Sunday, 29 January 2017

Varanasi the City of Death - Part 3 The lotus flower only blooms in the dirtiest swamp

The next day after breakfast the three of us were off to explore again. I had only two cups of Lassi for last night dinner so I was glad to be out and looking for lunch. A walk along the main road this time and Josh and Adam had a mission of sorts. They have it all planned out since they only had two days in Varanasi but I was just going with the flow deciding to stay one of my longest stop during this trip … a total of 6 days in Varanasi

We walked around much more into the Ghat after getting a good headstart with the main road and by then I have gotten my equivalent Indian version of tiger balm. We stumble upon the golden temple, shiva temple one of the oldest in Varanasi and very sacred for there was many hindu pilgrams which I later found out was because we came during the Savants month.

The one temple we could not go in. Passport is required to enter and no phones or camera is allowed in. Me and Adam tried to get in using identity card which we did the first gate only to be turn around the second one. Giving up we decided to head to the Blue Lassi place again since we were close.
Signs to Guide your way ... but beware of fake signs

More lassi for lunch …. I have gone nearly 24 hours with no food, just water and lassi.

Sitting down at the Lassi place every so often one could see dead bodies being carried on a possession heading towards the burning Ghat. It was a surreal place where people drink and enjoy and the local immune to the fact hundreds of dead bodies pass by their front shop every day.

Fruit Lassi
This Blue Lassi place was famous. Recommended by lonely planet and filled with tourist. It was my first try of Lassi and I have to say it was pretty good. Lassi was made out of milk and curd mixed together and this shop provided all kinds of fruit that could go with it. We asked the chap making the lassi which we presumed was the son of the ownder … 70 years old Lassi place what is his most favourite type of lassi flavour and he replied without a moment of hesitation …. I do not like Lassi.

The Blue Lassi Shop - Varanasi
He just sits there all day making lassi and people all praise him for a delicious lassi but he does not drink it …. He do not like the taste. Ironic of it but understandable. One question was asked of why the clay cups that is used to serve the lassi is being smashed after a single serving. Why don’t they recycle and wash them. According to him the holy men in India would not drink Lassi from a cup that has been used before or drank from before hence they all throw them away after a single use. If known that the Clay cups are being washed and re used he would not have any more holy men patronizing his shop for Lassi. Hence if you want a free souvenir clay cup authentic to India that is used to serve Lassi or the smaller one for Chai one do not have to buy them but just take them home after finishing the drink.

As we sat there drinking lassi after lassi … ( I only had one but Adam and Josh had like 3 each ) more and more people we recognise from the hostel entered the shop and joined us for Lassi.  Soon the shop was full and after a long time in the Lassi place we were finally head out again and towards the burning Ghat. Some of them had not seen it yet so we all head towards there.

The only thing we realized that was really taboo, was taking Photos of the Burning … No Photos of the burning corpes.

Round two to the Burning Ghat with a hoard of people … around 10 of us and you could see the gleam of the vulture eyes. Adam and Josh led the way and bulldozed down to the lower inner parts of the Ghat. I started to think by then that if it was really just a family area and tourist are not allowed surely there would be a big signboard to inform the tourist in English respectfully. That single board would have prevented so much hassle with the locals. I realized then that it was a local ruse … there was no such thing that the lower and inner section of the Burning Ghat is reserved for the families. It was an open burning cremation and anyone can go there as long as they do not stir up trouble. In fact it was the local vultures that tries to stir up issues with the tourist in order to profit off it.

May your Karma be fitting of your life?

Solemn silence while we visited the Ghat but with the taunting of the Vulture and the insults that the throw occasionally Josh and a few other started to heat up. Fuck off was used one or twice and I suggested it was time to leave. Downstream this time I headed and not the way we came. We were out of the Ghat and here we saw a lot of boat men this time trying to get up on a boat ride down the Ganga river. Walking on we saw another few familiar faces which was from the hostel and boarding a boat.

How much is the ride guys ???

150 a person ….

Another 10 of us stood there contemplating if it was worth taking a boat ride. …

Josh asked for a 100 rupee a person and the boatmen looking at shear volume decided it was worth his trouble …. Ok 100 per person for all of you .. come come …

We all got onto the boat and went for a ride down the river.
Scindia Ghat - Varanasi

The boat men was honest … or at lease more honest than the vulture … we knew the boat ride could cost as low as 50 rupee but at 100 rupee it was cheap enough that most of us find it a fair price. Ask me any question he said and slowly the random question surfaced up …

The boatmen told us things about Varanasi

There are a total of 87 Ghat in Varanasi … with Assi the first ghat and Varana the 87 …
Varanasi Boat Ride
Do you know how much the price of burning wood in the Burning Ghat ??? The bad men all talk about 150 rupee a kilo but it only cost 10 rupee a kilo. All the people there asking for money not for poor but for themselves.
Lal Ghat - Varanasi
It is illegal to take boat out in Ganga now as the river level is high. The govt announce that no boat shall go out now but dun worry if they come the fine will be on me and not you. I am taking risk but its ok.

