Friday, October 5, 2007

Varanasi - Ghats, Ganges, & Garbage.

Jaisalmer, India: So, I'm getting a little behind on the posts. We've been moving quickly through northern India. We've seen Varanasi, Agra and New Delhi. I'm now in Jaisalmer and I am just getting around to putting something together. It's god awful hot here and the middle of the day is a good time to be inside with a coke. So, maybe I can get caught up.

After we left Darjeeling, we took up the suggestion of many of our fellow travelers and booked an overnight train across the swamp-like Ganges plain to Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India. For the Hindus it is a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds. They believe that dying in Varanasi offers Moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Indians come from far and wide to wash away their sins, ills and dead in the Ganges or Great Mother as it is known to the Hindus.

We arrived in Varanasi on Sunday, September 23rd and stayed 2 1/2 days. Our first impressions of Varanasi were probably not the best and our final impressions were slightly worse. Our impressions were probably marred by a couple of factors: 1) it was the tail end of the monsoons, 2) it had rained prior to our arrival, and 3) it was wicked stormy most of the time we were there. Varanasi was not looking its best. We spent the first day and a half either hiding in our hotel or running though the rain dodging cows, cow shit, rickshaws, and large muddy puddles in search of food or water. Our plan was to get up at sunrise and take a boat down the Ganges to see the ghats in the morning sun. It quickly became evident that that was not to be.

It stormed. The wind blew and rattled windows. The streets changed from sewage soaked to mud pits then to cesspools. You would think the water would serve to wash a little of the mess away, but it just seemed to collect and move it around so that it smelled more.

On Tuesday morning the rain let up and we hired a boat to take us out on the river. This is by far the best way to view the ghats. Varanasi has around 80 ghats. Most of the ghats are designated for bathing but several are used to publicly cremate the bodies of the dead. This may sound a bit sick, but I would much prefer to cremate someone rather than bathe in that river. The Ganges is said to flow from Vishnu's Toes. Besides the image of a river solely derived from toe sweat, the idea of bathing right next to where bodies are being burned does not appeal to me. Add to that image, sewage - along this area of the Ganges over 30 large sewers are discharged into the river - and you have one polluted river. The Lonely Planet talks about the water being septic. Water samples taken from the river and have shown the amount of fecal coliform bacteria per 100mL to be 1.5 million parts. Water that is safe for bathing should have a figure lower than 500 parts. That's one really nasty river. Suwei got upset every time I shifted positions and rocked the boat.

Our Oarsman on the Ganges

Bathing Ghat
The ghats, however, are fascinating. Amongst all the bathing and burning, people are out washing clothes, doing yoga, praying, getting massages, having a shave, selling flowers, swimming, name it. It's quite colorful and dynamic. After floating by the ghats, we took a walk through the madness, then turned our attentions inland to the narrow alleyways of Varanasi's old town. This didn't last long however. Where as I was fascinated by how dirty a city could get, Suwei was truly repulsed. Cow shit, piles of stinking wet garbage, men pissing on walls, raw sewage everywhere. The final straw was the site of a dead rat caught ignominiously in a large mound of water buffalo shit being gnawed at by squirming maggots. I honestly felt she would have puked if it weren't for here intense desire not to contribute to the problem.


As I said before, we did not see the city in its best light. I'm sure if the city had a chance to dry out a bit, then some of the mess would have been swept up, burnt, or thrown in the river, but it that didn't happen while we were there. The colors, the people, the craziness made it very interesting, but after the rat, we were more than ready to move on.

Indian Idol update: Riots in Siliguri! It turns out a radio DJ said some things on the air that did not go over well with the Prashant supporters. Somehow a mob formed and cars were burned. We read about it in the paper, but the aritcle was so poorly written that it was hard to figure out the details.

Signs I found funny and were unable to take a picture of:

BLIND DATE, Family Restaurant


Each Liter Make a Celebration Better, Seasons Greetings

That's it... For more pics on Varanasi, check out the slideshow below:

Varanasi, India

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