Friday, 1 March 2013

Varanasi.......naked babas and cows galore

The morning after our first busy day in Delhi we were already getting whisked off to our second destination- Varanasi. It proved to be something of a trying morning. My jet lag had really set in and basically I was awake from 4am after not getting to sleep until well after midnight. This coupled with a mild case of Delhi Belly (my vegetarian plan didn't work as well as planned) led to us both getting very limited sleep.

Our driver picked us up bright and early and we made our way for our first internal flight. We landed and met our new driver- Dirk and made our way to the hotel. From my last entry you will know that the driving in Delhi is bad. The driving in Varanasi makes Delhi look like the DSAs dream. Not only is there the standard human traffic that comes from a small city with a population of over 3million but there is the added confusion that comes from the multitude of animals, in particular cows. Cows wandering free to be precise. After a hair raising journey we eventually made it to the hotel (my poor stomach had nearly given in by this point) and were greeted by a lovely Indian lady named Sunita who was to be our guide throughout India's most holy city.

Trying to ignore our increasing weariness, we started by going to a temple (sorry I've forgotten the name) which truly showed the pride which Indians take in their nation. The floor was carved with the image of India all drawn to perfect scale. Following on from this we went to the largest residential University in India which spans over 18 square km. On this site we visited an active Hindu temple and watched the students pray to the various gods. Something I wasn't aware of is that images of Gods are not allowed inside temples- only on the outer walls. It is also becoming apparent that different regions worship to different deities out of the 6500 that Sunita told us exist. Varanasi is the 'holiday destination' of Shiwa, the God of Destruction of Evil and various pilgrims are currently in Varanasi for a festival which lasts for 2 months and takes place every 12 years to worship this God along the banks of the holiest of Indian rivers- the Ganges.

This was our next and most highly awaited stop in Varanasi. We made our way to the banks and it became apparent that our journey into the city was nothing compared to the chaos within its walls. Thousands upon thousands of people were all making the same journey that we attempted. Cue our second rickshaw ride through the mayhem and we were nearly there. We walked down the most famous ghat (steps leading to the river bank) and caught our first glimpse of the majestic river. We got onto a (unbelievably decrepit) boat with an (equally decrepit) captain who rowed us along the water. From here we got to experience a truly amazing sight,

First we went down the river to where several funeral pyres were being lit. Each day between 400 and 500 people are cremated on the banks of the river and their ashes are then submerged in the holy water. We watched the bodies of the dead take their final holy dip wrapped in yellow and orange clothes and then the cremations took place. Sunita informed us that our fears of being obtrusive were unfounded as in the Hindu culture death is a very public event. On the banks of the river where the cremations took place, only men were allowed to partake and the oldest son of the family would light the pyre. Wife's and daughters along with other female family members gathered further up the river to pay their last respects. Various body parts which did not need to be 'commissioned' were not cremated and were instead flung into the Ganges.

After witnessing this, we made our way back up the river in order to witness the Sacred Arti ceremony performed by seven Hindu priests. Hundreds of other boats were gathered around for the same purpose. This ceremony occurs every day at Sunset in the same place and involved rituals using incense, honey, milk and flour being performed to pay homage to the 'Mother of India' - the Ganges. The ceremony was beautiful and truly gave an insight into the spiritual nature of the country.

On the Ghats a huge variety of people were gathered- beggars and lepers, tourists, indian families, children.....perhaps the most astonishing to the western eye were the men who were completely naked except for white paste covering their bodies. Upon asking who these people were we were informed that they are babas (pilgrims) who are naked all the time in order to be like babies given birth to by the Ganges. Nobody else seemed to be turning a blind eye to them so we tried to do the same.

Varanasi and Delhi are like completely different worlds and we are starting to see how much of a country of contrasts India is......

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