January 11th, 2008
On the train, I stayed up as much as I could, keeping watch over my shoes and bag, devouring sections of the Ramayana like papadums. It reads sort of like a collection of short stories that flow into one long narrative. A character is introduced, their birth or creation explained, they play a short role in Rama's life, then are never heard of again, except for a few other important characters. It's an enjoyable read, though, reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia.
I was excited to finally pull into Varanasi. I stepped out into the bright, dusty morning, and crossed the road to the taxi stand. A man quickly approached and told me he was from Nepal, so I could trust him. You shouldn't trust anyone who tells you that you can trust them, but something about the Nepal thing made me let my guard down. All people have been telling me all along this trip is how much nicer, more relaxed, and more trustworthy Nepalese people are.
I told him I was going to the Shanti Guesthouse so he brought me over to a rickshaw and told the driver where we were going. I was a little suspicious now, since usually it was the driver who approached me at train stations, but was too naive to realize what was going on until they dropped me off at the "Shanti Guesthouse". It didn't seem to fit the description in the Lonely Planet and this was my first time in Varanasi, but I didn't get the sense that the Ganges river, or any river at all, was very close by. I opened the Lonely Planet to the map and walked around the corner and in a little ways, and it didn't add up. Then I remembered what I'd read about guesthouses changing their names to that of other popular guesthouses then getting their family members to lead unsuspecting travelers to them. I was a little pissed that I'd believed the guy and just spent 85 rupees to get here, and even more frustrated that I had no idea where I was.
I walked back to the main road, stumbling a little under my heady pack, to find another ride. A man riding in the back of a cycle-rickshaw told the driver to stop and asked me where I was goign. I told him and he said to get in and he'd take me there. I thanked him for his kindness and explained what had happened. He said not to worry, that he'd take me to the right guesthouse, I just had to stop and look at his shop for a while. "no thank you," I said. "I'm tired and hungry and just really want to get to the guesthouse." He said, "Just come see my shop, have a look. I want to show you..." I jumped out of the rickshaw, 25kg pack and all, before he had a chance to finish and started walking, no idea where, but just walked to keep myself from screaming. There was still no sign of a river in sight but I found a policeman and asked him which way the ghats were. He pointed across the street so I just walked in that direction until I finally came to an opening in the tightly packed buildings and laid my eyes on the Ganges. Most of the places listed on the Lonely Planet map are along the river bank, so with the help of a few signs, I was able to measure myself to be about a kilometer from the real Shanti Guesthouse. I followed the edge of India's most famous gahts until I made it to the smoke and flames of the Manikarnika Ghat, where only Brahmans may be cremated. From here it was just a short walk back into the narrow alley and to the door of the Shanti Guesthouse. I asked for the cheapest room they had, which was 80 rupees, which was dingy and the ceiling seemed to be made of mold but it was the cheapest room I'd had anywhere. The sheets on the bed were unusually clean, but it made me wonder if the mold above kept anyone else from sleeping there.
I headed up to the roof, where the highly recommended restaurant was. I sat by the edge and enjoyed the great view of the river and the maze of little building crowding it. I was warned to watch out for the monkeys that climb over the railing and not to let them steal my food or my camera! I enjoyed my food while listening to a girl talking to her friends about some guy named Obama, who was apparently giving Hilary Clinton a run for her money in the race to lead the Democrats. I've never heard of him before but it sounded interesting. I didn't realize Clinton had any real competition.
After breakfast, I headed back to the ghats with my camera. In the tiny alley, I had to make way as a crowd came buy, carrying a body over their shoulders wrapped in orange cloth and marigold garlands. They were headed to the river to bath the body then burn it.
The burning ghats are the most interesting feature in Varansi, for me. It's believed that being cremated in Varanasi will lead to moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death, so people will come here to die and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. The largest burning ghat is the Manikarnika Ghat, close to the Shanti, and as I approached I passed through the huge piles of tree trunks I'd noticed on the way in.
Close to the ghat is the sacred fire, originally lit by Lord Shiva and kept burning continuously for thousands of years. The cremations are all lit using flame from this fire. The man tending it told me to be careful taking pictures of the burning ghats, photos can catch the spirit of the deceased as it leaves the body. Last week the police threw a Japanese man's camera into the river. He then told me that families will allow foreign tourist to take a few pictures if they make a contribution towards the fire wood, since it's so expensive, especially the sandal wood. He said if I was interested, he'd mention it to some of the men buying wood. I was interested, of course, and he waved me over and some men told me to follow them. They wanted me to pay them per photo, but I didn't agree to that, so we settled on a small fee and I took one photo quickly before any policemen were looking. Then, holding my camera to my chest, I snapped a few more blind shots that turned out pretty well.
You'd think dozens of burning bodies would create quite a stench but one of the magical things about Varanasi is that the burning ghat do not smell. I mean, you know something is burning, but you don't smell burning flesh. I didn't believe it when I read about it, but it's true...
I spent the day walking along the ghats, watching the people, talking to some children selling puja offerings, met a scrawny man, wearing a loin cloth, a flower garland around his neck, and face painted with yellow stripes, who told me he was a Saju (Holy Man) then asked me to give him money. He solicitation didn't seem very holy to me, so I kept going.
Along the way, almost every man I passed wanted to shake my hand, then wouldn't let go, trying to give me a hand massage. The first time it happened was really weird, then I clued in that he was probably going to tell me I had to give him money. After the third time, I quickly pulled my hand away when someone offered me a handshake put they would still try to grab, it anyway.
Other than that, it was pretty amazing walking along the colorful ghats. I enjoyed the fun paintings, the architecture, the cows, goats, and dogs, the authentic Sajus, sitting around, not bothering anyone.
I ended the evening with a short boat ride on the Ganges River. It was really beautiful as the pale light faded from the sky and the ghats lit up with the cremation fires.