Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Varanasi - Gawkers, Ganges and Gowns.

Varanasi was the last stop in India before moving onto Nepal and to get there we had to sample the 12 hour sleeper train. The drive there was lined with cows and full beams replacing the horns of the day time traffic. Jhansi station was still teeming with people, and cows, as we boarded our train despite it creeping close to midnight. The compartments were nicer than western perceptions had us believe they'd be (or at least our carriage was) but they were entirely mixed and my berth was in a compartment with 5 other men...I can only thank our guide Manu for negotiating with a fellow passenger to let me swap beds with him so I could sleep in the same compartment as one of my travelling companions. Our bedding was given to us in a paper bag which was a surprising piece of luxury and as we finished making our beds my female companion and I turned around to see a row of men sitting up on the bed across from us looking at us. It was almost as if they were waiting for us to do something and was a bit off putting considering we were less than an hour into the trip and I wasn't keen on sleeping with one eye open. However, as soon as I swung a scarf round my head their interest seemed to wane - an example that it pays to respect the traditions of the country you are in if you don't enjoy unwanted attention. I would learn though that in countries like India, my pale and ginger colouring results in not so much a holiday but the winner of a "live like royalty for a fortnight" experience - experiencing both the good and bad parts of the job.

I donned my ear plugs and eye mask and got a surprisingly restful sleep despite screaming babies and waking up to strange men sitting at the end of my bunk. As they say, it's all part of the experience. By 7am everyone had pretty much vacated the compartment and the rest of the journey was quite pleasant, even the squat toilets were somewhat nice, although train toilets are definitely for the advanced squatter. There was calm before the storm as I enjoyed reading on the train in peace before arriving in Varanasi where all of it's 5 billion Tuk Tuk drivers offered to take us the two minute walk to our hotel.

The afternoon was spent recovering from the train ride resting in the hotel re-charging our western selves before being let loose on the streets of Varanasi. Situated along the holy River Ganges, Varanasi is constantly full of crowds and the roads become too narrow for tuk-tuks at a point and that's where all the crowds seem to double. Varanasi was more manic and rough than the other places we'd visited in India, that was until you got onto the Ganges where things were busy, yet peaceful. Pilgrims were bathing, tourists sitting in boats on their Ganges cruise, families mourning and lost gap yah's learning how to meditate. We did our duty as tourists and got on a boat for a cruise.

Every evening locals and tourists alike take part in the Ganga Aarti ceremony where a small offering is made to the Goddess Ganga. Traditionally aarti is a ritual involving fire and candles are often lit within a case made of flowers and released into the river while making a wish. Although this ceremony happens every night and although for many it is their first time, I doubt the beauty of the constellation of candles along the river fades easily with time. Back on land we attended a more grand example of Aarti with choreographed dancing with fire and incense sticks. Our guide had some mates on a bar with a balcony so we got a good view and as the sun set the night was lit up by people in colourful fabrics who crowded around stages with the smell of burning cow dung battling with incense to fill the air and even in the distance there were flashes of lightening concluding the sensory cacophony of Varanasi at night.

As the choreographed ceremony started, India's most famous show began: the monsoon rain. Somebody's wish to Ganga for rain came true as we swam through the streets to find a tuk-tuk which was harder than expected since tuk-tuks aren't allowed near the river side. The weather was a great testament to my Rab jacket which kept my whole top half dry against the personal dunk-tank that was the monsoon weather. We got back to the hotel and attempted to dry off before falling asleep to the cascade of rain and the chirping horns of urban India's wildlife.

The next morning we woke up in the dark and headed into Varanasi on a tuk-tuk through the unrecognisable dark and empty streets. In contrast, we were dropped off next to a parade of pilgrims who were chanting and at this time in the morning I couldn't help feeling somewhere between being caught in the middle of a rowdy stag-do still out from the night before, to being carted off to be sacrificed as we were being led alongside chants in an unfamiliar language and the beat of drums.

We paraded to the riverside and joined the motley crew of worshippers and bathers and rowed upstream to see the other ceremony that takes place on the Ganges. Cremation occurs on the Ganges as Hindus believe that this will break the cycle of rebirth and sets the soul free. Even before sunrise the cremation sites were active and it was quite a peaceful experience  and quite contrary to the tales that people have seen body parts float past them on the river. The sun peaked through as we headed back downstream and we pleaded with our guides to let us take them back down the river despite how feeble my rowing attempts were.

It was only 6:30am when we crawled back onto the streets of Varanasi where the idea that the smell of Indian streets can change from mouth watering-ly delicious to vomit inducing with every turn, is most apparent. We wound our way through alleyways where every second window was a shrine to a different deity and ended up on a manic main road in time for the school run. We completed another number on my Indian experience checklist by having a street chai in a clay cup alongside some fresh jalebi. After a short break back and the hotel we was whisked off to a silk emporium where we were met by a small, frail man with missing teeth but friendly eyes and a genuine smile who took us to see where the silk is woven. The factory was spread through several houses in the neighbourhood and employed over 700 people. It was less of a factory and more just like an exceptionally large production line because it was quite a relaxed environment and it seemed that every one of those 700 people had their own particular job from drawing a sleeve on graph paper to gluing a diamond on a wedding sari. At the end of the tour we were taken into Rozi Silk International were we said goodbye to our lovely little guide as he left us to sit on the gleaming white cushioned floor contrasting the rest of the factory sites.

There we were joined by Farooq Kahn who was the proprietor who wore a crisp white salwar kameez and had a perfectly preened moustache which curled as he saw two goriyaan in his silk shop. I was expecting to just get a sari and go but Mr Kahn had other ideas as he pulled out pillow cases, duvet covers and pashminas and waved them down on the ground with a flourish like a butterfly showing off it's wings. After falling in love with 6000 rupeeyay (£60)worth of duvet covers  he finally moved on to the saris. I fell in love with the first one he pulled out. It was a stunning turquoise silk with silver embroidery and also the most expensive one he had there. Love can make us do silly things and with that I justified the 16000 rupeeyay (£160) and didn't even try to bargain.

After some chai to help us recover from our purchases we were shuttled back out to a new tourist attraction at Sarnath which was the site of Buddha's first sermon. It was a nice area to walk around and a bit of a green oasis compared to the rest of the city. As an agnostic of sorts, I always enjoy learning about the stories behind the origin of religions but in the same way I enjoy reading Greek myths - I find them interesting but struggle to see their plausibility at times. We returned to the hotel after a exceptionally bumpy tuk-tuk ride which confirmed the fact that I still didn't quite know what side of the road they actually drive on. During dinner men from the Silk emporium came to deliver my tailored blouses for my saris and confirmed that the rest of our purchases had been packaged up to be sent home.

It had been a long day in Varanasi and our last full day in India but Varanasi had given everything characteristically Indian we could have wanted from monsoon rains, chai masala and chaos. Our next stop was across the boarder in Nepal and although I'd been charmed by India I was looking forward to the promise of a calmer country. Having returned to the UK since then I can only compare my first trip to India to a pregnancy - at the time you are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions and often more stressed than necessary but after it's all over you kind of forget that and before you know it you crave to do it all over again.

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