Were you eagle eyed enough to spot the (uncorrected because I can’t be bothered) mistake in the last post? Red Fort was actually in Delhi, in Agra is Agra Fort, so mentally move that part of the post to the previous one.
The exciting news is that this gives me the opportunity to include a shot of yet another baoli! It’s a pretty boring one, with a steel grating over it, though marked as a baoli. And quite tricky to find despite asking at least 10 staff, it is more of a well, unless maybe the steps were filled in some time in the past.
Generally railway stations, though busy, bustling crowded places, are quite sedate – if that is not a contradiction. There are families sitting, eating, sleeping waiting patiently for their train. A wave of people leaves on a train, the station fills up again and the cycle repeats.
Agra station was different. For a start, every other station I have boarded a train has illuminated signs along the platform that tell you where your carriage is, but not in Agra. More than that, there was a lot of young men, some of them standing blatantly staring at Sheila, while not threatening, it was decidedly creepy.
Suddenly we have some people attach themselves to us, but instead of the touts and hasslers it is Nicola from the UK and Eddie from Scotland. With all the creepy, but apparently harmless, openly staring men they felt more comfortable in a “safety in numbers” situation, we all got on well and shared stories and they told us about the hotel they were heading to in Varanasi, so it was a fortuitous meeting.
Then the train arrived. I have seen some mad moments and this was one of them. All the young men were in general seating i.e. no reserved seats, so there was an insane rush for the train with about 20 guys at each door jostling and pushing tying to get into an already crowded carriage that people were likely trying to get out of.
The trains come into a station quite slowly, perhaps this is not official policy, but I think it is to allow people to jump on and off before it stops with out actually killing themselves. So we got to see our carriage go past (they are all clearly marked – mostly) and keep going down the platform. This meant we had to jostle through the already jostlers and work our way down to our carriage. The train was 45 minutes late and I was a bit concerned it might do a stop and go like the buses, so I was leading the foray past families sitting eating and sleeping with men forming a bit of a barrier to stop them being trampled…not in a dangerous trampling sense, but it would have been not pleasant to have either young guys or us in the middle of their chappatis.
I guess on Back to the Future Day I can romanticise and say that we woke up in Varanasi, time and location having changed while we slept. The usual auto ride through busy streets, this one more fun because we are jammed into an auto with Nicola and Eddie and their backpacks. I get to
sit hang on in the front with the driver – I am reminded of a time when sailing on a big boat Cruz Control and a wrist strap caught on the boom and it swung out over the side of the boat way out in the ocean with me hanging on. Can’t decide which was more dangerous.
The auto can’t get us quite to the Sarai River View Hotel, the last 100m or so is down some narrow lanes, I remind Sheila that at the end of every dingy lane is a surprisingly great hotel. Up to a room and there in front of us is a balcony with a most wonderful view over Assi Ghat and the Ganges.
The story we heard was that The Ganges was formed when the goddess Shiva took a shower and is the holiest of Hindu places, it is likely one of the most polluted of India’s places. If Shiva is anything like us, she took multiple showers a day to wash off the sweat, the grime and the Ganges water, but I can’t find a reference to that.
Just south of where we were staying was the Assi river, or more appropriately, the Assi cesspool cum drain. It is the most vile waterway I have seen and it flows directly into the Ganges just upriver from the intake towers for the city’s drinking water.
How are we going with the picture I am trying to paint of the state of The Ganges? Let me continue…
At monsoon time the river comes up and dumps metres of silt along the ghats. For the next few months they use high pressure hoses to wash the silt back into the river clearing the ghats… they haven’t finished yet this year and some places were quite treacherous. The 1984 flood record is marked on some very high walls about a metre or so from the top, can only imagine what it looked like.
Add to the river the fact that most of India is not sewered. A Lonely Planet guide statistic from 2009 says that the safe levels of E. coli is 500 parts per million but the water was measured at 1.5 million ppm (the link above says it is far worse). Doesn’t stop people swimming, washing, bathing and being interred in it.
Which leads to one of the things Varanasi is noted for, the cremation ghats. We headed to the old city and stopped for a sugar cane juice. Walla didn’t have any change so bloke standing there helped us out a bit.
