Four Countries in 2 Weeks: Turkey, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India
India Day 2 – Touring Varanasi with a boat ride down the Ganges, witnessing bodies burning in funeral ceremonies, then catching a flight to Mumbai.
Having been continuously inhabited since ~1,200 BC, Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. In terms of religion, followers from all over the world come to visit the holiest of the Hindu cities. It also had a role in the development of Buddhism.
Bill and I had almost a full day to explore the city.
After a quick curry fueled breakfast, we stepped out of the hotel Rivatas and were surrounded by rickshaw drivers. Hopping into the first one, we were off to the riverside of the Ganges.
Our driver eventually found a hole in the chaotic street to stick his vehicle in and led us down some narrow alleys to show us the river.
Arriving onto the large stone steps, the river appeared behind a morning haze. Again we were surrounded. This time by boat drivers yelling out ridiculous tour prices. Within two minutes of haggling, the price of a river tour dropped to a tenth of the original (300 rupees instead of 3,000).
The dark skinned mustache-sporting rower explained that he himself drinks from the holy river and mumbled “facts” as we made our way down the river.
The numerous ghats, steps leading into the water, were all owned and decorated differently. We went all the way until one of the burning ghats where the man said we could not take pictures.
Getting off the boat we were approached by a so-called caretaker of the ghat. The young boy was adamant that he was not a guide and only wanted to explain the customs of India for us. I’m sure our rupees never crossed his mind.
We brushed off the onslaught of peddlers and watched the ceremony from above, next to some rambunctious cows.
Our driver walked by and said he was going to have tea and not to talk to anyone. Seconds after he left, a man came over and launched into a tirade describing how untrustworthy and bad our driver was.
We had planned to walk back anyway, so we didn’t mind parting ways with the shady driver who had some obvious enemies. On his return and despite his protests, we paid him and told him to be on his way.
Staying a bit longer, we observed the process of preparing the wood, laying the body, the priest’s religious ceremony and then setting the whole thing ablaze.
When one of the cows almost rammed us, we decided to move into town and search for the Golden Temple.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Down the narrow crowded alleys lined with shops selling clothing, religious items and tourist fare, we got lost several times and had to ask for directions. Eventually passed several heavily armed police checkpoints, we found the indiscreet entrance to the temple.
Police standing around a single metal detector turned away people with bags and frisked peopled going down the path to the temple. Stores with lockers were conveniently located next door.
Not too trusting of the stores with our valuables, Bill and I took turns entering the forbidden temple.
The Golden Temple is possibly the most important temple in the Hindu religion dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was rebuilt many times and the current structure dates back to 1780. The nickname comes from the two gold-plated pinnacles of the temple.
Unfortunately the guards could somehow recognize that we were not Hindu and would not grant us access to the temple. So we could only see it from the inner gate.
We walked to the riverside and made our way back to our starting point.
From the priest who gave a blessing by running his wet Ganges soaked fingers through our hair to the head masseuses with horrendous looking hands, every single person we ran into was trying to squeeze a rupee from our pocket.
We walked by the laundry area, where clothes are freshly washed in the river and laid out to dry and ended our walk at another burning ghat. As we stood watching another human bonfire, specks of corpse ash drifted in the air and into our eyes and mouths.
It was indeed time to go.
The visit was interesting and definitely unique. But all your senses will be challenged and your mind running in high-gear to deal with the tourist preying hawkers.
With a much needed shower, we rinsed off and relaxed in the hotel lobby with a coffee in preparation for our midnight tour of Mumbai.
The noisy propellers of the ATR 72 sprung to life and we were off to our connection in Calcutta, but this time we had no intention of leaving the airport.
Before we knew it our layover was over and we were boarding for Mumbai.