Saturday, March 20, 2010


This morning we woke up on the train, already several hours into our journey from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Though I won't go into great detail about it, as words and even images cannot do it justice, the Taj Mahal was awe-inspiring. Other than the birth of a child, I don't imagine I will ever again witness something that beautiful. It is every cliche in the book--brought a tear to my eye; felt like I was in heaven. If you are willing to brave India, don't miss it.

But this post is to describe our next destination, Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, believed to date back more than 3000 years. But what gives the city it's significance is not its age, but its spot on the holy Ganges River. Hindus rom all over India come here to bathe themselves or cremate their family members. All of this is in clear view to the public, which is what makes Varanasi such a unique and surprising place.

When we disembarked our train, we were greeted by the usual harassment from taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers. We made a B-line to the prepaid auto-rickshaw stand, which provides a set and fair price to any destination in the city. We were taken to a location where we were to met the owner, Monu, of our guesthouse. Monu had informed me that our accommodation was located down a narrow alleyway, which auto-rickshaws cannot enter.

We were dropped off at the designated spot and Monu soon approached. He seemed like a kind, but no nonsense Indian man who spoke clear and quite natural English. We followed him across a busy road, where I was nearly run down by a cycle rickshaw. We then wove through alleys filled with the usual cows (and the stinking piles of manure that come with them) and stray dogs, as well as plenty of human traffic--barefoot women dressed in brillian saris, brown uniformed police, men on bicycles, children chasing each other, and leering young men. Small shops nearly overflowed onto the tiny streets, selling snacks and drinks, saris, bangles, sweets, and scarves. The heat was suffocating, so it was with great relief I entered the guest house.

I passed out in the room while Katalin and Amy took to the streets. When they returned, I heard all about their excursion, walking along the river's ghats (steps or landing on a river). They wandered upon Manikarnika Ghat, one of the main cremation ghats in Varanasi. Here they saw bodies wrapped in golden fabric being carried out from the alleyways. The body is taken down to the water, where it is briefly submerged, and then brought back up on the ghat, where it is placed on a pile of wood.

Wood is seen in 10-ffot piles all around the cremation ghat. There are several kinds of wood to choose from, the most expensive being sandlewood. Once the body is situated properly a top of the wood, the fire is lit. It can take up to five days for the body to be fully cremated, at which point the ashes are put into the Ganges. The bodies burn and the work goes on day and night, every day .

After hearing about Katalin and Amy's experience, I was eager to see the river and its ghats myself. I overcame my heat-induced lethargy and made it out of the guest house. Once at the river we were met by numerous children selling small paper bowls filled with merigolds and a simple wax candle. Katalin purchased one for each of us. We lit them and followed the example of others who had set them adrift in the Ganges. The significance of this nightly affair, I do not know.

We continued on to Dasaswamedh Ghat in time to catch the beginning of a performance. The sun had just set, but the atmosphere was lively as ever. Hunger had set in though, so we drifted away from the river and sat down to a lovely Indian meal. I ordered a thali, a personal buffet of sorts. For 120 rupees ($2.50), I was given cheese curry, spinach curry, rice, flat bread, yogurt, lentils, chutney, and a dessert.

After finishing our dinner, we left the restaurant and stumbled upon a parade. Women carried chandeliers on their heads, men played instruments and danced around, flaring their arms while spinning in circles. Next came a series of decorated trucks, their displays powered by the disel fume spewing generators that followed them. The procession was slow, too slow to captivate the attention of any ordianary American audience. But the three of us were enthralled, swept up by the energy and excitement of it all. The celebration was linked to one of Indian's many castes, but the full meaning of it all I don't understand. Regardless, we felt lucky to witness whatever it was we were witnessing.

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