Monday, January 31, 2011

Varanasi: Burning, burning, burning, burning (and murdering a sitar)

I ventured out alone last night, with Liv still ill in bed,  to wander the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Godaulia just to see what would happen. I was again on my guard for hassle, but none was forthcoming (well, not much).  All roads lead to the Ganges and eventually I found myself strolling along the ghats.

I'd heard all about the burning ghats but not much prepares you for seeing human bodies going to meet their maker in such a graphic way. Huge piles of wood marked the beginning of the burning ghat, and silhouettes under white shrouds gave me a very strange feeling; I've never experienced death so close up before. The Hindus seem very happy for people to show you around and explain what is happening. They burn 250 bodies per day. The workers build a pyre, then the body is dunked in the Ganges to 'cleanse' it, left to dry for a while, then put on a bed of differing types of wood, depending on what the family can afford. There's no bad smell, as they use sandalwood powder and ghee to increase burning time (and I assume hide the smell). I stood literally next to these fires and it was a very ethereal, morbid and fascinating experience.

Then I wandered back along the ghats to where the evening's puja ceremony was taking place. 6 men, identically dressed, stood on high red platforms and wafted lots of fiery things, feathery things and sprinkled water everywhere. As per usual, I had no idea what was going on. Lots of bells were rung and I joined in a bit by lighting a candle and sending it off down the Ganges as a 'prayer'. It was a beautiful ceremony, but again a reminder of how far I am (and ever could be) from 'getting' India. I guess this is why it is so compelling as a tourist destination.

I again wandered (lots of wandering in Varanasi) fairly anonymously back to my lovely guest house, via an Indian classical music concert where I had lemon tea, which I'm addicted to (as well as chai).

A group of girls had taken over the kitchen and were cooking rice, chapatis and chutney, so I joined them for dinner.

Went to bed nice and early, but spent the wee small hours being disturbed by an incredibly noisy Indian family who moved into the room next door to us. Their light floodlit our room and after much shouting, and wailing of small children, eventually they stopped. I got up at 5.30am (again) and took a boat down the Ganges. It was lovely and peaceful, and I again stopped by the burning ghats, as well as watching the morning bathers taking a dip in what must have been freezing (a well as filthy) water. I again got to see the sun rise, this time over the banks of the Ganges opposite the city.  The sun was such a perfect, orange circle it looked as if someone had cut a hole into the sky, revealing an orange backdrop.

One of the strangest moments of today was getting knocked out of the way by a funeral procession, I think I very nearly touched some death. I then went for my long awaited sitar lesson with an ancient old man in someone's house. I expected to be able to do nothing, but the scales he taught me were easy to remember and I could get something like a tune out of it by the end. I guess musical theory in some way translates West to East, though I'm not entirely sure how. Now it's time to read, write, relax (maybe have a nap?) and then get on the train to freezing Darjeeling. I have a bit f a sore throat and feel a little run down, so hopefully some mountain air will do me good.

Namaste x

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