Sunday, November 23, 2008

wholly varanasi

We were a day behind schedule due to the Air India luggage "mishandling", but we decided that we couldn't pass up a trip to Varanasi, billed as one of India's holiest cities and I had a keen interest in seeing the funeral pyres. The morning ride went fairly smoothly until we made an inadvertent detour through the town of Bihta. This turned out to be a good thing as I got a flat tire just as we were almost back on the highway. The locals pointed me over to the nearest puncture wallah (fortunately part of my dismal Hindi vocabulary), who found six tiny holes in my tube. Bihta isn't exactly on the standard tourist route and ~50 locals crowded around to observe the entire process.

After 2 hours we got back on the road and made it to where we Varanasi should be according to the mileage markers at dusk. We were once again thwarted by the lack of Indian signage. There were no obvious Varanasi turn-offs or city lights to follow. We ended up backtracking more than once until one of the locals directed us down some random dirt road, which miraculously dumped us out into Varanasi proper. We spent an hour trying to navigate to the guesthouse I had jotted down from the guidebook, then finally called for directions. We were told to head to the university then ask a local for directions to the guesthouse. After another 20 minutes of not finding the university we came upon another hotel and decided to call it quits. We later found out that our original guesthouse was on the ghats and nearly impossible to find during the day, let alone at night, with the maze of alleys.

In the morning we headed down to the ghats. We had chosen well in regards to accomodations, not only because of the its proximity to a number of pakora and Benarasi chicken stalls, but because we were completely out of the foreign tourist zone. The ghat area was choked with Israelis, Japanese, and American tourists and the sadhus, touts and beggars that thrive on them.
We toured the burning ghats and learned about the process, including the various levels reserved for the different castes. We were told that women were forbidden in participating in the ritual because they cry and it disrupts the souls from their journey. Additionally, we were informed that sadhus, pregnant women, children, lepers and animals are not burned. For such a holy river the shores of the Ganges were covered with garbage and even hydrophilic Jascha was not about to dive in. A magical boatride down the river did not sound so appealing.

Later we headed back down to the main ghat for the evening puja, which we were told was a "must see". Not surprisingly, what I expected to be a peaceful event had been turned into a huge spectacle with (bad) speakers blaring music. We ended up leaving early for quieter surroundings.

1 comment:

munish said...

Nice Post.