Burning Ghat - Varanasi

The usual water level is about 25 metres lower. .. and the worst flood ( he pointed to the marker on the wall afar)
I believe that mostly the bad people come to Varanasi to die. In Hindu culture if you have done good in your life you can die anywhere and go to Nirvana. Why do you need to come to Varanasi for that? It’s because it is believed that Lord Shiva is most kind in Varanasi for this is his city hence if anyone die in Varanasi and be cremated here in the Burning Ghat his soul regardless of his deeds will go to Nirvana hence I believe that mostly the bad people come to Varanasi to die.
Burning Ghat - Varanasi

As we reach the end of the downstream river the boatman started up the motor and push us upriver. He even went pass the burning Ghat so we could see it from the river side.

Burning Ghat - Varanasi
You can take photo he says …. No problem ….

As all our cameras was unleashed from its cage and shots fired away, some families waved at us friendly and touch our hearts. To see the good in the bad and not be affected by the evil, one has to calm his mind and understand his soul before understanding others. Our boat pass by the Ghat and another turn was make to bring us back to the starting point.
The Burning Ghat - Varanasi

I was really happy with the boat ride …. And I passed him 150 rupee going off the boat. Adam saw it and told me it was only 100 rupee …. I know I told him … I know ….

It is an unwritten rule that I have … if someone were to ask for money, no matter how much he seems that he need it, I have the tendency to be so defensive that I would never give it to them. However when it is not asked …. I may give more than is required even if he do not need it base on his actions alone. I left that to Josh and Adam to contemplate on its meaning ….

Go back through the burning Ghat … easier way to walk the boatmen said …. But I was not about to walk back to vulture infested land after taking photos on the boat ….. I am not going that way I said …. I’ll go this way the harder way and explore …. See you guys back at the hostel as I waved the big group of 15+ heading towards the burning Ghat and me alone wandering the nooks of Varanasi Ghats.

That was the end of the second day …. I only reach back the hostel an hour or two later and rest for the whole day. Josh and Adam rushed back from the 430 Hostel Ghat tour and I shook their hands while they rushed to catch their 730 train to Agra.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Varanasi The City of Death - Part 2 The Heart of Steel

Varanasi on the first day and after seeing the evening puja me, Josh and Adam decided to walk around looking for the burning Ghat and also some food for dinner. Dinner we never found, thou both of them took some fried snacks along the way to the burning Ghat while we still explore all the little alley way along the way.

Nearing the burning Ghat we picked up a self-volunteer guide. The locals ply the streets alley around the burning Ghat and would pester the tourist heading towards there with conversation, kind and polite but always with a hidden agenda. You could smell a con job a mile away with them but we were still the kind and polite tourist at that time and would chat with them. I kept mostly quiet just observing while the two Brits answered the guide innocent question such as where they were and where they were going.

Information was offered about Varanasi and its various tradition and gods and culture while we walk and looked for the burning Ghat. The guide insisted that he would show us the way and I felt he was zig zagging around every nook and corner to make us disoriented on purpose.

Burning Ghat.

This place brings out the sentiment in everyone emotionally. It was a place not for the kind hearted soul. The guide brought us to this abandon building next to the Ghat and we walked upstairs before being handed over to another guide who claimed that he was a Brahmi and a worker at the burning ghat offering us information and history. Halfway through the explanation Adam and Josh felt uncomfortable and decided to leave. They were forewarn by the hostel people that there are a lot of locals that would ask for money like a donation to the hospice around the Ghat but that was all bullshit and it would only go to their own pocket.

The serene atmosphere built up to become an uncomfortable event as they feel they were slowly being drag into guilt and would eventually be force self-consciously to donate to the horrible scam. They decided to leave while they still had some control and ignored all the local plea that they would not ask for money and that they were genuinely just guiding people because it is their Karma to do it.  

I listen to the fake Brahmi on his explanation of the Burning Ghat while my eyes was glued to the burning platform afar. He told of how no one would cry while around the burning Ghat to so that the soul of the dead would not have any lingering affection to the mortal world. It was a celebration of sorts that one who was cremated here would attain passage to Nivarna and escape the ever cycle of rebirth. Then he talked about his karma of past live that he now have to work here as a worker burning bodies of people at Varanasi.

By this time Josh and Adam was leaving and I said thank you and proceeded after them. Trying to get out of the abandon building, people were all asking for donation to buy firewood for the poor. 150 rupee per kilo and this is the old women who works at the hospice for those waiting to die in Varanasi. Josh and Adam was disturbed by the fact that they knew this was scam and they were angry about it. I kept my calm and just said no with a humble nod and walked on.

