What do you think about when you think of India? Bathing in the Ganges, burning people by the Ganges, poor people, cows? Well, whatever your brain connects to India is probably in Varanasi. Considered one of the most holy of Hindu cities, dying here is said to stop the rebirth cycle (roughly equivalent to a go directly to heaven card). So, lots of people try to get there to die. If you can't die there, at least you can be cremated there. Or come to swim in the sacred (but heavily polluted) Ganges during your life. And we have pictures of all of those things!
We arrived late in the evening, but got up at 5am to go walk along the Ganges, see people starting to do their ritual bathing, and to take a boat ride along the river. After arguing hard, I managed to talk the boat guy down from his ridiculous asking price of $4 for the hour to a more reasonable $3. (The tourist office told us not to pay more than $2.50, but Tara started giving me nasty looks during the negotiation process...) Here is another boat like ours, though we were alone on ours. Note that the smog is so heavy that sunrise really just means the sky becomes a brighter gray.
Along the river are what are called ghats, which is like a gnat, but with an "h". And which is actually more like a pier or set of steps where people can reach the water to bathe, wash clothes, or throw trash in the river. Many of the buildings along the river are very colorful and primarily consist of hotels and religious buildings. Pictured is some combination of the two. You can also see people bathing and doing laundry.
On one of the ghats was this giant lion. What is it made of you ask? We think poop. Sure, that seems unlikely at first, but certainly not impossible based on a later picture. Let us know what you think.
Two main cremation points exist in Varanasi. This is the smaller cremation ghat, but both operate 24 hours a day. In this picture, you can make out one body on the fire and another (wrapped in a shroud) on deck just below the fire. Also, note the child on the right who is manning another fire. The cremation work often falls to the lowest classes, most of whom receive no education and go to work at ridiculously early ages.
This is our boat driver having his morning cigarette once we hit the turnaround and started floating with the current. We applaud his efforts to try to kill himself in this holiest of cities. If he continues smoking and bathing in the Ganges, his life expectancy can't be more than a couple of weeks.
Is this a Hazmat team in the boat? No, just some Asian tourists. All Japanese and Korean tourists in India wear face masks, which is probably smart given the pollution, but also makes them look like they are running to an operation. The boat beside them is a souvenir salesman who tries to overtake your boat like a pirate and sell you junk that you don't want or need.
Finally, the sun becomes visible. Look how bright it makes the sky!
Us on the Ganges. Self-portrait. At least as good as any Van Gogh self-portrait. Probably better.
The man swimming out in the middle of the river gives us a nice peace sign. I wanted to shake him and explain to him that the river was so polluted that it would probably kill him, but then I remembered that my hand would smell like poop if I touched him. The major markers of pollution in the river are all in the range of 50-1000 times higher than a safe level for swimming, but thousands of faithful Hindus swim in the holy river each day.
Care for some yoga before a ritual morning swim in the river? Sure, don't mind if I do.
We saw a few cows in Delhi and Amritsar, but they are everywhere in Varanasi. And the streets are mostly narrow alleys, so you can't avoid them. Here I am with my new friend. It looks like I just broke the cow's neck, but I swear that she was already looking at the camera and I just walked up and grabbed her head for this picture.
Our room had a nice balcony overlooking a temple of some religion (so many religions consider the river and/or city holy that we weren't always clear on what religion the temples belonged to) and of the river.
Also exciting about Varanasi is that it is filled with macaque monkeys. These were on the next roof over from our balcony. When the hotel manager first showed Tara the room and opened the balcony door, he hit the door several times to open it and told Tara to open it the same way. Tara asked him if the door sticks and it just takes some force, and he replied that if you didn't scare away any monkeys on the balcony, they would run in and start destroying your room when you opened the door...
This temple was too close to the river, which floods heavily every year. One or two years of really high flooding and the temple was half buried in mud. But because this temple died in Varanasi, it will not have to be reborn and will achieve Nirvana.
The cremation areas are surrounding by wood. You can choose the type of wood that you want, which they then weigh and charge you accordingly. There seem to be the primary wood dealers, but then several smaller wood dealers across the streets from the main cremation points.
Many people put offerings into the water, consisting of flowers, candles, plastic bags, and sewage. Okay, maybe all those aren't offerings, but the end result is that you get rafts of garbage floating all along the river.
Apparently, it is common for wealthy Indian families to come and spend a day out along the Ganges. Several areas have what might be called cabanas of the Ganges, where a family will set up an area for themselves and relax for the day, having a picnic and maybe worshiping at the river.
Based on the Cobra around the neck, we think this is Shiva. Mostly, we just would like to seem more billboards like this in the United States. Don't know what it says, but it makes us want to be Hindu.
Back to the possibility that the lion earlier is made of poop. Here is a man whose job appears to be to collect cow dung from the streets (not hard to find), then mold it into small patties for drying. It is presumably then sold for fuel. The next time that you think your job is miserable, think about this man.
India has many nice birds, but one of the most common has this great orange eye to match his orange beak.
For some reason, many of the goats in India wear vests. We aren't sure if it is for identification or because people want their goats to look presentable. This one looked particularly dapper.
What to do if you have lice? How about let your pet monkey pick them out of your hair to eat while you take a nap. That's what I would do, too. My favorite Varanasi picture.
We crossed the river to see the fort in Varanasi. Here it is. Probably not worth the walk. Guess they could only afford paint for the top half.
Getting to the fort was fun. It required us to cross the Ganges (maybe a half mile wide) on this pontoon bridge. The bridge is about a car and a half wide, but manages to support two way car traffic, bicycles, and pedestrians. All while being made of old wood nailed together and floating on giant floats. It felt surprisingly stable, but as with so many roads in India, we felt lucky to make it across alive with the traffic.
Many of the Ganges-side Hindu temples don't allow visitors, but the New Temple on the University campus does. It was a nice looking temple.
Every night a ceremony takes place along the Ganges. It is long and becomes repetitive, but it has a lot of bells and fire.
That's it from Varanasi. It is hard to convey the sights, sounds, and odors of Varanasi in pictures, but it was everything we expected and more. An incredibly interesting place as long as you are quick enough on your feet to sidestep the presents left in the roads by the cows.