Rowing into the sunrise
Left Kanha on the 1.30pm bus, a 5hr ride through farming communities and rocky hillsides. It all looks very dry and the underbrush is always being burnt off in small patches to prevent major fires. The Lady behind us had a very nasty looking arm and it was bandaged but oozing yellow puss, her pain was clear and she gratefully accepted some Ibuprofen for the pain. Most people in India cannot afford medicines. As usual we traveled without a plan and never book ahead and ended up staying one night in Jabilipur as we could not get a train to Varanasi the same day.
We slept well on the train as some dignitary rode in our carriage which required 4 armed police guards with snub nosed machine guns, one at each end of the carriage and two in the corridor. No chance of our bags being nicked tonight.
Security in India is ever present and most guards/police look very alert and mean business.
Ginger Tea / Curd & Fruit Hotel entrance..
Stepped off our air conditioned sleeper train into a sea of humanity and a wall of heat, holy men and cows. A quick 40R ride into the old town to Assi Ghat, found the Sahi River View Hotel. It looked dubious as we had to walk down a narrow alley way with its own cow patty minefield, upstairs was clean and friendly, we paid 550R for a room with a awesome view of the Ganges, had banana pancakes with curd (youghurt) and fruit for breaky, very yummy!
Even Pidgeons join in!
The next few days we spent rising with the 1st light and drifting down the Ganges in a rowing boat pausing at the many Ghats (temples with steps into the river) to watch and photograph the throng of Hindus washing, praying, swimming and of course the many funerals.
Those that die and can can be bought to the burning Ghat within 24hrs and can afford the 3,000-5,000 R fee for fire wood and labour, may be washed and burnt (200-300 per day) on the river shore. Holy men, children do not get burnt as the washing and burning is a purification and they are already considered to be pure and are simply attached to a stone and sunk in the Ganges. Women from the deceased’s family are no longer allowed near the burning pyre in order to prevent Sati, when wives either jump or are put onto the husbands Pyre.
37% of Indian’s are below the poverty line according to latest figures. Most business deals from the smallest to the largest always involve many hands all wanting a small percentage of the final fee if a taxi takes you to a Hotel he gets a small commission, if a Hotel calls a taxi for you the doorman expects a commission from the Taxi driver. For the most part it is dog it dog hard bargaining process to buy anything, but the line between business and outright moral dishonesty has only been crossed one time so far in my experience. Ironically by the Employees of the Burning Ghat. This is the place that Hindus send there loved ones for the final purification. I wonder how many Hindus are aware that the burning Ghat employees are giving tours of the Ghat and asking tourists to make large donations to a fake Hospice. According to the boatmen and the Hotel staff there is no Hospice and it is simply a building for poor people. Sad that what should be a sacred place is run by people that appear to have no moral compass. We met a man from Italy yesterday that had been drugged and robbed in Goa, so crime is a factor in India just like any other country but it is surprising to find it in one of the holiest places in all off India.
Fire ceremony- Shiva spirit dances in flame!
In the evening we would walk the 3km along the waterfront to the Main Ghat and watch the sunset and the nightly fire ceremony at 7pm. Along the way we chatted with boatmen, cricket players and temple goers. Bulu our regular boatman was particularly nice, and we learnt much from him about the Ganges and the Ghats. We also found out we had both lost our fathers to Prostate cancer, he told of the cost for the injections and radiation treatment and the hardship this was as he earns only 150R day working 12hrs or more. As the oldest son he is also worrying about funding the marriage of his sister, often after the marriage the other family will start demanding more gifts and failure to provide them could result in the new wife being punished or even in extreme cases they die in mysterious circumstances. Its hard to compare the kindness we have received and committed religious life that most Indians live there life by with the realities of hardship that the traditions and individuals bring into many of there lives.
The mood in India appears to be one of welcoming change that brings a better life for women and family’s but many also note that the new non-arranged marriages are seeing high divorce rates just like the west. So on the one hand the old tradition of the arranged marriage is still the norm but most TV shows and movies are promoting Bollywood’s new ritual of finding love and happiness the modern way. The obligation to the family is so very different from the west, when we tell of all of our children they are quick to say we will be well looked after in our old age by them ! While it appears that the changes in India has created many jobs and few are unable to work, they earn very little working l2hr days, 7 days a week is normal. Their obligations to family which means that a son or daughters income often goes to the head of the household 1st and then some is given back to them for there own use, only if they marry do they move out and run there own households.
Varanasi is an eye opener and an education into life from the beginning to the end. At every turn you find yourself thinking about your own life and death and wondering who you are.
UPDATE Dec 10th 2010: Main Ghat, Varanasi has been hit by terrorist bomb during fire ceremony. 100 injured and several killed? Times like this you wonder about the small choices you make in life that either save you from death or send you to an unknown fate.