Arriving in Varanasi was a relief but I had my screw face on and my chest out, waiting for the blaze of touts ready to storm me. According to the Lonely Planet, Varanasi has some of the most aggressive touts in India. I was fully ready. I didn’t see any immediately as I was helped by the nice and friendly tourism office at the station. I wish every station had one of these. The fella inside sorted me out a map and gave me vital information on scams, tuk tuk charges and cheap hostels. Proper legend. So far, so good.
By the time I landed in the centre of the city, Godaulia, the full force of pollution hit me and the touts circled. The smells, the rush, the upbeat city life. Varanasi has a cloud over it, day and night. I could taste the pollution in my mouth. I could feel the filth gathering on my face. I stepped off the cycle rickshaw gasping for air. A tout embraced me immediately. He looked like he had a drug habit of some kind. I told him to go away in my usual firm but fair manner. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I asked him nicely to go away. He carried on talking about his shop and giving me dud information on Varanasi. I told him to stop following me. He carried on, adding he owned many shops and hostels all over India. I stopped for some street food, shook his hand and pointed him away from me. He continued babbling shit i couldn’t and didn’t want to understand. I tried the ‘fuck off mate you’re really pissing me off’ route and I thought he got the message. He shuffled off. What a creep. I find it a shame on Varanasi that I write this. This junkie gives the city a bad name. He’s done enough to annoy me but I continued to go find the Shanti Giest House down by the Ganges.
I didn’t get away that easy, my little friend magically reappears at the very next corner. His pursuit of his commissions and my animated rejections continued for half an hour. I tried asking people to help me get rid of him, but he insisted I was his new friend. I explained to the desperate man that in the western world we call this stalking, which is a crime. He still wanted to show me to an excellent hotel he knew. He was deluded and desperate. Looking back, I feel pity for the man, but at the time, I almost hit him.
In the end I shrugged him off in a blaze of smoke booming from the Manikarnika Ghat by the Ganges. I located the legendary Shanti Guest House down an alley full of rubbish, animal shit, human urine and huge resting cows. This place is filthy but it’s interesting. I lost gumbo. Brucie.
The Shanti Guest House offers 100R a night accommodation, basic and clean with a no smiles service. I meet a nice bunch of people on the rooftop, a mixture of nationalities. We eat dinner and agree to head down to the free boat ride of the Ganges in the morning, hoping to see if the stories are true. Varanasi has captivated me.
Varanasi is the City of Light founded by the legend himself, Mr Shiva. It is one of the oldest living cities, With its religious history dating back to six centuries BC. Varanasi is one of the holiest tirthas that allow a devotee access to the divine, with the ability for gods and goddesses to pop up and down to Earth. Hindus believe that the river Ganges purifies the living and brings salvation to the dead. Anyone that dies in Varanasi, gets cremated in a public ceremony and has their ashes put into the Ganges stops the circle of reincarnation and earns them instant enlightenment (Nirvana). There are a hundred ghats that line the Ganges with each one having a specific story and role to play in the Hindu religion. Thousands of Indians visit as pilgrims whilst westerners are fascinated by the open cremation rituals and ancient history. No pictures are allowed of the burning ceremonies.
So its early doors, 6am and I meet Linda, the Irish girl from last night. I’ll admit it, she’s hot. India has starved me of hot western girls, but this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have done the boat trip if she hadn’t. I’m not that easily led.
The boat ride took a group of the Shanti backpackers along the Ganges from Manarkana Ghat south to the Asi Ghat and back again whilst the sun rose over the foggy, polluted horizon. Our strong boatman and guide explained and showed us the religious ritual of burning the bodies, the story behind the Haveli’s and who owns the ghats. I challenged our guide about the myth of floating dead bodies. He said its true. I’ll explain; the pure, such as cows, pregnant woman and children are not burned, they are simply folded together, tied to a rock and dropped in the middle of the Ganges. The people who die from disease or Cobra bites go the same way but I can’t remember why. When the climate is correct, some bodies who were not tied properly or were not digested by the fish float to the top. There were many things floating in the river when I was there but none were dead bodies.
Over the next three days a lot was explained to me regarding the death process. I witnessed a lot of religious rituals and a lot of touts trying to make money. The good the bad the ugly all exist in this intriguing city, and I witnessed it all.
The Death Process Explained
Once dead, the family wrap the body in the family home in a white cloth and decorate with a traditionally colourful scarf, usually red, pink and orange. The male contingent of the family would then put the body on a bamboo stretcher and march it through Godaulia alley ways down to the Manikarnakia Ghat chanting in unison. Between 250 to 300 bodies are taken to the burning ghat everyday. There is no need to book, there is always a constant supply of wood and people there to help. Women are not allowed at the burning of their loved ones. It was banned around 60 years ago after several women jumped onto the fire. It was also claimed that women are too emotional and that only the stronger men should be present.
The wood is purchased and laid on the floor in the correct place. There are three separate stages for your body to be burnt. One is for everyday people, the gigher stage is for politicians and important business people whilst the third stage, the highest and smallest is reserved for royalty. Money must be paid to the wood people and the untouchable Maharaja for the fire from the eternal flame. This eternal flame has been alight for many years, some believe it to be over 3000 years old. The flame, a pile of logs that burns gently, and the burning ghats have always been looked after by the untouchables since the the beginning of time.
