Sunday, 5 April 2009
The night on the train was hell. We decided to try and get some sleep at about midnight, after checking that our luggage was safe under the seats on the train. At just before 3:00am we were woken up by police carrying large guns because they wanted to check which luggage was which. “How many peaces you have?!”, they shouted. “How many pieces?!”
We then pointed to our bags and they passed them up to our bunks on the train. The big question running through our minds though was how would it be possible to sleep with the huge backpacks taking up all the space in each of our beds? Well, try we did! Jon curled into a ball taking up about two thirds of his bed, leaving the other third for his luggage; and Simon laid on his side using up that tiny strip of remaining room where his luggage wasn’t. But then things seemed to go from bad to worse. We found out that the train had been diverted onto a rural line, and wouldn’t be arriving in Varanasi until 1.00pm. But wait, the countryside on this diversion was absolutely magical. We rolled at a stately pace through the most picturesque and agricultural part of Uttar Pradesh, past fields of wheat, villages and homesteads keeping goats and cattle, women working in the fields, peacocks pecking at the ground, and trees offering shade for the occasional man on a bicycle. Kipling would have been proud. We eventually made it as far as Faizabad. It was there we encountered our first monkey colony of the day. There they were, scampering along walls, sliding up and down vertical girders, and I am sure there was a game of “tag” happening somewhere there.
On arrival in Varanasi, we were immediately pounced upon by another rickshaw driver wanting our business. We reckon that the rickshaw drivers know exactly where to find the foreigners on the train because our names are written on a large board, usually displayed on the platform. All Indian names are written in Hindi and then translated to English on these notices, unlike our names, which have no Hindi transliteration. We let him play the “hotel scam” on us because he took us to a nicer one, which was cheaper and in a safer looking area than the one we originally selected. After settling in, it was time to take a walk along the ghats. On the way, we felt privileged to enter the small gateway into an ancient Sanskrit College to chat with a local guy feeding another large colony of monkeys.
This city is the most holy site for Hindus and is one of the world’s great spiritual centres. The ghats, which line the River Ganges, are used for ritual bathing, prayer, and cremation. It was incredible to see how the ghats were sectioned. The first section we walked onto was a cremation ghat, which had piles of chopped wood ready for the funeral fires. It is at this first ghat where anybody could be cremated, but further along the Ganga at Manikarnika Ghat, only Hindu people can be cremated. On approach to this ghat, we noticed four fires in progress, with a fifth about to be lit. We saw large sets of weighing scales used for weighing the wood used to burn the dead bodies. Depending on the wealth of the family of the deceased relative, they could afford different types of wood, some more valuable than others. The “dons”, who deal with the bodies, know exactly how much wood to use during the cremation of each body. We were intrigued by the vast amounts of remaining ash on the ghats from previous cremations.
We decided to take a boat ride on the river as the sun went down. The boat was made of wood, and we felt dubious about whether or not to get in because of a few holes we saw in parts. We decided to go for it, but just before we got in, we bought small candles that were in bowls made from dried leaves, which held rose petals. These are prayer candles that are lit and released into the Ganges as a prayer is made.
We timed this boat ride more or less perfectly as we managed to catch part of the evening ceremony of Hindus coming together on the sides of the ghats. There were seven Hindu Brahmin priests dressed in orange, gently waving fire around, as others rang small, high-pitched bells. The ghats were illuminated by the glowing lights of the ceremony. Now, as we reflect upon another amazing day of new experiences, we are writing this on the rooftop of the Sai Kripa Guest House, watching a firework display and eating the HOTTEST curry so far...
Tomorrow we head for Jharkhand and elephants (hopefully)!