We met our friend on the platform and she offered us a ride in her pre-booked taxi (for $2000 she felt she was owed something back!). So we had a nice aircon car ride to the guest house. Our guest house was in an area called Assi Ghat. Ghats are Ganges riverfront steps where daily ceremonies are held. As we are coming out of a particularly heavy monsoon season the Ganges river water level is very high, this was immediately evident to us as we saw water half way down our road (no riverfront steps in sight, they were completely submerged!). This meant ceremonies are performed on drier land and we did manage to catch the end of a morning ritual when we arrived. We’re not too sure what it was for but 7 men dressed in orange sashes were waving fire around and chanting, with lots of locals joining in and praying.
Back to our lovely guesthouse, it had a nice aircon ensuite room and attached restaurant which looked modern and had lots of options (our stomachs need a break from all the spice). I got very excited when I saw beans on toast on the menu, dreaming of a tin of heinz slathered across two fluffy bits of thick wholemeal Hovis.... Out comes some monstrosity of spicy, undercooked beans in a pot next two two dry, chewy bits of bread (as Jess keeps reminding me, ‘Have no expectations!’). Luckily I added some eggs and chips to my breakfast order so not all was lost.
After breakfast we tuk tukked to the university where there was a museum. The museum was OK, the first room had loads of really small and detailed paintings of the hindu gods doing all sorts, some were very impressive but there wasn’t much description to them. There were also lots of religious sculptures and then some local fabrics and stuff. To be honest at this point in the trip, and with 75% humidity at 31 degrees, I struggled to have much interest in the museum. This lack of interest turned into irritation when walking around the Varanasi alleyways, this was by far the filthiest part of India we had been in. Heaps of steaming rubbish, rancid waste in the river water, a strong smell of sewage, and the people were just as pushy and even slightly more aggressive… and all I really wanted was some heinz beans on toast!
We decided to try and cool off with a Lassi. There was a famous Lassi shop somewhere within the allies, called Blue Lassie. This place did not disappoint. One chocolate, banana and coconut and one saffron and pistachio lassi later we were feeling a bit better.
We had organised to meet up with Mayra (our friend from the train) and head down to the area in Varanasi where they burn bodies (oh yeah, there’s also burning humans here too…). I should explain. The river Ganges is seen as holy water to Hindus and when they die they want to be burned by the sacred eternal flame at Varanasi and have their ashes scattered into the river. They believe that this will allow their soul to proceed directly to ‘nirvana’, without having to deal with karma or reincarnations (and go through the whole cycle of life yet again!). It’s quite a nice thought but this is a daily ritual, so many bodies are burned and thrown into the river, apparently some bodies don’t burn properly and just float along the river banks, bloated. People think it’s holy water so they bathe in it and drink out of it. The waiter in our guest house restaurant was convinced that due to the holiness of the water there is 0 bacteria in it and it is not just safe to drink, but it also cures ailments. I was not going in the water.
We saw the eternal flame and relented against some ‘hospice’ workers asking for donations and then headed to a rooftop for a ceremony. Normally the ceremonies are on the river steps but when water is high they have to do them elsewhere, this gives the local people a chance to cash in on seating on rooftops. When we arrived at the rooftop, 30 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the place was full but we got a good spot at the back where we could sit on some railings. However, in classic Indian style, in the next 30 minutes more and more people were ushered onto the rooftop. Packed like sardines, half the people couldn’t see what was going on (we struggled in the end) and quite a few left about halfway through. The ceremony consisted of 7 men dressed in the oranges sashes throwing flowers, singing and wafting fire around…. I’m sure it would have been better if the environment was different but it felt like another smack of being ripped off. (although we only paid about £2 each!)
Back to the guest house for bed. It may have come across in this blog but I’m not too keen on Varanasi! (Jess edit - it was also an interesting and unique place and the ceremonies were beautiful even if we were squashed in to watch them!)
Today we planned to go to Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna (as we all know). There were a couple of temples there and some suspiciously modern and well chiseled ruins. We got a tour guide who told us a load of stuff I have since forgotten but he did do a little prayer and said we had one wish each to come true but we couldn’t tell anyone (classic wish format). We also visited a Jain temple where we learned about this intriguing religion which branched off from Hinduism - most memorably the high priests are all naked, so we were shown a lot of photos of naked men addressing crowds, also as well as being strict vegetarians they don’t eat potatoes (or any vegetable you pull from the ground) because when you dig them up you harm small insects and microorganisms!
Later we went for dinner at a lovely traditional local restaurant with Mayra, we ordered way too much but it was all very tasty. We bundled back into a rickshaw for the journey home and passed out pretty promptly.