|The toilet was in an even worse condition in the morning and on top of it all the train was three and a half hours late arriving in Varanasi. The hotel,had sent a guy to meet us at 10am and he had to hang around the station till we finally arrived at 1.30pm.
Our guide led us away from the usual chaos at the station and crowded us all into a Tuktuk. The traffic was horrific and we had to hang on for dear life as we made our way into the old town of Varanasi. People, bikes, motorbikes, rickshaws all parted the way before us as our driver applied himself to the horn. His name must have been Moses.
For some reason we had to leave him about half of a mile from the hotel and make our way on foot through the narrow alleyways. Cows were everywhere and everywhere cows have been there is always cow pats, as we soon discovered. We are thinking of adding 'cow pat avoidance' as an Olympic sport.
When we did get to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised. Like all the hotels I have booked for this trip it has been a gamble as to what they are like relative to the description and pictures on their websites. After the experiences on the train and with the traffic and general state of the streets in Varanasi I was not optimistic about my hotel choice. As it turned out it was a good choice, although it was one of the more expensive hotels that I pre booked. It was right on the river front overlooking the Ganges and with great views up and down the river. Our room had a small balcony looking right out to the river and on the same level as the courtyards open dining area.
When I had dropped my bags in the room I went back out to talk to a couple sitting at a table there. They turned out to be an Australian couple who had been in Varanasi four days and were leaving that night. They were very helpful and even took us for a walk along the ghats to see the main cremation ghat. A ghat is just a set of steps leading down to the water. The cremation ghat is where the bodies of the dead are brought on a litter to be immersed in the Ganges and then burnt on a funeral pyre of wood.
Varanasi is considered to be a very holy site by Hindus and people from all over India come here to bathe in the river. It is thought to be a very special to be cremated here. At the cremation ghat men from one of the lower castes looks after setting up and tending the funeral pyres. I counted at least fifteen fires burning at various stages of the cremation process. As we watched a body was brought down to the river and immersed in the water before being placed on top of a small stack of timbers then more timbers are placed on top of the body and a fire lit at the base. There were no signs of grief and the whole philosophy seems to be that they have died only to be reborn to a new, and presumably, better life.
It felt a bit ghoulish but there were lots of people wandering around but even so I also felt as if we were intruding. There were great stacks of timber placed all around the ghat and apparently the bereaved's family purchase the timber which is weighed and priced according to the quality of the wood. Sandalwood is the most expensive and the skill is in judging just how much wood you need to buy to ensure that the body is fully cremated. Once one funeral pyre burns out it is cleared and a new stack of wood is set up. A conveyor belt of the dead being dispatched with little or no ceremony. The process goes on seven days a week, all year long.
The ghats stretch along the river front and our travel book says that there are about eighty of them but only two are used for cremations and one of those actually uses electricity to perform the cremation so doesn't get as much attention. This is India so there were people everywhere with lots of hawkers and touts. Most of the touts were offering boat rides on the river to view the ghats from the water with sunrise and sunset being the busy times. There is a choice of rowing and motor boats of various capacities, some looking decidedly overloaded.
We went for a walked along the ghats in the evening to watch the puja religious ceremonies being performed and just to mingle with the mass of people. We even bought some little flower and candle floats and set them out in the water. We did manage to locate a small restaurant in the back alleys where we were able to get wifi Internet connection as well as some food.
A long day but very rewarding apart from the danger of the cow pats that litter the alleys everywhere