Sunday, October 17, 2010


It turns out sleeper class wasn't so bad. I stretched out in comfort for all 14 hours, and although there was no air-conditioning - the gentle breeze from the open windows was a welcome relief. I was also surrounded by generous people, who treated me to a multitude of snacks purchased from the platform, but through the windows of the train. I tried char grilled corncobs (a bit like chewy/burnt popcorn), pints of chai, bhel puri, various chaat and a spectacular curry for lunch. The prices were astounding, with snacks all costing less than 5 rupees. Lunch was also a steal at 50 rupees.

We reach our destination in the late afternoon. Varanasi is a holy city on the river Ganges. It feels more Arabian than Indian and the walled city feels more old testament than new. I quickly learn that to die here is not a sure fire passport to heaven, nor is it an easy escape from the cycle of rebirth - both are common mistakes. To die during a special time of year is though, with fifteen special days each year that are determined by astrology. It is known as Pita Pak (unsure of spelling) or the 'festival of the dead' and during this time, the doorway to Nirvana is open - and the cycle of rebirth is no more.

Temples are scattered throughout the old city, alongside some buildings as old as four or five thousand years. I'm not surprised to learn that Varanasi is one of the most ancient cities in the world, and has had consistent inhabitants for thousands of years. The residents are very proud of their city, and with good reason too. In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva gave the city to his wife as a honeymoon gift, giving it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and Bhang lassi flows freely.

I take a boat ride at sunset, which is a must-do when in town. The ride lasts about an hour and is a bargain at 200 rupees, after heated negotiations. The rickety boat ventures up and down the river, and I spot pilgrims and ghats along the way. I spot a skull floating beside the boat, dislodged from its former body and bobbing up and down in the murky muddy waters. I'm already having second thoughts about the promise I made to myself that I would bathe in these sacred waters.

The burning ghats are a sight to behold, with bodies burning in full view of bystanders. The dearly beloved gather, while their deceased relatives lay aside, belching out fumes from beyond the grave. Surrounding the mourners are the pilgrims, who bathe on the steps of the ghats each day. It's not just a spectacle, but a ritual thousands of years strong. There is no sign of anything modern here, and I doubt that things have changed much over the centuries.

 I have only been in the city since early evening, but it has been a wonderful introduction. I can't wait to explore it in depth =)

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