Monday, April 13, 2009

Varanasi, and Good-bye India

We spent our last 2.5 days in India in Varanasi, the holiest city. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges River water and cleanse their sins. Elderly people come to Varanasi to die - dying here liberates them from the cycle of rebirth.

The action is centered around the bathing ghats lining the Ganges river. You can walk or boat by the ghats and observe Hindus washing themselves, their clothing, and even their buffalo. A thorough pilgrim may spend several minutes scrubbing each individual finger. The women bathe in their saris for modesty. Kids play in the water. Some people meditate or pray. Hinduism is not a congregational religion, but at Varanasi you can see many Hindus simultaneously worshipping, each in their own way. It has a very spiritual vibe.
People bathing. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

Tending to a shrine. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

Crowds watching an evening religious ceremony from boats and land. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

You can also walk by ghats where bodies are cremated in plain view. All Hindus are cremated, with a few exceptions such as babies or sadhus (holy men). Their ashes are spread in the Ganges river (I'm not sure if this part is a requirement, but it's definitely ideal). Piles of wood are setup, the body (wrapped in cloth) is laid on top and covered with more wood. The eldest son, with a freshly shaven head, assists in the ceremony of lighting the fire. Other family is present, however we did not see anyone crying. It takes about 3 hours and the ashes are given to the family to spread in the Ganges. We saw several cremations. A proper cremation with the right kind of wood and at the right ghat is important, but the fire wood is expensive. Some families must buy a cheaper type of wood, or can only afford enough to partially cremate the body. Alternatively they can cremate the body inside a furnace so it turns to ash faster. The remains are spread in the Ganges as is, even if the body is not fully cremated, and it is possible to see floating body parts from unfinished corpses. I'm not sure whether this is common or rare - we did not see any body parts.

Now that we are about to leave India I wish we could stay a little longer. It took us a few weeks to learn how to judge a local. Is this someone we can trust? Or is this a tourist hawker? There are so many hawkers here. In certain places chances are extremely low that a friendly Indian that greets you is a well-intentioned local. But in other places a lot of friendly Indians approach you with advice because they like to be helpful. If you avoid everyone, you miss out on getting to know people. Another challenge was learning how to ignore the hawkers that follow you for 2 minutes in spite of your repeated attempts to shoe them away. They are very persistent. Ignoring them is also something we got better at towards the end.

It's frustrating you have to make snap judgements about strangers at all. One local who followed us a few minutes said to me when he left, "Madam doesn't trust Indians." It made me cringe. I'm still not sure whether he was a hawker or not, sometimes it's not obvious. It feels wrong to judge and dismiss friendly strangers. Your snap judgement maybe incorrect.

One of the lasting impressions India will leave on me was how in certain situations there is absolutely nothing to be gained by being neurotic. If I'm paying someone for a camel tour or to tailor me a sari, I like to ask detailed questions about how they will provide the service, so that I can be sure I will be happy with the product. Up until now I have always been able to get my questions answered. Even if the provider is slightly annoyed with the questions, he/she will indulge me. In India there are people who simply refuse to answer my questions. They respond to my detailed questions with something like "Madam, you will like the sari very much, trust me," or "We will visit all the places you want to see, I am 15 years in this business and all of my customers are very happy." I'm not sure if people completely ignore my questions because a) there is a language barrier and they don't understand me, b) they want me to relax and not worry, c) they are insulted by my lack of trust in their grand plans for me, or d) they are unaccustomed to answered detailed questions and don't understand why the crazy white girl is making things so complicated. At first this was just irritating. But after awhile I also found it a little bit liberating. If I wanted a sari or a camel tour, I had no choice other than to put myself in the hands of someone I didn't totally trust. It was disconcerting, but it forced me to wrestle with the idea that the consequences of paying a little bit of money for a slightly imperfect sari, tour, etc. are not that bad. And it's nice to let someone else worry about the details every once in awhile.


  1. Accepting less than perfect. Don't worry, be happy! Next vacation - Jamica. It does take a while to become inured to that which bothers you. But when you do, others tend to stop their irritating behavior. Great description of the Ganges. I felt as if I was there.

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  3. One of the joys of traveling is that it can give you new insights into your own thinking. The scene you described on the shores of the Ganges seems very similar to what we saw in 1971. Great Story. Terrific photos. I especially like the view from the boats.