It is important that I define “helping out” because it is a recurring theme for the day. When a person offers to help – and I admit this is only 99.99% of the time – it means they have something to sell. This guy hooked up with us and wanted to take us to his shop despite me telling him we didn’t want to buy anything. As we walked he was always just behind our just ahead or just over the road keeping pace. We ducked into an alley being suddenly interested in sandals, for a while I thought we had lost him, but there he was waiting for us to emerge. Note to self: next time duck into shop in alley so he can’t see you in alley.
Down a lane pointing to the Vishnawath Temple, our first planned stop. Helper is still with us. I can’t remember quite how it happened but he stopped helping us only to be replaced (or was it usurped?) by someone else who helped us when a shopkeeper didn’t understand English.
This helper stuck with us for almost 2 hours. I made it clear we weren’t interested in buying anything but he hung in there knowing a softie when he spotted Sheila.
In fact he was a pretty good guide, he explained lots of things, took us to the cremation ghats (wait for it…) and the government bhang shop. This one sells ganga overlooking The Ganga. And what a range they had, balls, cakes, patties and no doubt other delights. This is for locals only apparently.
It ended up that we couldn’t get into the temple, you need your passport and I don’t carry mine when not heading to a new city. So we wound our way down to the main cremation ghat and were handed to a guy who specifically told us he didn’t want to help (if you get my drift) but ended up being more helpful than we expected.
Up a couple of flights off stairs to a balcony in the building and we were directly overlooking the cremation fires – we were close enough that it was hot and smoky. Bodies are wrapped in cloth then covered in a bright outer wrapping of material and carried to the ghat through the alleys on bamboo stretchers with someone walking ahead calling that they are coming through. We saw this once and as you would, respectfully stepped aside.
Once at the river the body is rinsed briefly in the water, left to dry for a while then placed on a pile of timber which is set alight by a family member. The flame comes from Shiva’s fire that we were told has been burning continuously for 2,500 years.
At any one time there are 8 or so cremations at various points of completion; some just started, some partly burned, some finished. They burn over 200 bodies a day and it is all very matter of fact with guys using long bamboo poles to stoke the fires and “rearrange” the contents – I will leave the detail at that despite the whole process being quite graphic at times. Obviously no photos allowed and it isn’t something I would have photographed anyway.
We went in fully understanding that a donation towards wood for cremation was expected. It was explained to us by the guy who was becoming more and more helpful that people come there to die and his organisation helps them at the end of their life. They are often poor and wood is Rs150/Kg with quite a bit needed each time.
This sounded like a good thing to support so I gave a woman we were introduced to Rs1,000 ($10). Sheila was then told money had to come directly from her hand so she handed over 100. Then we were introduced to another woman and were expected to hand over money again. No way I was funding that much again so we each handed 100 and in return received a WTF withering glare. Now if the money is going into a slush fund to help the poor, why does it matter who we give it to? Just sayin’.
Once outside, the helpful guy who assures us he wasn’t helping is suddenly very helpful “something for me and my family and baby daughter?”. Another 200 and while the value isn’t a lot, I hand it over with gritted teeth feeling like we have been spun another story.
Every one has a story. Another guy the next day told us he has met John Saffran and had been in the Race Around The World series. Despite assuring us he wasn’t at all helpful he also had something to sell.
Back at the ghat we have emerged into the alleys and of course helpful guy is ready continue the tour. Because Sheila feels obliged we end up back at his shop which, as I suspected, has nothing that interests us. I say to helpful guy that we are leaving, we appreciate his help and hand him Rs200. He looks at me and says “is that all?” and while not exactly snapping, I have had enough, decide to say what is on my mind and tell him “you followed us, we told you we didn’t want you to, be thankful you got that” which – shock horror! – worked and he shut up and walked off.
We now have a code phrase that we say to each other, “I think he is trying to help” which means one of us has realised that here we go again.
I could go on and on about Varanasi. We spent 3 days here and watched evening services, took a sunset ride on the river, did yoga at dawn, ate at great restaurants, bought clothes, had a massage and finished it with Sheila getting Varanasi Assi, but I didn’t – after almost 6 weeks I think I am now immune.
Oh one more thing. Varanasi also has a baoli and this one was especially cool as it is a working stepwell. There is an active temple adjoining it and women wash their clothes in the water. It is the best maintained of all I have seen.
You will be either pleased or disappointed to know that I think I have run out of baoli…but we haven’t checked at our next stop, Bodhgaya.