Thursday, April 22, 2010

The City of Burning and Learning: Varanasi, India

Destination:  Varanasi (Benares), Uttar Pradesh, India
Number of days spent:   4
Where we stayed:  Groovy Ganges Guesthouse (RP650 w/AC, shared bath).  Nandan and his family are a wealth of information and his deep interest in NGO’s makes him a first stop if you are looking to get under the skin of Varanasi.  He also provided valuable insight into the caste system and other Indian traditions that we would not have gotten on our own.
Best Restaurant:  Most of our meals were with the family but Open Hand Bakery is a good option for excellent French Press coffee and a slice of home.  They also have a little gift shop with quality handmade products.
Best of:  Watching all the activity that go on the ghats of the Ganges, attending a traditional engagement party, nightly chats with Nandan and his family
Worst of:  After Bodhgaya, Sarnath was not only pale in comparison but with more hassle from touts. 
Most memorable:  Fire and flesh meld for all the world to witness.  Only the holy waters of the Ganges can extinguish.
Useful Tip:  Taking a sunrise cruise along the Ganges may not be as loud and ceremonial as sunset, but its a peaceful way to watch life happen on shore without being bothered and with far less boats to contend with.
Sitting along the northern banks of the Ganges River, Varanasi has long been a holy and auspicious place for Hindus.  One of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, Varanasi (also Benares or Kashi) has long been THE place for a Hindu to die.  Down along the banks of the Ganges, ghats (steps) stretch as far as the eye can see and every manner of life…and death occurs in public view.  Mesmerizing and shocking, your time spent along the ghats will undoubtedly be filled with ‘I can’t believe what I just saw’ moments…ours certainly were.
After settling into the guesthouse and meeting all of Nandan’s family, we decided to take a quick evening stroll down the ghats.  Starting at the Assi Ghat, we walked down along the river across the steps.  There is little to distinguish one ghat from another aside from various forms of signs indicating which one you are actually on.  In the early evening, this part of the ghats are relatively silent.  A couple of people bathe, but that’s about it.  After about 20 minutes, we stumbled upon the first burning ghat – Harishchandra.  There are basically two cremation ghats with the main cremation ghat, Manikanika a bit further along.  Harishchandra is much larger, space wise, but Manikanika is considered the main one and thus, the most auspicious place to be cremated.  Before really knowing how it all worked, we snapped the photo below thinking that the body goes on later, only to find out that it was there already.  Oops.  Fortunately either no one saw us take the photo or they didn’t care.  We did discuss deleting it until we saw later an entire family stand around a pyre taking photos with their cell phones at various stages of the cremation.
Within seconds of seeing the pyres you will be approached by guys asking you to donate to “help buy wood for the burning of the poor.”  At Manikanika they come close to demanding for a donation and are quite rude when you refuse.  I won’t go as far to say it’s a scam, but I am almost certain little if any of the money you donate will go to actually buying wood.  The caste in charge of manning the pyres are known as Doms.  They are considered the lowest of the lowest caste – the untouchables.  Being born a Dom means your entire life is dedicated to the crematorium.  The caste system is so engrained in society that simply by reading someone’s name can tell you which caste they belong and this in turn encourages discrimination.  There are far too many Dom families for the services rendered so they take turns running the crematoriums.  Some have jobs for as little as 4-5 days of the year and the rest of the time is filled with either ‘scamming’ tourists or drinking alcohol and smoking pot.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the process is the cost.  The wood and the ‘tending of the flames’ has no fixed price, but rather is based on how wealthy the family of the deceased is. 
On one occasion Nandan was down by the ghats and was approached by a man pleading for help in paying for the services of the Dom.  Feeling sorry for the individual, he offered to pay the rest of the bill…a mere 500RP (about $12.50US).  The Doms refused his money because the man had went and tried to buy the wood somewhere else and got scammed.  The Doms were ‘teaching’ him a lesson.  As a matter of fact, the Doms might be the lowest caste, but they garner a fair amount of clout, albeit somewhat mafia esque.  They have a ‘king’ (apparently a massive blob of a man nearly unable to move out of bed – I envision a human Jabba-the-hut) which not only gets a kickback from every service, but has to be consulted on any activities going on in the town of Varanasi itself.  
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Not only do the ghats of Varanasi represent death, but life as well.  Along the Ganges holy shores the living give the place a little character.  The best way to view all the happenings is by boat.  Most people will hire a boat for sunrise and again for sunset.  We also recommend doing both as the two times of day offer completely different experiences.  Not only does a boat allow for a different angle but it also gets away from the touts that patrol the steps – particularly at the main ghat.  Anything from morning yoga to bathing rituals occur all set to the sound of laundry being repeatedly slapped down upon stone slabs. 
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For most of the year, if not the entire year, the water is low enough to walk the entire length of the ghats.  Walking along the ghats is free of charge, but not hassle.  While Lonely Planet warns of countless touts, we only really encountered them right at the main ghat and the rest of the walk, while not as interesting, is more or less tout free.  It’s best to just ignore them unless, of course, you would like a sweaty, overweight, shirtless man (not the one pictured below) to rub you down in front of the throngs of people.  Be extra careful with the offer of a handshake which only ends with you having to forcibly remove your hand from theirs.   On the bright side, the Technicolor display of drying sarees (women’s one piece dress) stretching down the steps are a colorful sight as are the people who come to pray and do their morning absolutions. 
