Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Varanassi

Varanassi “the holy city.” It is a magical place situated on the Ganges River, full of old and interesting traditions. The river itself is believed to be holy as the water runs down from the mountains and therefore mother ganga. It is believed that if you die here the cycle of reincarnation will be broken and that, to the Hindu people, is as good as heaven. So people come here, as bleak as it may sound, to die. Never before have we seen so many funerals, there are around two hundred per day. And never before have we seen someone burnt openly for everyone to see. It is a very prompt business like duty, the bodies come in and are taken care of very quickly, around the burning ghats are tons of sandlewood all waiting. And photography in this area is strictly prohibited. 
The mountains of firewood near the burning ghats
When a family member dies four men carry the body down to the Ganges, followed by the male family members, not the females. The bodies are laid out on a stretcher and are covered in different coloured silk depending on whether they are male, female, old, young or Sadhus (the holy men whom live with no possessions). When they reach the burning ghats on the river side the body is then dipped in the water of the Ganges and then placed on a stack of sandlewood which is meant to be very expensive and takes around two hundred kilos to burn one body. Then Ghee (clarified butter) and flowers are placed on the body before burning it. Then the family witnesses the cremation. After about 3 hours the ceremony is complete and the ashes are sprinkled over the Ganges. 





Varanassi has a great likeness to the book Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. The dark low lit mazes of alleyways, ancient buildings and the boatman rowing his boat down the Ganges whilst the bodies of holy men and poison victims lay. Although the description is dark and ominous the city has a certain charm to it.


One of the best things to do whilst in Varanassi is to take a nice boat ride down the Ganges. It costs about 50 rupees ($1AUD) per person for an hour long boat ride. The more popular times are in the morning for sunrise, where due to the pollution you cannot actually see it rise. We both had a go rowing the boats, putting Hannah's knowledge to the test. 
Varanassi was once very pure and holy, but unfortunately like other areas of India, it has become poisoned with tourism. You are constantly hassled here for boat rides, drugs, clothing and more. “Priests” approach you offering blessings and then demand money. People that claim to work for the burning ghats spend an hour explaining different things about the traditions, facts and figures all leading up to, “you give me donation for the ghats.” This money doesn’t go to the ghats, and the “facts and figures” given are often fabricated.


Due to the tourism market, unfortunately many of the boats on the river are now "sponsored" by big companies, including Vodaphone.


The busy streets of Varanassi, now filled with gimmicky tourist shops


We arrived tired after getting the Taj Mahal over as soon as possible, which resulted in two nights in a row on buses and trains. Needless to say we wanted a place to stay. A task of finding a hostel, should only take half an hour at the most, but turned into a bigger drama when the rickshaw drivers tried to pull the “all the guesthouses in the area you want to go to are expensive” trick, but from previous experience we have certainly learnt to be more cautious.

Daniel crammed in the train trying to get some sleep
Rickshaw drivers are often trouble, spindling up certain stories like “oh no sir your hotel is all booked” or “that hotel doesn’t exist anymore,” always claiming they have your interests best at heart. If you are not approached by rickshaw drivers, there are plenty more eager people trying to make any money they can off you. Even children will follow you sometimes trying to be the one who shows you to your hotel so they can get commission off you.

Now don’t let this put you off, there was definitely a very amazing feel to Varanasi. We thoroughly enjoyed walking down the ancient steps of a city that was three thousand years old  and the river is so calm and eerie with a constant changing of fog and mist, sunlight and darkness.
Another highlight was the blue lassi. Lassi has got to be the most popular drink in India, well second to chai I suppose. It is a drink made of natural yoghurt, fruit and many other flavours. I personally recommend the banana choc lassi. Due to the increased drugs in Varanasi the shop also offers bhang lassis or special lassis which are meant to be good to have before the fire ceremony.
Choc-o Lassi 
Drugs are everywhere in India and you always have to be careful, but Varanassi seemed to have a bigger market with all different types of people trying to sell you some. One guest house we looked at, the owner later told us, was just a cover for the “drug store” he had downstairs. One man followed us for 15 minutes all the way down the river trying to sell us drugs, whilst he was completely intoxicated himself, almost unable to talk or walk. People can easily get stuck in a bad cycle and one backpacker at the guest house we stayed at locked himself in his room for 3 days due to opium. 

There are even government Bhang shops, that are government run! Bhang is a type of cannabis and is an important part of indian culture, so is legal and is used in festivals, not sure how legal it is for westerners though (im sure the police wouldn't be shy to try to take bribes). They either smoke it or have it in lassis. It is legal and is used in festivals. The sadhu's are legally allowed to consume it as it has religious significance and helps with their meditation and therefore connection with the god's they worship.

A Sadhu (holy man). Unfortunately I did not take this photo.

We were staying at a very nice guesthouse called Mishra guesthouse right by the burning ghat. We ended up with a good little group of people and spent most of our time on the roof top restaurant chatting away. Sadly we had to leave this group of people sooner than we would have liked as we had planned to do the very intense vipassana meditation course.


Beautiful view from the guesthouse rooftop

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