*Raise your hand*
While walking, I noticed a sign for Orchids Vegetarian Restaurant, and went into the building to find it. Someone actually laughed at me, when I asked which floor it was on. It’s been closed for over a year. I suggested someone should take down the sign.
“Over 60,000 people come to the ghats every day to take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganga, most notably at sunrise. This is a fantastic sight to see. However, due to the sewage pipes that discharge feces into the river, along with sunken corpses, there is a risk of infection from numerous diseases, such as hepatitis, and bacteria, such as e-coli. Reports have shown that the Ganges water has a fecal coliform MPN of 88,000 per 100ml, compared to a desirable fecal coliform MPN of 500 per 100ml.”
I walked westward, back to the hostel, and saw some interesting “construction on a temple” and the sounds of a wedding going on inside this other one.
Back at the hostel, I participated in the “free afternoon chai” time on the enclosed terrace, and we drew some spectators, who could clearly smell snacks being served. The caging makes perfect sense now.
For dinner that night, I went back to a vegetarian restaurant I’d passed during my city walk, and it was amazing! Ashok. Everything was so fresh, it was a small basement cafe with a great vibe, and the staff were super friendly. I also tried this awesome Indian version of Sprite, called “Limca”.
Back at the hostel, I had written on the “find people for group activities” board about wanting to visit Sarnath, a nearby town, the next day. Turns out the 2 guys I’d sat next to at chai time were both interested, so we made a plan for the next morning to meet at 10.
Did I say 10? There was a Belgian and an Indian guy, and the Indian guy disappeared around 9:59am (after we’d seen him at breakfast), and we waited, and waited, and waited, and then we found him asleep on his bed at 10:45. Unreal. We went out to the street, found a tuktuk driver to take us there for 600 rupees (less than $10, and an easy 200 rupees each), wait 2 hours for us to sightsee, and bring us back.
Along the way, we stopped at the bridge over the Varuna River, north of town. Through the Indian guy (from Bombay), the tuktuk driver told us that the river had been really flooded recenty, such that it swept away some of the homes along the banks, and others were stranded on top of their houses for 7-10 days, with people coming in boats to throw food up to them for survival. Insane. But global warming totally isn’t real. There’s no climate change happening.
In Sarnath, we pulled up outside the Malugandha Kuti Vihar temple. This temple is built at the site believed to be where Buddha gave his first teachings to his first disciples, after he gained enlightenment.
Problem was, everything was closed for lunch time, so we exited past this tiny museum and went to a restaurant nearby. The restaurant had Disney/Pixar wallpaper, including “Up!” which was incredible.
Back at the temple after its opening, we looked around inside and then went to this outdoor spot where a Bodhi tree grows. The Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya (250km / 155 mi away), under which Buddha supposedly gained enlightenment, had a branch taken from it, planted in Sri Lanka, to grow a replica tree there. A branch from this tree was brought to Sarnath, and a Bodhi tree now grows at the spot of the first teaching. The cycle is complete.
There was a small zoo/ferris wheel in the back in some of the pictures. We didn’t enter (I don’t support zoos, anyway), but this seemed like a good area for family picnics, given all the green space and stuff for kids.
From here, we walked past this stupa to commemorate the ancient king of this area, who was the first to convert to Buddhism, and over to a small Jain temple where they very clearly made sure we knew not to take any pictures.
From here, we rode back to the city. Watch this video of our ride, zipping through traffic to too-loud Indian music on the speakers.
Back at the hostel, I changed out of my sweaty clothes (the humidity and heat were ridiculous) into some of my clean laundry then lined up for the 4pm (but really 4:30) “ghats tour” from the hostel. The guide was HILARIOUS. His obsession with rhyming everything he said was so great.
The river bank along the Ganges is lined with nearly 90 ghats (temples with steps leading down to the river), most built by ancient kings and rich people, who came to Varanasi to spend their final days and wanted a private place to live, pray, then die. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi is good luck and that having your body cremated/ashes thrown in the Ganges purifies your soul and prevents you from being reincarnated, so you can go to eternal life with the gods. Thus, people try to die here. If they can’t, they want their bodies brought here for cremation and to have their ashes dumped in the river.
Along the walk, I noticed this Pac-Man ghost. I love whoever put this here.
At our first ghat, we immediately noticed how high the river is. Normally, you would be able to walk from the first to the last ghat, along the river, where the steps are all connected. Not now.
We witnessed some cremations in process. Strictly no pictures, out of respect.
There are 2 types of cremations: traditional and modern. The traditional cremation means putting the body on top of a pile of logs and burning it for however long it takes (usually 4-6 hours). The modern one uses this crematorium at the end of this road. It uses electric heat and takes about 10-15 minutes. It’s also cheaper, because you don’t have to pay for all of the wood.
Either one is preceded by a parade through the streets with the body on a bamboo stretcher, chanting something like, “Soul, be free!” by the closest male relatives and friends. The body is wrapped in white for purity and accompanied by the final gifts of friends/relatives. We saw one of these processions come up to the crematorium, while we were there.
The procession will end at the river, where the bearers dunk the body in the Ganges to purify it before the final purification of the fire. The ashes will then be tossed into the Ganges to release the soul from the cycle of reincarnation. The bearers must wait with the body during the cremation.
The modern version is much cheaper, because it doesn’t require as much time or all of the wood. However, the traditional method is preferred still, whenever people can afford it. There is a council of cremation workers, and they get all of the info and approve the cremation of everyone, so there’s an overseer/record.
If you die outside India, or your family just can’t get your body here, for some reason, you can be cremated elsewhere, have your male relative come here with the cremation document + ashes, present it to the council, and then get a priest’s blessing while tossing the ashes in the Ganges. This can accomplish the same result, supposedly.
After seeing 4 traditional pyres with bodies on them and 1 parade/start of modernized cremation, we moved on, past this temple, and into the tiny back alleys.
Sitting along the river, we heard more about the beliefs on reincarnation/afterlife/spiritual meanings associated with the Ganges. We also waved to the crowds watching us.
Nearby was the Brahman Priests school (Brahmans are the priestly caste in the caste system of Hinduism).
Next on our tour was this rooftop spot, looking over the river.
Our last stop was the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat. 3 well-trained Brahmans perform this ceremony to the gods and to the Ganges every night. It was really interesting, despite the speakers/music being much too loud.
After the ceremony, our group stopped for “green lassies”—lassi is a traditional yogurt drink, and these are laced with marijuana (we even saw police buying some while at the shop). I didn’t get one, but everyone was talking about how awesome they are. Sure… I saw you freaking out and being crazy later, so I disagree. I just had a “Thumbs Up” while waiting for them.
Back at the hostel, I hung out on the terrace with a bunch of people, until almost midnight. I got up at 7am to do a little bit of work, before showering, packing up, and eating breakfast before checking out to head to the airport.
Varanasi was really intersting. I learned a lot about Hindu beliefs, saw some amazing things I’d never seen/experienced/dreamt of before, and learned why the city’s nickname is “Very nasty.” It’s hot and humid, which makes all of the cow dung/garbage in the streets putrefy. I’m sure the dead bodies and sludge in the river aren’t helping, either. However, it’s an amazing city with a LOT of character.
Thanks for an awesome 2 days, Varanasi. I hope to come back, some day.
Next up: through Delhi to Vrindavan.