The Varanasi Trifecta

Today we’re scheduled for a boat ride along the Ganga river at sunrise, but due to morning gridlock we don’t quite make it in time. Not a big problem though, the sunrise is still beautiful when we do get there and hop in the long row boat. Along is a little girl selling flower-filled floats with a little candle inside which you light and put in the river to commemorate loved ones recently passed. The girl deftly jumps off to another boat as we pull out from Dr. Rajendra Prasasa Ghat.

Morning is when most of the people are bathing in the river and we see a lot of them at the main Ghat. The light if beautiful and we we take lots of photos. We go all the way down to the burning Ghat we visited yesterday before turning around and going back. Our guide this morning is much worse than Raj though and we’re thankful that we’ve already been given a much better explanation of everything that is going on.

We hop off at the Manikarnika burning Ghat where an untouchable is giving us a short tour of the process. I knew most of it but still give a 50 rupee bill when he’s asking for donations to the hospice. This draws the attention of another one of the workers there and he demands a donation as well, I tell him no, why should I do that? He hasn’t show or told me anything. He then grabs my arm as I walk away, something that I haven’t seen so far. This is definitely over the line and shout at him while breaking loose. Nothing serious happens though, he just slinks away and I’m able to rejoin the group. Once again we navigate a labyrinth of alleys to reach the bus and I can’t stop being absolutely fascinated about them.

Nurse Karlsson has been on about a Yoga class she’s read about in Lonely Planet and Ulrika and I tag along after breakfast to find the place. The Yogi is supposedly giving lessons every other hour throughout the day. We’re a bit late and have to resort to one of those “I’ll show you the way and you look in my shop”-guys in order to get there in time. Unfortunately he shows us the wrong place, the Yogi has moved to Australia three years ago a guy says. Our “guide” says he knows this other place though and we agree to at least check it out. Turns out that the other place actually was the one we were looking for and we’re just in time for the class to start!

The Yogi suggests an hour’s class after quizzing us on our experience and we agree. Then he’s off to a flying start with a, very fast, sun salutation. After seeing that we have a hard time keeping up he takes it down a notch though and the rest of the class is really enjoyable. This guy is more of the real thing and keeps the mumbo jumbo stuff mostly to himself. We do get to recite some mantras though, but that’s really part of the experience. I’m sweating like a sinner in church and in the end we’ve all gotten a great workout.

The Yogi asks us what our plans are next and we tell him that we’re heading for the German Bakery (which Petra had also read about in Lonely Planet). He warns us not to try the hard bread, “it’s awful!” We pay the guy 300 rupees for the class and leave after signing the sizable guest book. Finding the bakery isn’t as easy as we’d hoped though, the alleys are really narrow and when asking for directions the answers are really vague. In the process I get headbutted by a cow as well, does that count as a religious experience? When we eventually find it we realize that we’ve passed it no less than three times already!

The German Bakery sure looks like a bona fide hippie place with rugs to sit on at low tables. We find the hard bread in the menu, only to see it described as “Knaeckebrod”. =P Sadly enough they don’t have any today and I order a capsicum omelet since I’m curious to find out exactly what capsicum is. Turns out that it’s regular green pepper, or paprika, depending on where you’re from.

The service is remarkably slow and forgetful but at least it’s a moment of peace and quiet, something you don’t get that often in India. Before going back to the hotel though I have one more thing to cross off my list, and that is a dip in the Ganga river.

So we head back down to the river at Dasaswamedh Ghat which is the main bathing Ghat with steps leading down into the river. On the way we’re pestered by yet another salesman, it seems like he wants to shake my hand and sometimes that’s enough to make them go away. So I take his hand and he proceeds to take me into some sort of police grip! …until I realize he’s massaging me. Petra and Ulrika don’t even try to contain their laughter while I’m being attack-massaged right there in the blistering sunshine! Fifteen minutes later and 100 rupees poorer we’re on our way again and it’s finally time to brave the Ganga river. I keep my fivefingers on since there’s no telling what’s down on the bottom and descend down the steps down into the river. It doesn’t smell bad or anything, it’s just the color that’s more or less like mud. Both Petra and Ulrika document the event so that the others will believe me.

I don’t stay in long, just enough to get wet all over before going back up and returning to the hotel for a serious shower. I add a dip in the pool to get some chlorine for good measure before hooking up with Sara to go check the movie schedule at the mall. Turns out that the movie Raj recommended isn’t showing there so we just grab the schedule and return to the hotel. We agree on a movie called Robot and agree to try the Indian specialties at McDonalds.

