11 October 2009

Varanasi (Benares)

Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India. The elderly come here to die, it's a little bit like Torquay ;-), as they believe that dying in the sacred city will release you from the continual cycle of rebirth.

Most of the action in Varanasi is centered around the ghats, a 7km long stretch of steps that lead down the western bank of River Ganges to the water. Most of the 80 or so ghats are used for bathing where people come to perform puja, make offerings, prayers and to wash away their sins.

There are also a couple of burning ghats where public cremations take place. The dead, which are wrapped in a cloth, are first carried through the old city to the river on a bamboo stretcher. They are then bathed in the river before being cremated on a pyre of burning logs. About 150 bodies are burnt every day at Manikarnika Ghat.

We quite like to get involved with the local customs but there was no way we were going to get in the Ganges for a bit of a splash around. The following is a quote from the Lonely Planet India book - "The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic - no dissolved oxygen exists. The statistics get worse. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!". No wonder the Ganges river dolphin is blind.

I'm no expert but I think that the 30 or so sewers that discharge directly into to river from the city might be having a slight impact. This is one of the strange juxtapositions that we've found so far in India. This is one of the most sacred places in the country and yet it is, quite literally, covered in crap.

A lot of laundry is also done in the river and considering the many "ingredients" and the colour of the water we're constantly amazed at how clean looking it is by the time the laundry-wallahs have finished with it.

Every evening the ganga aarti ceremony takes place on the banks of the river. We didn't quite undertand what was going on (any explanations would be most welcome) but it involved lots of fire being waved around.

One of the more unusual things we've seen on a daily basis has been this fella . . .

His job is to collect the cow and buffalo dung from the ghats, reform it with his hands and then dry it out in the sun. The patties of dung can then be used for fuel for fires and stoves. Give this guy a thought next time you're bitching about how shitty your job is.

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