31.03.2010 30 °C
The next place on our list was the holy city of Varanasi on the river Ganges. Varanasi is a city of; spectacular river views, open air cremation, autorickshaw drivers who routinely take you half way to your destination before asking for more money, where hotel management at check out will debate whether you owe for an extra piece of room service butter with 3 diferent staff for 20 minutes before accepting you can have it for free, where bike rickshaws crash you into mopeds to avoid pot holes and where there are holy festivals every day. It's a place of great interest and was better than I hoped it would be.
Along the river are a number of 'ghat's', basically stairways leading into water, some of which are used as burning ghats where bodies are openly cremated on pyres. Whilst we were there we saw this up close; close enough to make out a skull, a shin bone/foot and we also heard one account of a local stray stealing a rather grey looking hand from a pyre. Apologies if any body is eating this over lunch. It's not a gruesome as it sounds though as the bodies are given a religious procession through the town draped in expensive cloth and The Ganges is a very expensive place for a body to be burned because, according to religion, once the body is in The Ganges the cycle of reincarnation ends and the soul is at peace. That's a great selling point the government have harnessed there in the name of superstition, not that I know much about it and call me cynical. Interestingly, babies, pregnant women, holy men, lepers and victims of cobra bites don't get cremated and are simply floated off into the river. During our sunrise boat ride our guide took us to the island to show us a flakey torso and a body floating on the river wrapped in cloth. That is as gruesome as it sounds.
So that's enough about death. There are also many holy temples along the riverside and the main ghat had a daily display of worship; Friday's being the most spectacular where holy performers on platforms danced in synchronisation chiming bells and holding candles. There was also a number of Derren Brown type holy people who, once surrounded by worshippers, danced until they 'passed out' in holy euphoria and then all the spectators would fight over who could touch him before he magically revived himself by throwing himself in the Ganges. Ergh. When you consider the sheer amount of dead bodies, sewerage and rubbish that goes in there it actually is some kind of miracle that people don't grow extra limbs and turn a radioactive shade of green so maybe I'm wrong and there is a holy force at work. Mmm.
We arrived the day before my birthday and Mark had booked us into a lovely hotel on the Ganges where we were one of the few people staying there lucky enough to have a balcony and view of the river (can't see death from the balcony so it's all good). I seem to have only stayed in nice hotel's this past week which is odd for backpacking but I'm not complaining. On my actual birthday we met up with some people we'd met on the over night train to Varanasi and decided to have a night out to celebrate my 29th. Varanasi is a maze of small cobbled passageways and it's easy to get lost. We discovered this when trying to find their hostel for drinks. Obviously the rickshaw dropped us off in the wrong place and so after about a half hour walk around a tiny maze of open sewers, nick-nack shops and having to practically leap frog any cows roaming the streets, we found Shanti Guest House and my birthday celebrations took place. The night finished sitting by a burning ghat with my new friends in a weird parallel of celebrating life and death. Not sure I'll ever have a birthday like that again.
We stayed here for 5 days in total and have now decided to head to Nepal and see Everest.