We get the most expensive seats, which are 150 rupees, and head over to McD. Just as in the US the prices are excluding VAT which is always a source of annoyance. They have the awesome-sounding Chicken Maharaja Mac on the menu, which I get. Elin, who’s a vegetarian, get the Paneer Wrap. Both are really nice, but we don’t really have time to enjoy them since we’re already late for the movie.

We head over to the theater where it’s showing. It’s closed though and the staff informs us that they’re still cleaning it. I decide that there’s still time to buy some popcorn and get the largest one they have (which is smaller than the smallest one in Swedish movie theaters). Eventually they let us in and the movie starts almost immediately without any commercial whatsoever. It’s freezing in the theater and I regret not bringing a sweater. The movie is great though, so much better than I could’ve ever hoped for! It’s sort of an sci-fi action Romcom, with all the elements Indian cinema is known for: Singing and dancing sequences, cheesy overacting and bad slapstick. The script isn’t half bad though, and you actually get something out of the movie. Towards the end I realize that I’ve actually seen a review about this movie from MovieBob! Seems like he liked it just as much as I did, and I would definitely recommend seeing it. The lack of subtitles never was an issue since the overacting made it really easy to follow the plot anyway.

One funny thing was in one of the sequences Monto throws his hands up in disgust saying “South Indian dance!” Apparently there’s something really wrong with that because he’s not very happy. The rest of the audience is also loudly participating in the movie, shouting, clapping and generally cheering when the hero does something good. Too bad the volume is turned up to eleven so that we can’t hear them half of the time.

A Smell of Burning

This is the first day we’re sleeping in, the bus leaves at 10 am for some sight seeing where Sarnath, the place of Buddhas first sermon is among the sights. First is the temple they built there and it is decorated with a lot of neat murals depicting the life of Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Petra buys a neat book with explanations of Buddhas teachings which I also end up getting: “What would Buddha do? 101 answers to life’s hard questions”.

Onwards to the monument Dhamek Stupa, raised over the place of the first sermon. The guide is very particular about pointing out that it really wasn’t a sermon at all, rather a conversation with people. Buddha really disliked the preaching going on elsewhere so he chose to converse with people instead. The monument itself is more or less a solid cylinder of bricks some fifty meters high! I’ve never seen anything like it and it was awesome. The way they know it was real is because the British dug a shaft down the center of the thing. They found that it was indeed solid and only at the very bottom did they find a stone tablet, naming the place Dhamek and marking it as the place of the initial sermon.

We also visit a museum with a lot of old statues, including the Lion Capital of Asoka, the national symbol of India, which is polished to a shine even though it’s only sandstone, a technique said to be lost today. I’m a bit of a skeptic myself, I mean, how hard could it be? It’s obviously been done before =)

On the way back we also stop at a silk factory. Varanasi is famous for its silks and here we get to see how the cloths are made. The thread arrives here after being extracted from the cocoons, the actual silk worms are cultivated down south. Here it’s woven, either using “modern” method which involves an awesome punch card-programmed loom. These are the cheapest ones to make, the other method involves people keeping patterns in their head where one controls the threads coming into the loom and the other is doing the actual weaving. The latter method produces approximately 2 cm of cloth per day, obviously making it somewhat expensive.

We’re then taken upstairs where we’re show some of the finished products. The largest thing they make are bedspreads which go up to 44000 rupees. Both Piff and Puff end up getting some silk and Nina realizes that she’s forgotten her credit card. Ricard saves her by letting her use his, something that the staff thinks nothing of. Seems to be the standard around here, the women buying and the men paying.

Back at the hotel we grab some lunch before Elin, Sara, Nina, Börje and I head back downtown to see some sort of ceremony down by the Ganga river. We’re not sure what to expect but get a rickshaw as close we can get (the area closest to the river is closed off from traffic) and start walking. Soon we meet a guy called Raj, speaking excellent English who wants to show us the ceremony in exchange for us coming to his store. Since none of us really know what the ceremony is about we decide that this is a good idea, especially since his English is so good. He then goes on to say that he can show us the burning ghat as well and if we hurry we’ll be able to see the ghat first and then go straight to the ceremony.

This sounds great and we set off at a brisk pace through winding alleys filled with cows, goats, dogs and people. It’s really cool to see these alleys, especially in the evening with all the commotion still going on there. After a while we arrive at Harishchandra ghat and he explains in great detail how the ceremony is performed. As a person dies, the family has 24 hours to bring the body to Varanasi and the Ganga river and burn it, if they fail the soul will not enter Moksha and instead be reborn. This goes for all of India, which obviously is problematic if you live far away, so there are also hospices where the old are cared for awaiting their demise.