We proceeded down further into the burning Ghat on our own with locals behind shouting do not go there, family area. Josh and Adam with a fire lit in them ignored all this and walked on. I followed slowly behind observing the people around. The families or the genuine people working the Ghat went on their business and only spare a glance for us. The worms who pry on the kind hearted soul of tourist were throwing insults about disrespect and privet area only that we were bad people to not observe it. I found it that a silent prayer and observing without words were more respectful than those who would disturb the tourist loudly. Their attempt to cheat and con tourist at a scared place of cremation was even more disrespectful in my opinion but for some reason I manage to kept my calm aura with me and the hate brush pass me without affecting me. Josh and Adam was clearly affected and one could see from facial expression the turmoil between sympathy and empathy of the burning ceremony and disgust and scorn to the con men who try to make money out of others suffering. 

An amour of steel around ones heart is what is needed to really visit the Burning Ghat without being affected. Josh kept telling them to leave them alone and that he will not give them money. The anger spark feed more anger and the locals knows that was their way in. One talked about Karma of how bad it was to visit the burning Ghat and see it upclose without helping the needy. Josh told him to fuck off. I wonder if that was a good thing starting a fight in a place like this …. But it was clear it was the intention of the locals, the one whose family was not burning. If a fight broke out, the foreigner would be to blame for his anger and disrespect.

Luckily Josh listen to my advice and he and Adam followed me out of the Burning Ghat while this time it was the locals that shouted bad things. For some reason they listen to my advice to ignore them and walk on and while I looked into the eyes of every locals that was spilling blasphemy, one by one they quieted down and left us alone as we got further and further away from the Burning Ghat.

It was an emotional experience

Adam was affected emotionally and was close off for a while being very quiet. Josh was in fury of the locals and took a while to calm down. We found the Blue Lassi shop nearby and sat down for a while drinking a few cup each of Lassi. I keep telling Josh and Adam the mantra …. Do not let them affect you.  Josh calmed down and Adam slowly opened up that his mother had passed away recently, a year ago and looking at the Burning Ghat touched him emotionally.

That was the end of the first night in Varanasi. I visited the burning Ghat a total of 3 times in the 6 days I was there …. A truly fearsome place ply with serenity and hostility at the same time.
Burning Ghat - Varanasi

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Varanasi the city of death – Part 1

In a way I found out about Varanasi by chance. If it were not for meeting Stephano in Pokhara I would have never come here. Not doing research while travelling can make you miss amazing place when you are so close yet don’t know about it. It took two days of idle chatter before Stephano urged me to just google the place and see the pictures. First picture that loaded on google pictures and I was hooked. Varanasi it is and a re-route was planned.

After a good bath in the hostel all I wanted to do was rest in the nice cool air-condition room and sleep but chai time at 4pm drove me away from the journal entry and out into the common area to mingle with the hostel people.

Varanasi - Main Streets before entering Narrow winding Ghat
There were lots of people as expected in hostel like these. Friendly environment with lots of travellers mostly from English Native countries. One could observed and notice how some clicks will talk to you and answer your question but slowly tune out to ogle the pretty faces. The four British girls was fascinated with the two British boys but for some reason the boys …. Adam and Josh asked me if I wanted to join them to walk around the Ghats after chai.

Sure I felt refreshed enough just after a shower and a few hours of rest in cool room. I decided to take up their offer to go exploring Varanasi on the very first day. Ghats as they call them means steps in Hindi … steps to the river and there are 87 Ghats in Varanasi. This area is also one of the most interesting in Varanasi for it forms the old part of the city with narrow alley streets which keeps turning and ending up in dead end.

The streets were very narrow such that if you stretch out your arms you will feel both sides of the building. Still it was filled with people and cows and goats and dogs and all kinds of livelihood that goes by in this small world. Shops was like a boxhole barely two bunk beds put together. They sold and peddled all kinds of things from food to trinkets to lassi to temples to shrines to holy men to modern knock off made in china T-shirts to prayer items and so forth. One could get lost in here every day walking the same streets and still find new things to see.

Josh and Adam wanted to see the evening ceremony which was held by the Ghanga river every evening at 730pm. They asked locals along the way and people were always happy to help and point us to the right direction. Sometimes, if you asked the wrong people you will accidentally pick up a guide who would be so kind to walk you to where you want to go giving loads of history and explanation of the mystical Varanasi only to guilt you into a donation when you try to leave them behind.

Evening Puja at Varanasi
We got there in time and choose a spot to enjoy the ceremony. By this time I understood it was the puja ceremony but on a grander scale that what I have ever seen back in Malaysia. According to the locals it was a small one for apparently the Ghanga river is flooding right now and the water level is very high.

While we waited for the Puja to start more and more people crowded in, locals and local tourist and foreign tourist alike. The first glimpse of the Ghanga river for most Indians were always followed by a touch of water and a spray of water into the air or over the head with a silent prayer and a for the more devoted a wash of the face and truly devoted a sip of the muddy and highly contaminated water. Peddles were selling flower with candles to be offered into the river … some brought their own kind of offering and everything was dumped into the river while more people spill in to be blessed by the water.

The puja started with chants to incense dance to pots with lots of smoke dance to fire dance which had a cobra as an ornament. I can only say it was mesmerising like most lonely planet guide will tell you. We watch it for nearly half an hour and it did not seem to be ending soon but it was time to find something to eat and little did we know the night was still full of surprise waiting for us.