We feel like we’re on the home stretch now, and we’re both ready to call it a day, that’s for sure – tired, worn out, I’m still sick with the flu (was I ever well?), and fed up with being hassled and stared at and bullshitted to. This country is hard work!
We had a good breakfast on the courtyard lawn of the Hotel Surya, but then they tried to rip us off as we left, by attenpting to charge us 500 instead of the 200 Rs we were quoted last night. Of course we didn’t accept this, but it was very disappointing. We walked to the nearby Indian Airlines office to confirm our flight, then walked for a while further until we got in an auto-rickshaw down to Dashashwamedh Ghat (the main ghat – steps leading down to the water – in Varanasi). The road leading down to the ghat is blocked to auto-rickshaw and car traffic, so we still had a way to go; so we squeezed into a cycle rickshaw and were taken through the crowded streets down to the Ganges.
Our first sight of the Ganges was an impressive and exciting one; I had the feeling that I was always going to have to come here eventually and I was fulfilling some predetermined moment. That sounds melodramatic, but I think it’s because of the aura of mystique the river has always had in history and religion. People were all over the steps leading down to the wide river, a line of mud flats and then green shore off in the distance on the other side. We walked along the ‘promenade’ on the shoreline until we found a sign, then up steep steps into the narrow alleyways of the old city, and eventually found the Vishnu Rest House. Got a great, plain concrete room with a little balcony overlooking the river for 150 Rs.
We had a snack, I wrote in this diary, then we went out. I had a strange little bout of shakiness after walking for a bit but I was okay – probably just exhaustion. We sat for a while on the shore and watched people go by. There were lots of tourists wandering around, touts trying to get you on a boat trip, men wanting to shake your hand so they can trick you into a massage, a little girl selling flowers to throw into the river (I gave her 2 Rs while I was waiting for K to buy tika powders), a saffron-robed and grey-bearded sadhu carrying an iron trident, well-dressed middle-class Indian couples out for a stroll, dreadlocked ferals sitting on the steps getting stoned, men coming up close to quietly say “ hello… change money… good hash?”, sipping chai, watching the boats…
After a while we started walking north along the ghats and passed an amazing series of crumbling ghats and mud caked steps, until we turned a corner and stumbled upon the otherworldly sight of Manikarnika Ghat – apparently the ‘oldest and most revered’ (according to Lonely Planet) of the ghats, and one of the two on which cremations take place. The place was unbelievable – huge stacks of logs surrounded it, and on two platforms fires blazed, consuming the dead. We soon got talking to a man with teeth stained red from chewing betel-nut, who took us up some steps next to the platform for a close look down on the funeral pyres. He told us it takes about 3 hours for the body to burn, and costs a minimum of 5000 Rs. Young people were burnt in a white shroud, older people in different coloured shrouds according to their age. No one cried at that place he said, it was just the body going back to the elements – earth, fire, water, air and spice. He said he worked at the hospice which overlooked the ghat, where people came to die, and of course asked for a donation as we left, but I was happy to give him 100 Rs – if it really does go to the hospice great; if not the experience and the information was worth every cent.
As I watched a skeleton burn, a man used a stick to push the leg up – breaking backwards from the kneebone – and back into the fire. Shrouded bodies awaited the building of the next pyre by sweating, half-naked men. A grey-black scum of ash floated on the water.
With lungs full of smoke and heads full of wonder we walked back to Dasaswamedh Ghat.
We headed back up the road towards a restaurant and discovered that the area was a lit up, busy market at night, brightly coloured cloth everywhere. We walked down a colourful, narrow shopping alley that sold material, women’s cosmetics, bangles and necklaces, and then up and down the street, until the restaurants served dinner at 7 pm. Average food, but a good position overlooking the street.
At one point as we were wandering suddenly everything went black – there’d been a power cut. Up started the generators and soon the lights were running on again. The walk back through the alleys and along the misty, quiet shoreline was slightly unnerving though.
With both equally glad we’ve come here and recaptured some of the wonder of being in India, after our crazy week.