Upon death the body is stripped, placed under open sky and rubbed with honey, yogurt, sandal powder, ghee and honey. The body is then wrapped in a white cloth if it’s a man and a red cloth if it’s a woman, a stretcher is fashioned from two bamboo sticks and the body is carried down to the river all the while the family is chanting a mantra. Women are forbidden to participate in this part of the ceremony as they are deemed overly emotional and not without cause; several times it has happened that women have jumped into the fire when their husband has been burning. They also tent to cry a lot, which makes the soul feel guilty about entering Moksha and instead staying with them. For the same reason the family must leave the fire and not turn around while doing so. After the three hours or so it takes to burn the body, the final step is taking a clay pot and filling it with Ganga water. This is used to douse the fire and the ashes are put into a large heap which is then sifted through during a couple of morning hours when no burning takes place searching for valuables such as rings and gold teeth.

The job of burning is for the untouchables, the very lowest caste, they also get to keep whatever valuables they find when sifting the ashes. I was surprised to see the young man tending the fire was very well dressed, I’d though that all the untouchables were really poor. Not the case says Raj, caste has nothing to do with money really, he is for instance brahmin, the highest caste, and if he where rich, he wouldn’t be here talking to us.

There are a few people who aren’t burned: Sadhus and children under five aren’t since they are already pure, lepers as they are they think that it would spread disease, people killed in accidents (unnatural deaths) are taken to the electrical crematorium, people bitten by cobras also get special treatment, I forget why.

We’re not allowed to linger too long, since the ceremony is about to start. Another brisk walk along the Ganga where we marvel at the fact that the river was about 10 meters higher just a month or so ago when it was monsoon season. It can be seen by the plentiful mud drying on the shore. We get a really good spot for the ceremony which really isn’t all that interesting but very good at setting the mood. It’s a lot of drumming and fire being passed around to honor the river.

It’s time to go visit Raj’s shop, and we all agree that he’s done a splendid job. Turns out that they have some very nice shawls and other doodahs so we end up shopping for a rather handsome amount. One of the guys working there are really happy about my cricket t-shirt since it’s his team, but he’s disappointed that I don’t really know anything about them.

On the way back to getting a rickshaw I ask Raj what movies he’d recommend seeing. He says that he doesn’t go to the movies because people are always shouting, cheering and clapping even making it hard to follow the movie. Since this is exactly what I’d been looking for I’m excited and he says that we’ll be able to catch a movie at the shopping mall right next to our hotel.

Back at the hotel the WiFi still isn’t okay, the guy tells me the technician is away buying antivirus to fix the connection. Good luck with that….

Varanasi Dance Club

Since the hotel lacks a restaurant we get toast and egg served at the room. The language is yet again a problem when an order of two black coffees and a tea turn into one coffee with milk and two tea. The others share similar stories as we load up on the bus to go to Varanasi.

This road is by far the crappiest one we’ve encountered. In 2 h we only get 60 km and at times it’s like being at sea as the bus is swerving so much. We also get a tire puncture, which is really interesting as we then get to see how you fix a tire, Indian style.

We stop at one of the many small shacks that has a pile of tires outside and a guy quickly removes the tire, dismantles it and finds the hole. It looks a lot like fixing a bike tire actually and pretty soon he has also located the nail stuck in the tire and removed it. He seems to be looking for additional holes for quite a while though and we’re sort of wondering why he doesn’t use regular soap water. His method of just listening and inspecting seems a lot more inefficient…

Among the onlookers there is an engineering student that I talk to, he can explain about the motor the tire guy is using to feed the compressor and also shows me his student literature. Turns out he’s studying to be a building engineer and his books are filled with different engineering drawings. All literature is in English as well, interesting.

The road to Varanasi is uneventful and we get there in the afternoon. We’re staying at the nice hotel Surya that has a really nice restaurant. Service is slow as we’re now used to getting the food in 20 minutes but tastes great! We move on to the bar for some drinks and I see that I can finally get a proper umbrella drink! After a really long wait the drinks arrive but even though we saw the guy putting liquor in them, they don’t taste like it. They’re so weak that we might as well be drinking juice.

We don’t let that stop us though and we get the waiter to bring us an entire bottle of rum and a bunch of cokes. That, some beer and maybe some tried and true “fjortisfylla” gets us going and we end the evening on the dance floor up on the roof where the DJ is playing some weird Dubstep/House music, Tommie would not approve. Elin is mesmerized by her shadow on the wall as there is a light down on the floor, I sprain my wrist and Thorstein gets upset with Lars for not dancing well enough. Good times! =D