Vārānasi, India
25° 20' N 83° 0' E
May 01, 2007 16:07
Distance 574km

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Text written in: English (UK)

Alternative Easter Sunday.

After losing almost a week of our alloted time in India thanks to the crippling illness that stuck us down in Agra, we didn't have as much time in Varanasi as we'd wanted. But we still saw some incredible things.

Varanasi is India's holiest city. It's situated right on the River Ganges, the water from which is considered holy. People bathe in it, swim in it, drink it...and cremate their dead on the side of it. In the Lonely Planet, there's some information about water quality/purity. Apparently, the acceptable level of coliform count is 500 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. In the Ganges, it's 170 million bacteria per 100 milliliters. That's a whopping 340,000 times over the 'safe water' mark, if you can believe that. So, understandably, we didn't exactly have the urge to jump in and wash away our sins with a mouthful of the water...the results would have made the Agra situation look like a common cold.

Instead, we wandered up and down the ghats, constantly being accosted by people trying to shake our hands...and if you put your hand in theirs, they'd squeeze it a bit, then rub your arm, and then demand money for the massage they'd just given you. We wised up to it before it actually happened to us, and spent the entire day walking around refusing to shake hands with this army of dodgy masseur blokes.

There are a couple of 'burning ghats', where Hindus burn the bodies of their dead. I thought there would be much more of a ceremony to this, but it's basically a factory line of dead bodies being brought out every thirty minutes or so, put on top of a stack of wood, and set alight...and then the next one is brought out, and so on. Being sat about twenty feet from burning bodies was a very strange experience as you can imagine, and made for a very alternative Easter Sunday! The bodies are brought out on stretchers, covered with fancy robes so you can't see them...they are them dipped into the river water before being put on the wood. As they begin to burn, the robes fall/melt away, exposing the faces of the body as the flames build up around them. Also, the person's feet always hang out of the end, just avoiding the main flames...it's just so, so, so weird to see a real face and feet with flames all around them - seeing the actual body parts really rams home what is happening. Pretty amazing experience.

We also hired a bloke to take us on a rowing boat ride down the river, from where we got even better views of the burning ghats, and of the people bathing themselves further down. I was amazed by just how much goes on at the side of the river on these ghats - market stalls, massages, people playing cards and chess, people washing clothes, people reading, people sunbathing, and just fifty feet from the burning chats, we saw a gang of teenagers playing cricket. Hitting a big shot meant hitting the ball into the Ganges, which was always followed by a mad scramble of people diving in to retrieve it. It was very strange to look to our right and see cremations, and look to our left and see young Indians having the time of their life (probably attempting to make up for India's dismal display at the cricket world cup).

Speaking of which, this is an example of the sort of thing that was said after India got knocked out:

"It is humiliation and nothing else. This will not be taken lightly. We have given our players the best of facilities. Non-performers will get the sack" - Board of Control for Cricket in India president Sharad Pawar.

It's described as a national tragedy. The houses of supposedly star players are vandalised, death threats are issued all over the place, the newspapers are brutal in their description of individual player perfomances - even more so than in England!

Photos / videos of "Alternative Easter Sunday.":

Sitting idle, waiting for a train. The ghats on the Ganges. The ghats on the Ganges. The ghats on the Ganges. Cricket! Bath time! Ceremony on the river at night. The ghats on the Ganges. The ghats on the Ganges. The ghats on the Ganges - washing hung out to dry. Our boatmen.