Varanasi – Day 1

Early morning smog and fog accompanied us to Delhi domestic airport and our flight to Varanasi on the holy Ganges River.

Smog followed us as we flew east and was there again to greet us on the Tarmac. A one hour bus ride through traffic, cows (lots and lots of cows), pigs, chickens, dogs and various other assorted flora and fauna brought us to our hotel (which is lovely and quiet) about a 30 min Tuk Tuk ride from the Ganges. The hotel is a majestic older building – with whispers of the Raj and another time. Rooms surround an open courtyard and a lovely breeze is moving through my third floor room.

Travelling by Tuk Tuk to the Ganges 30 minutes from the hotel was exhilarating – weaving and dodging cows, pigs, dogs, bikes,cars, pedestrians and some unidentifiable stuff – we didn’t look too hard….. The particulates in the air seem to get thicker as we approached the river – turned out there is a very good reason for this.

The banks of the Ganges at Varanasi are covered with Ghats and their stairs down to the river – the old residences of the Indian nobility, now abandoned and definitely NOT a place you want to go by yourself particularly at night. Hire a guide or go with a group – just sayin………..

We approached our boat through a herd of cows and bulls and set off without incident onto the Ganges.

Kites were everywhere flown by young men on shore and in boats.

As the sun disappeared behind the outline of the Ghats a lively conversation ensued re: religion, redemption from sin and Catholicism vs Hinduisim, karma, rebirth, salvation and a number of other issues. As our boat held a Hindustani, three Catholics and several agnostics – an interesting debate. Eventually we agreed to shelve the conversation for another day 😏. What is it they say about politics and religion…………

The Ganges is very low right now allowing cremation sites close by the river on the sandy shore. The photo below is of one of the Ghats along the river. During the monsoon season, the river has risen to the level of the sign Raja Ghat in the past – when the levels are that high, the river is closed to tourist boat traffic and cremation sites are located way up the bank.

Two cremation sites were active on the river, a smaller one and a much larger group of Pyres a few miles down river – the larger one a Dante Inferno like conflagration, funeral pyres, wandering cattle and dogs and people everywhere.

It is first come first served at the pyre sites. Once you arrive, the corpse you bring is lowered into the Ganges for a final purifying bath and then once a pyre becomes available the body is moved where it can be cremated. The source of all the particulate matter in the air became quickly apparent. Concurrent with the active pyres were two Hindu religious services (held 365 days a year ) being held on the shore – each watched by thousands of people on land and in small boats on the river. Our boat packed in with the rest to watch. The smell of incense, burning ghee, lights, the bells used to call the river gods, the chanting and music – all on loud speakers – was mesmerizing. The best chai tea I have ever had was purchased from a small boy with a portable primus stove who climbed from boat to boat during our time there – the warmth of the tea very welcome as the wind picked up and temperatures dropped. No mosquitos – too much smoke and wind for them.

There are several options available to people who pass away and cannot be cremated at the Ganges – the logistics of which are complicated because of the sheer size of the country and numbers of people. If the journey is possible ashes can be brought to the Ganges- if not, water representing the Ganges can be sprinkled on the ashes wherever they may be.

A magnificent evening completed by an outstanding kabob diner and a very nice Indian Cabernet Shiraz – who knew ????

Internet bouncing in and out so hope to get this off on an in bounce today. Stay tuned.

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