Sunrise to Sunset in Varanasi

21 May

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April 15, 2012

Our alarms started to go off at 4:45am in Varanasi’s early morning darkness, one of the only times where it actually seemed to be quiet and peaceful outside the wide-set wire screens of our hostel open hostel windows. We quickly got dressed, applied our sunscreen and our 80% deet Bushman’s bug spray, grabbed our fully-charged cameras and ventured out into the break of down. We wove our way through the winding maze of 2 metre-wide streets, side-stepping cows, dogs and poop as we made our way down to the edge of the Ganges River to commission a boat so that we could get a sunrise view of Varanasi from the water.

Once we’d negotiated a price with one of the rowers of the boats we each bought a small bowl made of leaves and filled with bright pink, yellow and orange flowers and had a white candle in the centre. The tradition is to light the candle and set the bowl of flowers down in the river as you remember and pray for those that are no longer with us.

Even though it was early many of the row boats had already been hired by tourists and had begun making their way up and down the water just as we were. We rowed along about 4 or so meters from the river bank to see a number of locals beginning their day by bathing in the Ganges. Bathing seemed to be a social activity and consisted predominantly of males. These males gathered in age-segmented groups ranging from small children to the elderly, and met to shoot the morning shit (some of which was literal I imagine as the Ganges has an extremely high level of fecal matter in the water) as they vigorously lathered up. Occasionally there would be a seemingly uninterested female or 2 sitting by the edge of the water, likely a wife or mother, minding the piece of cloth that would later be used as a towel.

Women were also spread along the river’s edge, some socializing in groups of 5 – 10 ladies and some on their own getting started on the day’s laundry. What a workout! The process begins with dipping the clothes in the water followed by laying them out flat on the concrete steps that lead down to the river. Next, a soapy lather is worked up on the up-facing part of the garment before it is repeatedly whipped, full-force, at either a large rock or the concrete stairs. Clothes are given a final rinse and then hung up to dry. Learning this rough process (no delicate cycle here, folks) and knowing full well about the elements that contaminate the river (fecal matter, loads of garbage, dead bodies both in full and in parts, etc.), I decided then and there not to send out any laundry in Varanasi.

After a while we decided to light our candles and send them off in the Ganges. Unfortunately the wind was high and lighting the candles proved difficult. Even when we did manage to light them, for the most part they went out shortly after we’d placed them in the water. Luckily, Pete managed to get a few photos that include the flame.

The morning air carried with it a soft cool breeze and with that we decided to extend our boat trip down the Ganges. We rowed slowly past the cremation site that we’d visited and observed from a covered concrete riser the day before. Having visited both in the late afternoon as well as the early morning it seemed as though later in the day was much busier. There weren’t any bodies being given their final bath in the river nor were there any laying on the riverbank to dry. Most of the fires were nothing more than smoking ash at this time.

As we floated by we saw the Minister we’d met the day before that had given us a wealth of information about the process. As he waved to us the rower of our boat asked if we knew him and we told him about our learning experience the day before. The rower just laughed and told us that he was not a Minister but rather a worker that stacked the wood piles, built the wooden beds for the bodies, tended to the Shiva Fire and collected the ashes at the end of the day. Apparently this particular fellow was well-known for his story-telling to tourists to make a few rupees. At least all of the information about the cremation ritual itself was accurate (I checked) but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was disappointed in his dishonesty but having seen the poverty of Varanasi, understand why he spun his own story to try to earn more money.

After sunrise we headed to the restaurant that J.J., Shelagh and Pete had tried out at dinner the night before, Ganja Fuji. It was a little hole in the wall, or ground rather (it was down a small flight of stairs) with only about 8 – 10 tables. There was a small sink off to the side in the dining room where customers were invited to wash their hands before and after a meal. The walls were decorated with yellowing sheets of paper with testimonials from customers past, each writer proudly declaring their nationality.

We left the restaurant to return to Monu Family Guest House to pack up our things as we had to move to another hostel (Monu was full for that night). We decided to stay just around the corner at Yogi Lodge, a total hippy joint complete with outdoor showers and squatting toilets that were missing doors that closed all the way. The clothesline was flanked with locally sourced clothing of the guests staying there and included Aladdin pants and graphic cotton t-shirts. Our room was basic, single beds and a fan, and cost us just over $2 CDN per night each. India can be cheap.

We got settled and hung out for a bit before Shelagh, Pete and I set off to the shops in search of a gift for Pete’s girlfriend and some clothes for Shelagh. We were still trying to re-create a functioning wardrobe for She after she’d had to throw out her entire bag and all of its contents just before meeting up with us due to 2 incidents of bed bugs. We left J.J. to rest as he thought he may have been coming down with something.

We met back up with J.J. and hour and a half later to get some dinner before going down to the Ganges River to watch the religious ceremony, Aarti, that takes place there every night. The reason for the ceremony is as follows: The essence of the Aarti ceremony is that all day long God offers us blessings  Aarti is a time where we say thank you, we offer back the light of our thanks, the light of our love and the light of our devotion.

The crowd was predominantly Indian and everyone was dressed in their very best clothing. Some watched from row boats parked only a couple of meters away from shore while most stood on the steps leading down to the Ganges.

Once the ceremony had concluded we were approached by a large family of 10 or so people that wanted to take photos with us, each individually. 10 minutes and 20 or so photos later we decided to head back to our hotel. I was on a mere 2 hours of sleep and really craving a shower in the outdoor facilities before crawling into bed with the book Shelagh had just lent me, Brida.

Apparently I fell asleep within minutes and slept well and deeply, thanks to J.J., Shelagh and Pete only telling me after check-out the following morning that there had been a big gecko in our room the night before (they took photos as proof). Thanks for keeping that one hush-hush guys – I needed that sleep!

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