… that is the Ganges in case you hadn’t guessed.
We’ve just spent the last 10 days in Varanasi in a hotel overlooking the river with some peace and quiet owing to the absence of traffic by the river, praise the lord!
We took a customary early morning boat trip along the river where you get to see, aside from the soft mist on the river and the auspicious sunrise, all the locals going for their morning shit down by the river, people bathing and drinking the same river water which is trashed with human sewage & dead bodies, more dead bodies being burnt along the banks of the river and brahmin priests going down to the river to fill little pots with the sacred river water for their morning Poojas (ceremonial prayers) amongst many other tourists on boats taking in the same sights!
Shiva, the groggy boat driver, struggling to get with the program and start rowing!
Not enthralled at the prospect of rowing back he asked if I liked walking to which i replied “yes” which he took as a cue to drop me off somewhere along the way after which he cheekily asked for a tip!
I’ll add something about the dead bodies here as it is part of the intrigue to Varanasi. Varanasi is considered by Hindus to be the best place to be cremated. They hold the belief that the Ganges water washes away past karma and gives the opportunity of Moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation). There is in fact a dedicated ‘burning ghat’, as they call it, which is located in the old city. The buildings and terrain all around it are blackened from the continuous smoke and ashes that come from a dozen or so separate fires that burn on the river bank, each one for a separate body, and all around there are massive stockpiles of burning wood – sandalwood is prefered as it’s pleasant odour counters that of the burning flesh. There are fires burning here 24 hours a day and the flame used to start each of the pyres has apparently been continuously alight for thousands of years! You can be anywhere in the city and catch a glimpse of a body being carried down to the river on a stretcher but the bodys do come wrapped in material and draped with flowers so it is not as disturbing as it may sound. The bodies are first washed in the river and then put on the funeral pyre. There is also a dedicated platform high up on the burning ghat reserverved for high caste brahmins alone to be burnt on. There are apparently also six types of body which are deemed innocent and therefore are not burned but instead cast into the river bound with heavy rocks so that they don’t float; these are animals, children, pregnant women, victims of a snake bite, small pox victims and lepers. Upon hearing this I was surprised that there was not a pile of dead bodies surging up out of the middle of the river! Anyway enough on the dead bodies.
We were also lucky enough to attend a concert of ghazals while in Varanasi beautifully sung by Pooja Gaitonde who you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwX9YQYLwLw. We went to the mughal area and saw the silk factories where beautiful fabrics have been produced with handlooms going back at least 7 generations. We then proceeded to get ripped off and spent far too much money purchasing some of these silks but we have good plans for these materials which I’ll leave for another post.