The wood is placed on the floor, the body is stripped down to the white cover sheet and placed on top of the wood. Some more wood is placed on top and some sandalwood to take away the smell of the flesh when it burns. There can be up to twelve bodies burning at once.
The eldest son or the father of the dead would shave there head to symbolise the loss. They would then take some hay, light it from the eternal flame, walk around the body five times and then light the fire.
The body takes up to three hours to burn. When the body has finished burning, the ladies hips and the mans rib cages are the only parts left over. These are tossed into the Ganges. The family leaves and the ashes are collected together in a huge pile by the river edge. There is a team of men which then sift through the ashes searching for jewellery. It’s finders keepers rules.
I stood for many hours watching and observing. The bodies burning slowly, the white cover sheets burns first, then the flesh. Many people watch, family members, tourists and touts. Which leads me nicely onto my Varanasi scam exposure.
Men hang around the ghat waiting for tourists to scam (here is a scammer I papped for you). They pretend to help a family by lifting a few logs, pretending they work at the ghat. They say they are volunteers and start to explain the history and death procedure. Their English is good. Linda and I decided the fella was OK so we indulged in what we thought would be a free history lesson cautious if the scam ahead. He then walked us around to various sections confirming where you can and can’t take photos. Leading us up into the so called women’s hostel, alarm bells ringing, we climbed the stairs to meet a woman sitting on the floor. She asks you to bend down and she gave Linda and I some kind of blessing. Walking into the empty room, it was clear that the scammers were circling. The nice and friendly guide, sorry volunteer was then replaced by a hard sales guy. He clearly had a drug habit and years of pan had rotted his teeth red. He claimed the poor women needed fire wood and rolled off huge amounts of money needed to burn the poor. Linda and I told him to go away and made a move for the door, the women on the floor were calling and stretching their arms out to us. Escaping back downstairs the tout hadn’t finished with us yet, he was shouting at us that we have bad karma and bad things will happen to us. Karma is something that affects all of us, my karma points are secure and safe in the bank of good. I’m certain of it. The shame if it all is that there are people who are willing to scam tourists, using the holy site of the Ganges and dead pilgrims as the bait. It’s disgusting and disrespectful, to the people of India and to the Hindu religion. I was appalled. The families burning their loved ones had no idea of the scams happening under their own noses.
Ten kilometres away is a beautiful and historically important place for Buddhists called Sarnath. The awakened one Buddha gave his first sermon here and set in motion ‘The Wheel of Law’, the Dharmachakra. Over the centuries Buddhism flourished in its native country until the Muslims invaders forced Buddhism out. The original Monasteries relics are still there along with some new spectacular monuments. The site only refurbished in the last 100 years after it lay derelict for many years, is now a tourist hotspot. It’s beautiful here, calm compared to the city life
of Varanasi. Some people come to the Tibetan monastery and ashram for the hardcore ten day vipassana meditation course.
We visited a Jain temple where a friendly man told us about the history of Jainism and the differences between itself and Buddhism. The monks are naked. They have minimal possessions. It’s a peaceful religion. He shows us a flip chart of photos ranging from naked monks posing for photos, to Muslims chasing the naked monks! The talk fascinating and at times hilarious he has earned his donation. I finally felt educated about the so far mysterious Jainism religion I knew nothing about. Legendary performance. It’s amazing how a naked man perks up any lecture on religion.
On returning to the city, Linda and I feel inclined to have a drink of alcohol so we search for an English wine store. Asking a man for directions, he offers to squeeze us on his motorbike and take us. Driving, as only the Indians can, we navigate our way through to the wine store to buy a slightly cheap bottle of rum. Racing through the streets to get back for our 5pm boat ride seems to be becoming more and more unrealistic. The streets turned into alleys. The three of us on a bike squeezing past pedestrians, flying past alley shops. It was a buzz. He dropped us off, late for our boat trip. Only in India eh.
That night, once the rum had settled into our bloodstream, we headed out to the 7pm ceremony down by the Man Mandir Ghat with an English couple. Pilgrims and tourists flock to see the Brahmin priests complete a ceremony thanking the Ganges and Shiva for it’s powers.
That night we talked on the rooftop until the early hours, the rum numbing the fifty mosquitoes having dinner on my leg. By the marks they left, I must have lost several pints of blood.
So far, no Delhi belly, no runners in the toilets, in fact, my stools have been soft to firm but never runny. I was proud of this. Talking about your stools is common place in India, loose motions is something foreigners experience at least once in their travels. I ate street food, I was careful but I have enjoyed all the local delicacies with no issues.
Ten hours of vomiting followed. Hard vomiting….all night long.
I have never experienced anything like this. Ever. This must be worse than child birth. The after effects rolled on for a week. Antibiotics, Himalayan black pepper, Imodium, alko salzers and digestion tablets finally got me right. Some complete strangers helped me get water and food when I was too weak to even walk. I was a mess. Their kind and selfless help rescued me. They had super size violins and they played them ever so softly for me. My amazing time in Varanasi ending on a low but again, I’m experiencing new things. There’s always a positive if you look hard enough.
Traumatised but on the road to recovery and a few days behind schedule, I am attempting to do Agra and Delhi. I think this calls for a new blog post. End of sermon.