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At night, the Ganges bursts to life.  Hundreds of candles are set alight on the calm waters by pilgrims and tourists alike.  At the main ghat, every night from around 7pm till 8pm, there is a ceremony.   They ‘put the river to sleep’ with much pomp and circumstance.  Candelabras are swung over head by several satus (Hindu priests) while countless worshipers pray and chant along to the beating of a drum and symbol.  The ceremony lasts for about 30-40 minutes, and then is repeated at the ghat next door.  The steps are crowded and since the ceremony faces the river, the best view is from a boat.  With that being said, don’t expect to be alone – parked in front of the ghat with countless other boats carrying anywhere from 2 people to 20 all vying for a closer look at the action.
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The ghats may be what everyone comes to Varanasi for but the back alleys and sideways of the city are a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.  The city streets can be extremely confusing.  There are no names and no signs, just a maze.  The best way to experience this is to just dive in and forget about maps.  Even though you will feel lost, you never really are.  All roads lead either to the main street or the ghat and wander around enough and you will eventually come out at one or the other.  Cows, trees, monkeys, and as always in India – tons of people vie for space in the tight alleys.
One of the more interesting aspects of social life in India are the weddings.  Weddings are not just a ceremony in India – they are an all out party.  A wealthy family will spend thousands of dollars throwing weeklong extravaganzas including renting out a hotel for the week, nightly fireworks and tons of food.  The more interesting part in not so much in the wedding as it is in what leads up to it. 
In India, arranged marriages are still very popular.  In an arranged marriage, the parents of the groom meet with the parents of the bride and decide if they feel it will be a good match.  If this goes well, then the ‘courting’ period will commence.  Until recently, the bride and groom had never met or spoke to one another until the wedding day.  Things are becoming a little more relaxed with phone conversations now being allowed and in some rare cases, even a couple of chaperoned dates.  While this is going on, the parents begin discussing the age old tradition of a dowry.  The practice of ‘purchasing’ a husband (in some countries, it’s reverse) is alive and well and a wedding can be just as much, if not more, of a business proposal than love.  Depending on the wealth of the brides’ family, dowry’s can be as little as a chunk of gold to homes, cars or cash.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to Nandan’s sister-in-law’s engagement party.  In this case, they had talked on the phone 5 times, never met and since he was unable to take off the afternoon from work, it was only her in attendance of their engagement party.  The sister of the groom stands in to ‘exchange’ the rings and gifts of fruit – a symbol of welcoming and hospitality - are given to the bride by the groom’s family.  She looks very nervous in the photos because she is – this will be the first time she has met them. 
All this may seem strange to us, but there is no denying the success rate – far greater than our ‘love’ marriages.  Part of the success, in my opinion, comes from the fact that the grooms parents traditionally move in with the young couple.  This allows the parents to watch over and help nurture the relationship.  
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Just a few kilometers north of Varanasi lies the Buddhist holy site of Sarnath.  After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, it was here that he gave his very first sermon and started spreading his message.  The site, perhaps being closer to the tourist trail, was a bit of a let down compared to Bodhgaya.  The whole place gave off a tour bus stop feel, complete with more touts than tourists and little to really see.  Perhaps if there is a special event going on at the stupa, it might be worthwhile, otherwise give it a pass.
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As perhaps one saving grace, the town did introduce us to the Jains.  Also arising around the same time as Buddhism, the purist Jains are quite strict dietary wise.  Not only are they strict vegetarians, but they take it a step further to root vegetables which require killing the plant.  Some carry a broom and cover their mouths so they don’t accidently harm any other insects or bugs.  Their holiest men (all men of course) go naked.  Don’t ask me why, but they do.  Sometimes I can’t make this stuff up even if I tried.
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As we found in our travels all over India, trash and environmental impact seem to be low on peoples minds.  While they keep their homes clean, the common areas are simply filthy.  Wrappers, bottles and other forms of non-organic materials are just tossed to the side.  Cows crap freely in the streets and the smell of human urine can be quite pervasive at times.  Little to no controls are made on what flows into the Ganges.  Drought like conditions combined with overpopulation strains the nation’s natural resources to the point where the mighty Ganges has shrunk considerably.  When the ghats were built, they all touched the water, now, only the main ghat touches.  This can make for a depressing outlook on the future of our planet, and India specifically.  There are some groups that are taking on the monumental task of trying to clean up the river at least, but it’s going to take a lot of education and enforcement before real change is seen.
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Interesting.  Crazy.  Unique.  No one word can sum up Varanasi.  We could have spent several more days here talking with Mandan and getting more and more under the skin of India, but we had booked our train tickets in advance – a must in India.  Next stop – the greatest tomb ever built – the Taj Mahal.

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