Fear not readership! The barrages of negativity plaguing recent blog entries about India, which prompted some Globo Trip aficionados to blasphemously question my ongoing passion for travel, have concluded! My last four weeks in the country were overwhelmingly positive, almost entirely absent of the travails characterising early stages of the trip. Perhaps I became desensitised to India’s problems, or simply amused by its ridiculousness, though escaping to the country’s deep south was most likely the primary impetus for my improved mood. First however I travelled to Varanasi, inconveniently located in the north-east but an absolute must-visit for any self-respecting itinerary in India. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, the holiest city in Hinduism and India’s crematory capital. Varanasi is essentially an experiential destination, a place to observe the continuing customs of India’s rich culture rather than gawk at historical monuments; which is probably why I preferred Varanasi to Agra and any Rajasthani city.
Varanasi has a notorious reputation on the backpacker circuit as a love-it-or-hate-it destination, admired for its fascinating cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously scorned for its abhorrent pollution, suffocating traffic and intolerable hassling. While each of these characterisations are partially true of Varanasi, I thought the city’s undesirable qualities were rather tame by Indian standards. I was perhaps fortunate to arrive in the immediate aftermath of a major annual festival, which had instigated a massive cleanup of the city. Consequently, I had a rather pleasant time in Varanasi, soaking up its distinctly unique charm and ambiance in the absence of rampant filth. I also stayed at one of my favourite hostels of the trip (Stops Hostel), a factor which always had a major impact on my enjoyment of an Indian destination (more so than in other countries).
Varanasi has formed haphazardly for several kilometres along the Ganges, India’s mightiest river and the focal point of Varanasi life. On the western bank of the Ganges is the old city, while directly opposite on the eastern bank is a totally undeveloped floodplain of pastures and grazing water buffalo. This bizarre contrast is best appreciated from Varanasi’s iconic ghats, which are embankments of stone steps aligning the Ganges where locals socialise, perform rituals and wash clothes. The urban layout of the old city is rather similar to the Gold Coast: a long, thin stretch of densely compacted buildings sandwiched between a waterfront and a primary road of literally standstill traffic. The key difference though is the old city’s almost unnavigable maze of infinitesimally narrow and atmospheric alleys, which hide pocket-sized cult-favourites like Blue Lassi (pomegranate pistachio anyone?) and numerous establishments owned by Western expats (I recognised an American woman I saw on television 10 years ago!). Unfortunately, the architectural composition of the old city is rather disappointing; a ramshackle mismatch of dilapidated buildings from recent centuries, which belies the momentous historical and cultural significance of Varanasi.
The identity of Varanasi is explicitly intwined with the River Ganges, the lifeblood of North India. The Ganges begins its 2,525 kilometre journey in the Indian Himalaya and subsequently crosses the northern Gangetic Plain. It finally empties into the Bay of Bengal with the third largest discharge of any river in the world. The Ganges and its associated river system are critically important for the agriculture that sustains hundreds of millions of people. Unsurprisingly, the Ganges is considered sacred by Hindus and worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Throughout the river’s length, Hindus bath in its waters as they believe the Ganges will purify them of sin (reminds me of the Christian cop-out of Penance). In Varanasi every evening, elaborate prayer ceremonies occur on the ghats where performers garbed in orange and gold twirl fire to rather irritating music. Devotees light candles and place them on the water of the Ganges to float peacefully away in the evening darkness. Despite its auspicious status, the Ganges is one of the most polluted and degraded rivers in the world; demonstrative of the hypocrisy of Indian culture.
Varanasi is internationally famous for the cremations that are conducted openly at Marnikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Hindus believe that if their ashes are scattered into the Ganges at Varanasi within 24 hours of dying, salvation from the perpetual cycles of reincarnation will be achieved instantly. Consequently, numerous hospices align the Ganges accommodating those with terminal illnesses (like palliative care). For those who die away from Varanasi, relatives must transport the body to the city within 24 hours of dying, or cremate the body elsewhere and scatter the ashes in the Ganges at a later point in time (although the chances of salvation are reduced). “Untouchables” (people who are lower than the lowest caste in India’s social structure) are responsible for the dirty work of performing the cremations. They carry bodies embalmed in cloth through the narrow alleys of the old city (quite a galling sight!) to the Ganges, where they are placed on pyres. The “chief mourner” (usually the eldest son) dressed in white circumambulates the body five times to represent the five elements, sprinkles Ganges water over the body and then sets the pyre alight. Around 360 kilograms of wood is required to burn a body, which is prohibitively expensive for poorer families. It takes more than three hours for a body to burn, although the hip and rib bones do not completely decompose. The Untouchable gather the remnant bones and ashes and scatter them in the Ganges. Since cremations are conducted continuously 24/7, these ghats are rather filthy and attract hordes of scavanger goats, cows and dogs.
One delightful surprise I had in Varanasi was the realisation I could fly directly to South India and skip the taxing journey to the megalopolis of Calcutta. Booking said flight probably heightened my mood in Varanasi in the knowledge I would be leaving stressful North India imminently for an entirely new region. Despite my complaints, travelling in North India was a wild rollercoaster ride thoroughly worth boarding. After all, I can now say I have seen the Himalayas, the Ganges, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, Pakistan, a temple devoted to rats and a cow pissing in the middle of a Hindu ceremony.
That’s all for now,