Greetings from Varanasi!
We arrived on the overnight train from Calcutta and managed to get out of the trainstation and into a very nice taxi without too much hassle - we were truly suprised. Other than the few cows that were roaming around in the station and the odd monkey - not too much different than we expected.
We hired the same taxi who took us from the station, Ali, to drive us around all day sightseeing which was great as he we didn't get hassled too much along the way. On the evening of our arrival, he took us down to the Holy River Ganges - all of the Ghats or Temples (there are over 15 of them lining the river) have very steep stairs that lead directly into the river. In the evening, the Brahmins (or the Priests of the temples) perform rituals with fire, music and water on the river for the faithful who convene. We were told this is called Puja. It was fascinating and we felt very special to be seeing this. After the ceremony ended, all of the followers and pilgrims followed the Brahmin further down the steps into the river and released small tea light candles that sat in banana leaves that were turned into candle holders - then the candles were surrounded by flowers - and released them on the river. We also joined in and we were told to say prayers for our families as we were in a very holy place. The floating candles bobbing on the moonlit Ganges looked like twinkling stars in the night sky.
To get to the river, you must walk through the old town which is a maze of winding narrow streets and alleyways that snake their way to the river's edge. Of course we had to work our way around cows wearing garland (they are holy animals here), dogs, goats, and piles and piles of cow poop and other garbage.
We were up very early (6 AM) the next morning so that we could go back down to the river to watch the rituals of the morning. Our driver drove through the THICKEST fog we have ever seen - just using his horn constantly and hoping no one was in the road... very frightening! We arrived at the river in one piece and it was already very busy. Most people were in the water bathing, some doing laundry. We hired a boat and floated along past all of the Ghats... including the cremation ghats where many bodies were being prepared for cremation. It was a surreal experience and we did feel like we stepped back in time.
The river itself is the holiest in India - dying in Varanasi if you are a Hindu and being cremated and your ashes dropped into the Ganges means that you will complete the cycle of life and that you won't be reincarnated again. There is a choice between wood cremation or electric - wood is very expensive though so many of the poor people have no choice but to be cremated electrically. Some are not even fully cremated and their remains are just dumped into the river as is. We were told only 5 types of people can not be cremated, and instead, when they die, their bodies are weighted down and thrown into the Ganges. These include children, pregnant women, Brahmins, people who have been hung or have chicken pox (we got two versions here!) and finally people who have been bitten by a Cobra...... The river itself starts somewhere in the Himalayas before reaching here. It is EXTREMELY polluted - TONS of raw sewage is dumped directly into the river ever day - even our our boat ride we saw interesting things floating by - smelly things for sure - but we were lucky in that we did NOT see any bloated corpses which apparently is commonplace.
We visited the many temples here - including another monkey temple (Durga Temple) and a beautiful temple which is at the University here (New Vishwanath Temple) - apparently the largest university in Asia with over 40,000 students - lovely campus and very green. Finally, we visited Tulsi Manas that had very interesting figures that were dancing / performing scenes from Hindu mythology - they looked more like something you would see at an Amusement park that start up after your donate a dime and then spit out your fortune!
Cricket is also very popular here - everyone plays no matter which caste you belong to. On an exploratory walk we came across a school where the entire field was full of children playing - we watched for a minute when all of a sudden all the kids out in the field came running over to the gate to enquire about us - What is your good name sir - they asked Jonathan. Great kids and great experience.
Varanasi is also known for its silk production - so we went to the Muslim area which is where most of the manufacturing and the silk looms are - of course everyone wanted us to buy their scarves and saris... we bought a few but the fabric is very inexpensive and fantastic - I should have come here to buy the silk for my wedding dress, not Soho!!
Our hotel is very nice, very inexpensive and has a lovely garden full of many coloured roses and other flowers - it's called the Hotel Surya and if you come through these parts we highly recommend it! We decided to have an "Ayurvedic Massage" - 1 hour for $10 we thought was quite the bargain. We had slightly different experiences but we did share the fact that the massage table was wet, smelly, and DIRTY - we couldn't wait to strip down naked and jump on! As the woman began to rub oil all over me, I started daydreaming about Thanksgiving Turkey.. when I came to my senses I realised that the smell of the oil she was using smelled like a cross between burnt crisco oil and sage - the sage of course that my mom puts in her stuffing! At the end, I felt like Gretel and that she was getting me ready for the oven!! Jonathan's masseuse, who was male, entered the massage room and lit up a cigarette... afterwards, he was chewing betel nuts (which is similar to chewing tobacco but it is red - there is red spit ALL OVER the streets and sidewalks here) - luckily none dripped out of his mouth onto Jonathan throughout the procedure...Jonathan's final comment was that his masseuse was getting a little close for comfort... but he didn't need to worry because I was in the next room!! Lesson - always check the facilities before agreeing to be greased up!!!
Finally, we had our first experience with the Indian Postal Service here. We took our package of finished books and souvenirs to the Post Office. First, it had to be wrapped in a particular way - they use white linen fabric and the Sewing - wallah guy sews up the package then "seals" it all around the edges with candle wax. Then, it is weighed and goes into the mammoth abyss of the Indian Postal Service - we hope it makes it home. Cards which we also sent didn't have any glue on the envelope (and neither do the stamps) so they provide blue paste which was lovely on my finger nails after it dried. They then go to the counter where the man franks them in front of you so that no one will steal our stamps off the cards.... so, not so different than Royal Mail then, huh?? (Andrea wrote this obviously).
There is a great feel to the city and we have really enjoyed it here. We are off now by train again to Agra where we will spend Christmas and finally get to see the Taj Mahal!!
A & J