aad (Art) declined his invitation but Vince and I embraced the moment and when ahead.
In the Hindu religion cremation is one of the rites of passage to Nervana, and the Ghats (a long stretch of steps down to the water) of Varanasi are considered one of the most holy locations. The Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats are dedicated to the cremation ritual. Sandjee explained that there are 4 sections ….due to the caste system in India…the four classes are the Brahmins (priestly people), the Kshatriyas or Rajanyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers) and the Shudras (labourers and poor). It takes over 110Kg of wood from the mango and banyan trees (sandlewood may be used for Brahmins but is very expensive) to burn a body and it takes 3 hours. Sometimes families choose to have the cremation elsewhere and bring the ashes to the Ganges river for dispersion. He told us that the family must first get permission and this is reliant on how the person died, as only those who die of natural caused can be cremated at the Ghat…..if they were murdered or died in an accident, they have to have a cremation at a gas crematorium instead. He showed us the various areas for each cast and some bodies were burning, and waiting to burn, whilst we were there…..burning occurs 23 out of 24 hours. There are workers who collect the ashes and wash them out in a basket in the Ganges….they collect any jewellery and sell it at the markets and the money comes back to buy wood for the poor and dying at the two hospices set up by Mother Teresa. We were shown through these and donated some money (enough for about 4 kg of wood (650INR per Kg) to help the poor dying people). We met 2 nurses there who gave both Vince and I a blessing each. We were also shown the 3000 yr old sacred flame of Lord Shiva and were given a blessing of ash on our foreheads.
The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn as pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun, and at sunset when the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Not content with just this, Sandjee menouvered us to go and see the Kamasutra Temple with Lord Shiva….it was only 20INR each…..and it was quite interesting…..although some of those positions do look very painful…..Sandjee says some are dangerous and only for Yogi’s who are very flexible. He was going to take us to see the Kasha Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple) dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. ….but we didn’t have our passports with us and they won’t let you in due to prior terrorist bombings without ID.
Sandjee told us about the 300 hand loom workers at the Gyaneshwar Silk Industries, who make sharis and pashminas beyond belief, but even after we told him we don’t buy souvenirs…. he lead us there to see the Lord Shiva shrine for the workers…..but really is was a “please sit down on these cushions madam and we will show you” ….ahhhhh No thanks! I quickly exited before Vince had even finished taking his shoes off to come in. We paid Sandjee 500INR for his help….but when he started saying to me …”and something from your hand Aunty”…..I told him that I had already given at the hospice…which he accepted. We were happy to donate initially but we were beginning to feel a bit like dollar signs. Sandjee told us we should come back tonight at 7.00pm for Ganga Aarti (river worship ceremony – the Mother Ganges Ceremony) – we thanked him but said we needed to go back and meet up with our friends.
We walked back along the river and exited an earlier Ghat to return to the market place…..being continually hounded along the way for boat, tuk-tuk, rikshaw, postcards, offerings and all manner of other merchandise…..we did buy a bottle of cold water…..but on the way back home we walked alongside one of the many cows that roam feely around and as I passed it chose to gore me with it’s horns….TWICE…. in my right breast….it really hurt and made me cry as I jumped out of the way before it got a third in. Vince took me back to the hotel ….followed by many tuk-tuk and rikshaw drivers offering their services. Back at the hotel, I was able to check things out and thankfully no serious damage done…..but running with the bulls is definitely not on the bucket list!
I am an animal lover …but for some reason the local animals don’t seem to like me much…..yesterday I “accidentally” met a Cobra that could have given me a heart attack….. but luckily it didn’t pop it’s head out….I was shocked enough by the fact the basket the young boy was thrusting towards me had “a snake” in it and high tailed it out of there into our tuk-tuk as fast as I could…….but today I was just minding my own business and look what happened…..so I guess it’s a case if the Cobra’s don’t get you the cows will!
**** Footnote – it’s too late after the event to read online about the “Varanasi burning ghat scam” – we should have known better 🙁