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April 5-6: Veranasi

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VARANASI:  (above – hotel we stayed at – inside old pictures of maharajas, the british, etc)

Leaving Kolkata, we took a 12 hour overnight train to Varanasi. This time, we had two sets of three-tiered bunks. It was more of a communal train car, rather than separate “rooms” like Vietnam.  It was real comfortable and we made friends real quickly with those around us.  We were a hit again, because we had a white guy who spoke Hindi!

Varanasi  is THE place for Hindu religious pilgrimages, as it is along the banks of the Ganges River, which was ordained by Shiva to be the holiest place to die, because if you died here, you would go directly to heaven, bypassing coming back to earth for another life. We stayed a ways out of town here, and enjoyed an old colonial hotel. It was an extra surprise, because we reserved it ahead of time sight unseen, and in India, you just don’t know what you might find. But we’ve found having a place reserved when you get off the train saves the gigantic hassle of being besieged by touts trying to get you into their taxi and to the hotel that pays them commission. As we pulled into the street where our hotel was, our hearts sank, because it was the typical dusty street, with trash along the sides and crumbling walls. We pulled up to a rusty old gate, the doors opened, and voila…there was a beautiful, whitewashed colonial building surrounded by green lawns! We arranged a tour here in Varanasi to save us the hassle factor. We went down to the river “ghats” (sort of like stone piers) one evening to see a ritual fire dance that takes place every night, and we got up at 4:30 the next morning to go back down to the river to see the ritual bathing in the river at sunrise and the cremation ghats. Two things hit us here: one was that the rituals we saw taking place happen every day of the year. This is not Disneyland and it’s not something like Christmas and Easter. This is a way of life that goes on every day. The other thing we noticed is that here, death is not something that’s hidden away and spoken of in soft tones. Entire families will bring their deceased loved one hundreds of miles on a train, in order to have them cremated and their ashes spread in the Ganges. Or, if people know they are dying, they may come and stay in a care home in Varanasi so that they are close to the river when they die. We also saw processions through the city where the body is carried by several family members on their way to the river.

After a brief 2 nights in Varanasi, we caught the night train to Delhi. We had looked forward to this trip because it’s somewhat relaxing to be on the train and you have a little of your own space. However, this was one of those times when all went wrong. The only train we were able to find seats on left at 11:00 pm.  from an outlying station about 45 minutes away from the city. We caught a taxi from the hotel with plenty of time to spare, but got caught in a horrendous traffic jam. It’s hard to describe the trip to the station, but I’ll try! There are no street lights, and in some places, no electricity, so it’s very dark, but full of honking trunks and cars. There are cows wandering around and the always pervasive smell of dung and urine) both human and animal! The road is paved but barely, so it’s very bumpy and all along the road, it just looks like rubble.  Even many of the buildings look like they’re being demolished – they’re just falling apart.  It’s so hot, you have to have the windows open, but since so much is unpaved and there are so many trucks, the dust just billows in. We then crossed a bridge that had construction going on, and there were huge piles of concrete and metal just lying in the road, and everybody, including cars, trucks, taxis, cows, rickshaws, are trying to get by and it’s utter chaos! We finally arrived at the train station, but the nightmare wasn’t over. We got out of the taxi and were immediately surrounded by folks trying to carry our bags. There were several people just sitting on the ground where we got out – some begging, some selling things, but all looking a little scary to 3 kids from a little mountain town in California. We made our way through hundreds of people sleeping on the station floor, looking very obvious as the only white people around. We sort of wandered around for awhile trying to find out which track our train was on. At this point, everyone was just ready to get on the train and hide! We finally found our track, only to find out that the train was an hour late. It was now about 11:00 pm and we had been up since 4:30 am (bad planning on our part!) We found a place to sit and wait, and it was decidedly unpleasant. Tim and I are pretty seasoned travelers, but sitting in a train station close to midnight, surrounding by staring people and the smell of human waste (to try to put it more pleasantly), was pretty hard to take. I had the girls on each side of me alternating between anger and tears, and asking to please go home! The only comfort was that it could only get better! Fortunately, Tim found a man who just happened to be travelling on the same train and even in the same car, and he became our sort of guardian angel. Between that, and Tim speaking Hindi, we managed to find our car and eventually chugged towards Delhi, 10 hours away.

Night boat trip – narrow streets – easily can get lost

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on boat – candles are lit and then you make a prayer put into the river Ganges

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The night boat trip was to see a holy ceremony called Pujay.  – Thousands in the “stands” and on boats in the river.  A very interesting exerience.  Didn’t understand any of it, but it was quite the specatacle

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A Maharaja’s “ghat”  – a palace is built for his end days where he will then be cremated on the steps leading to the river

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A cremation taking place. 

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The religion is Hindu and the cow is sacred and holy.  Check this bull out.  These cows are just wandering around the city.  We saw a picture of a bull hanging out in a jewelry store.

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4:00 am wake up to take a river boat trip on sunrise to see the bathing etc that goes on in the river.  Definately a great experience with all its ceremony, prayers, bathings, cloth washing etc.   To get to the ghat you walk through these narrow passages from the main street.

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Looking down at one of the ghats (place of bathing, prayers,cremation).  A yoga (kishna) class taking place below.am-1.jpg

This sign says it all for the river Ganges

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River side views

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Prayers taking place

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Ladies shaved their heads to gain some kind or reward for themselves and those that have gone on before them

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We look a little tired

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The cremation – burning “ghats” – different woods are used – the higher ones econmic status the choice of wood changes.

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“Ghats” – different pictures of different ghats from different maharajas over the centuries

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BAthing – washing scenes

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you will notice the garbage and sewer in the pictures that fill the sides of the river  – that doesn’t include the dead bodies and ashes that enter the river.   You can just imagine what type of bacteria etc is in the river.  The guide books talk about it – basically take your toilet with its usage every day – that is what the river is like – however, the people still bath, drink, wash their cloths every day their for blessings and purification from the river.   

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Hindu temple – our guide gave us a “sermon” on the Hindu religion.  We learned alot – this temple did not have all the erotic carvings that you see on other temples. 

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