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Saturday 19 Mar 2011
Varanasi, India

Holi day

A trip to Varanasi isn't complete without an early morning boat up the Ganges (or "Ganga" as it's known in Hindi) to view the rituals of the Hindu faithful that regard the river as sacred. To be honest I didn't know what to expect. After my trip with Rajif the night before, I booked a 6am boat with him the following morning, sharing with Stefan this time, for 150 Rs each (apparently we spent more than the average price, but at least we got the entire boat to ourselves again).

Sunrise on the Ganges
Sunrise on the Ganges

Sunrise over the Ganges was very pretty. I had some trepidation about taking a boat onto the Ganges, especially the night before, as the river is so chock full of polutants from sewage pipes along the river's length that it's practically poisonous to drink for westerners (the faecal contamination is 120 more times than the minimum recommended safe level for bathing). So, even though I often stood up on the wide-bottomed boat to take photos, the moment the boat wobbled I was grabbing onto my seat to make sure I didn't fall in.

You can't escape traders anywhere in India, even on a river, and in no time we had boats coming up to us trying to sell us lit candles floating on flower beds (as I had seen the night before). I purchased one after it was somewhat forced into my lap, but at least it probably meant I had blessings from Vishnu for the rest of my trip Wink.

Morning...
Morning on the ghats

Ghats on the Ganges river
Ghats on the Ganges river

As we progressed up-stream, we passed the ghats and there were many people taking the "holy dip" in the water; washing their clothes / teeth / even their dogs! Perhaps I was spoiled by the visual extravaganza I had the night before, but I didn't really find the whole affair that interesting: just people bathing/blessing themselves as we passed. It felt embarassing taking photos, rather like shooting someone as they are having a shower.

The people believe they are getting in touch with their ancestors by cupping the water in their hands and letting it fall over their heads, but as a "tourist attraction" it felt a little like voyeurism and I felt I was intruding on a private moment that these people really didn't want to share with the world. The most interesting part was how oblivious the people seemed to be about the contamination in the water around them (80% of illnesses in India are water-bourne). I found the backstreets of Varanasi far more interesting than the ghats.

Dead tired! I rescued a...
Dead tired! Dog-eaten body

I had been warned about dead bodies floating in the Ganges river: many Hindu families that can't afford cremation opt to fling their loved ones into the river, wrapped in a shroud and adorned with flowers, and send them downstream to be washed up on some lucky farmers plot. I assumed that the most you might see would be a bit of a shroud, or random body part, or nothing at all as they are supposedly all washed downstream. So it was with great shock that, as we exited the boat from our dock, I saw a grey-blue bloated corpse lying (thankfully) face-down in the water, draped in white about 2 metres from where we disembarked (check the photo). It was almost unreal, as I'd seen so many dead bodies in Hollywood movies, but this was the first time I'd seen any such thing in real life. Probably the most shocking thing I've ever seen in my life in fact.

To add insult to injury, there was a dog balancing on top of it's back, eating away at the grey meat through an opening, and everywhere else was covered in maggots. To make matters worse, Rajif was arguing with us as he said I had promised him a sizeable tip the night before (I probably had but didn't remember). So here we were: me picking my jaw up off the ground, staring at the cadaver, while getting shouted at by a Varanasi boatman who could care less. Bizarre doesn't even begin to describe this scenario, but this is what I found fascinating about Varanasi: it's like a world unto itself.

Relocating wayward...
Relocating wayward corpses

Coins for the Illiterate...
Coins for the Illiterate...

Over breakfast afterwards, we tried not to think about the body, only to then see it being dragged out into the middle of the river by another boatman and let go (apparently it's quite common for bodies to go wayward and wash up on the docks). When taking our order, the waiter had *us* write down what we wanted on a piece of paper. When we pointed at the menu, he gave us confused looks and it quickly became apparent that he was illiterate. Illiteracy is still shockingly common in India and so the Indian government, knowing that illiterate people still need to buy things, cater for these people by printing hand-representations of numbers on the coinage.

Before checking out of my hotel, I  wandered up the ghats in the STINKING hot weather (my luck that a heat-wave was on). This being the day before Holi, you already had to watch out for the kids with the plastic bags full of dye and water pistols. Almost like walking through a rough area of Dublin at night, anytime you saw a gang of kids, you knew it was going to be trouble. A few tried to chuck some blue dye at me from a height, but I luckily saw them just in time so avoided getting showered (and me with my camera right in the firing line)... at least I thought I got away: later on I saw a few suspicious looking blue stains on my torso, so some splashes must have hit me. Lucky so that I was wearing dark blue clothes at the time :)

After check out, had to trek through the streets carrying my 30kg, this time knowing my way a little better. The narrow bazarr streets kept me fairly cool through this trek as they channeled any breeze from the Ganges. Got to a rickshaw wallah who was a bit crazy and so ensued one of the most exhausting diesel-fumed rickshaw drives yet...

Arrived to Kolkata late that evening.. my flight to Guwahati was at around 10am the next day so I had to stick nearby. Had major problems trying to sort a hotel at this time but with a LOT of luck I met a guy who knew a guy that knew a guy who ran a guesthouse and would pick me/drop back for only 1,500 Rs. Turned out to be a perfect place! Luck played a large part in my trip, especially in the NE states...

1 Comment for this Travel blog entry

Mum Says:

6 May 2011

All very interesting - and great pics,

v glad you didn't fall into the filthy Ganges!

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Photo Album

  • Pre holi...

    Varanasi

    India

    Pre holi celebration on the Ganges
  • Pre holi...

    Varanasi

    India

    Pre holi celebration on the Ganges
  • Cremations...

    Varanasi

    India

    Cremations run on 24 7
  • Sunrise on...

    Varanasi

    India

    Sunrise on the Ganges