Varanasi

March 24-26, 2009

From Shimla we had a very long journey to Varanasi.  First we took a night bus to Delhi.  We reached Delhi around 5 AM, then we crossed town to reach the big train station.  We learned that the next train to Varanasi doesn’t leave until 1 PM, so we putsed around the train station for a few hours.  The train to Varanasi was better in that it was a sleeper – we each had our own bed.  Still, this ride was 14 hours, so we were groggy when we reached Varanasi in the early morning.

At the train station we looked for other tourists to share the taxi ride into the city, but we ended up finding a companion for our entire stay in Varanasi: Luca.

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(Luca and Pnina)

Luca looks Israeli but he’s actually German.  It’s kind of funny actually because local people generally don’t believe Pnina and I when we say we’re Israeli.  I’m not sure what it is – maybe our mannerisms have become too American, or maybe our clothes aren’t right, or maybe it’s that we don’t travel in a huge group and make a lot of noise 🙂  Whatever the case, as the three of us walked around the city locals would approach Luca and just start speaking the little bit of Hebrew they knew (“sababa”, “balagan, whatever).  He would raise his hands up and say “sorry, don’t speak Hebrew”.  Then Pnina and I would try to cut in and say “but we speak Hebrew”…and they still didn’t believe us.  🙂

But there’s more to Luca than the fact that he looks Israeli!  He’s worked as a production manager for films in Germany for about a decade.  He did work for MTV and other well-known brands.  But now he’s looking to make a transition.  He just spent 6 weeks doing an intensive Yoga course in southern India and he’s looking to become a yoga/meditation/life-coach.

Anyhow, the big attraction in Varanasi is the Ganges River – Hindus believe that it’s the source of life and that life should therefore end there as well.  Thousands of Indians come here to cremate the dead and spread their ashes into the river, or to bathe in the holy water of the river, or otherwise participate in religious ceremonies.  And the tourists come to watch the spectacle.

Along the west side of the river there are a bunch of “ghats”, each one being basically a section of riverside, usually with concrete steps leading down to the water.  Some of these ghats were once royal palaces.  There are two ghats where the cremation happens, and as it were we somehow checked into a hotel that was right next door to one of these “burning ghats” – the Harishchandra Ghat.  The hotel had a nice top-floor restaurant with a beautiful view of the river, which included the not-so-beautiful sight of a smokestack at the top of this burning ghat.  The owner of this ghat said that on an average day about 60 people get cremated here, some in the traditional way (on wood, by the water), and some inside in the electric ovens, where the job is quicker.

Anyhow, we spent the majority of our time just walking up and down the ghats – watching life as it happens and taking a lot of photos.  We also wandered into the maze of streets in the old part of Varanasi.

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(Advertisements along the walls; why are there so many German Bakeries in Varanasi??)

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(So good to scratch)

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(Holy man; It’s possible we don’t understand the culture very well, but it seems these guys don’t really do much – they hang around praying and begging for money; we’re not fans)

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(Now here’s an industrial man – preparing cow paddies to bake in the sun)

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(Getting a beard shaved on the street)

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(Getting your head shaved on the street – men do this before funerals)

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(One of the more colorful ghats)

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(Varanasi often loses power, at which time you see and hear generators crank up around the city; so much air pollution!)

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(And if the generators aren’t creating enough bad smoke, the boats help)

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(Firewood stacked up for cremations; tourists are requested not to photograph the actual cremation ceremonies, which we wouldn’t think of doing anyhow; it weird enough that locals kept inviting us to come and watch the ceremonies)

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(Pausing for tea in a hole-in-the-wall shop)

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(Narrow alleys in old Varanasi)

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(Ultra-sweet Indian desserts)

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(Fried potato patties)

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(Some school kids we met – they asked us to take their photo)

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(A snake charmer – not a very good one either; the cobra wasn’t interested in the music at all, so while playing he kept having to grab the snake to keep him from running away)

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(Getting away from the ghats; not the cleanest city in the world, but also not as bad as what we imagined)

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(Pnina struggles to cross the road between all the motorcycles)

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(A shop selling colorful after-meal “mints”/anis)

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(Kid makes banana lassi)

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(The view of some ghats from a boat we took along the water)

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(The weather turned bad, so we quickly went ashore and ducked into a restaurant)

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(Washing clothes along the shore by beating them against big slabs of stone)

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(A kid follows Pnina trying to sell more of those flower/candle things)

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(A girl manages to convince Pnina to get henna done for 5 rupees – so cute!)

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(Much less cute – when it comes time to pay the girl suddenly wants 10 rupees; Pnina refuses on principle; a big argument ensues)

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(Back to cute: “give me a kiss”)

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(Notice the kids jumping in; we wouldn’t dream of touching this water – so much filth)

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(Getting “clean”)

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(An Italian tourist entertained local kids with his spontaneous puppet show)

On our second day we headed south to a Hindu temple located in the middle of the huge Benares Hindu University.  This part of the city is very very different – it was obviously planned (as opposed to growing organically like the old part of town).  Large buildings, trees, manicured lawns.  It was a huge contrast.  The temple itself is also fairly new, but it was nice to visit.

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From there we headed across the river to the Ramnagar Fort.  Luca assured us that autorickshaws should charge about 7 rupees ($0.14) per km, so the ride should be about 30 ruppees, 35 tops.  How did he come to this rate?  His local friends in India told him so, and it worked for him in most occasions.  Well, I don’t know if Varanasi is just an expensive place or what, but we couldn’t find a driver for even twice that price, so we ended up hiking through boring city streets for a couple of hours in the heat of midday.  By the time we reached the fort we were too tired to care.  The  fort now houses some police departments and it has a museum with old artifacts – weapons, furniture, ivory statuetts, etc.  Some of it was really nice, but all we could think about was a cold drink and our next meal.  We ended up hiring an auto to take us back to our hotel.  On the way back we saw perhaps the most interesting thing on our little daytrip: a rickety floating bridge.

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That evening we sat on the edge of the river and watched the “Puja” – the nightly prayer ceremony.  It was about 2 hours long and involved five guys singing prayers and holding various artifacts up in the air.  There was a lot of insence smoke and fire.  It was all pretty elaborate, and it’s impressive that they put up this big production every single night.

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(Before the ceremony, kids went around selling small flower/candle “boats”)

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(Woman lights her candle and sets it afloat)

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(Ceremony begins)

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Bonus Shots

#1 – How Pnina maintains her pale complexion:

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#2 – No comment

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