Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: Varanasi, the Holy of Holies

Chapter Eight - Varanasi, the Holy of Holies

After spending some time in Allahabad, I moved on to the most hectic (and dirty) city that I had ever seen : Varanasi. Hectic and dirty, but also mighty fascinating and inviting for a long stay. I checked out several hotels in the old city, but found all of them intolerably dirty. Especially the Seema Hotel on Mandanpura Road. Singles/doubles were Rs 200/225. I checked out several rooms (singles and doubles) and found all of them very dirty, especially the beds. They looked like the sheets had never been changed before. Some of the once white sheets were - honestly ! - black in the middle. Sick of spending hours trying to get through the evening traffic rush, I decided not to wait until an acceptable place popped up, but headed for the four-star Hotel Hindustan International, which had - comparing to the rest available in Varanasi - very good rates. A very large and clean single with actually two beds, bathroom and bathtub (!), colour TV and all the rest you expect to find in hotel of this type cost US$ 38 (a double would have been $62). Calculated to the going conversion rate at that time, this came to Rs 1170. This is cheap for a four-star, I think. And compared to some other places, it certainly wasn't a bad deal. Remember me talking about my first night in the Hotel Ashoka Palace ? Fourteen hundred rupees ! Remember the Connaught Palace, which is also four-star ? US$ 76 ! A four-star can never be really cheap - and you will have to tip more than you like (but isn't that the case everywhere in India ?) - but this one is actually good value for money. I even found the service was personal; also exceptional for big hotels. The food in the restaurant was the best I had of my whole trip and not so expensive. The head waiter is a very, very friendly (but classy) guy. Try and ask him for meal suggestions. He'll be delighted. I developed a really good understanding with this fellow during the days that I stayed there. At the end, he had my dishes prepared by the 'chef de cuisine' in person. A great way of savouring Indian food the way it has to be prepared. I am not a culinary freak but this was all really delicious ! The head waiter also kept me informed of Belgian people coming and going, although I - of course - didn't ask him to do that. One time, I was glad he did, because I had a great conversation with a Belgian guy, guiding a Belgian tour group. He told me great stories about travel in India with tour groups. Some of the people in these groups, he said, are totally unprepared to come to India. At home, they read a travel brochure advertising a fairy-tale-like country with only royal accommodation. Sometimes elder folks who have never even flown before, come here and are totally baffled by the culture, the religion and the traditions. Sometimes not. It depends, he said. But in every group there is at least one person who is terrified being in this country. Terrified, because in India you cannot escape from the problems of the man of the street. In fact, India's life IS the streets. No matter in what luxurious hotel you stay, you only have to look out of the windows to be confronted with the realities behind the fairy-tale. Stepping outside is stepping in. Some people go as far as not even joining in a guided excursion. They just sit in their hotels rooms, waiting for the bus to transport them to their next flight.

Astonishing, isn't it ? It's hard to imagine, but it's actually true. Some people in his group asked me about my travels so far. Some of them looked horrified when I told them that I was travelling alone, others were astonished to hear that I was already in the country for about one month and still not ill. Some of them were fascinated by this, but would never do it themselves.

We also talked about personal matters. He had come to India just to guide groups around and after about half a year he would have been returned to Belgium. Now, he had changed his mind. He was going to settle down here. He had met an Indian girl who he was going to marry soon. I asked him how he got in touch with her as I found it very hard to get into close contact with any Indian girl or woman but the most progressive ones in the big cities. This is probably the trip on which I talked to women least. It's far worse than in Muslim-dominated countries. He agreed. He had experienced the same 'communication problems' as me. An Indian guy who was sitting with us, also agreed but could not give a sensible explanation why. For the tour guide it had been easier, he told me. His future wife was working in the same business as he was. So they had met.
He also told me that the tour operator he was working for, had changed to this hotel after having several people suffering of food-poisoning in the Hotel Taj Ganges.
Varanasi GhatsVaranasi has a lot of interesting sights for us, travellers. I tried to visit as many as possible. One day I got up (very) early and went to see the activities going on at the ghats. First by boat, later also on foot, making my way through the great maze of narrow alleys. I didn't feel claustrophobic; it was great ! It's also great when you have a guide. I tried it that way too.

Hiring a boat for a trip on the Ganges to see the ghats was as entertaining as it was in Allahabad to get to Sangam. The first asking price was also ridiculously high and they won't come down very much. Seven hundred rupees was the absolute bottom (I tried with several guys. This was it !). This is, to hire the entire boat. Hiring a place in a boat is cheaper (divide the above amount by the amount of people; normally around fifteen or twenty here). Promised (read : agreed) 'tour' was starting from Dasaswamedh Ghat to Bachraj Ghat, then back past Dasaswamedh Ghat up to Trilochan Ghat. Then back to Dasaswamedh, of course. Promised boating time was two hours. Reality was a bit different from that. The outer boundaries were the Almagir mosque and Shivala Ghat. Boating time was 90 minutes.

The burning ghat of Manikarnika was a great (sorry, interesting) place to see from the river but going there on foot is a must. It's fascinating to see all these piles of wood lying there, waiting to be burned together with the bodies. There's also a big pair of scales to weigh the wood. It's sold by the kilogram. I visited the small Shiva (who else ?) temple which looks out over the burning ghat. I came here with my own guide, but a 'tour' of this ghat had to be given by one of the priests here. He was of course after my money too, but nevertheless he was a rather amiable person. If you want to take photographs at this ghat, you will certainly need a priest here. You will then be allowed to take pictures of the woodpiles, the scales and everything else except the bodies being cremated. A little trick that I used here is to tell the priest that you want to take his photo while he is standing in one of the tower-like structures that look out over the ghat. He'll be delighted (hopefully). Put a wide (e.g. 24 mm) wide-angle lens on and you'll be able to snap one of the pyres (I was). By paying over Rs 500 you might even be able to shoot the whole burning scene. I decided not to waste my money and took a lot of good photographs of the cremations with a strong telephoto lens while on the river. I was never hassled this way and also did it at the Harishchandra Ghat. Near Manikarnika Ghat there's also a special house where very, very poor or very, very ill people are housed, awaiting their deaths. The priest showed me the place and told me that the temple holders of Manikarnika allow these people's bodies to be burned on account of the temple community. At Shivala Ghat you can also see one of Mother Theresa's homes.

At Rana Ghat, near the way marker to the New Vishnu Rest House, one can see the water level indicator marks that show how high the water of river Ganges was. According to the marks, it's been at its highest in 1978 and 1948 (it was way above most of the small gates leading up the stairs), with 1957 a close second.

At Dasaswamedh Ghat (maybe elsewhere too) someone may come up to you and reach out to shake hands. If you do, you might end up getting a hand massage which is not cheap at all. I was warned about this by an Australian dude when somebody was planning on doing this to me.

The Nepalese temple was interesting, but hassles for big money also occur here.

Among the other places that I visited in Varanasi are...

...the Golden Temple. Great, only too bad that you can't go in. I saw it from a shop called Uday Silk Kala Kendra. The people were friendly and not pushy here. Their items looked very good and although I'm not a connoisseur, the prices looked pretty okay too. There are a lot of guards around here and Aurangzeb's mosque, making a visit to the latter nothing to speak of.

...Durga or Monkey Temple. Non-Hindus can now go in. Somebody told me that it was due to the government putting pressure on the temple management to loosen up their policy towards foreigners. And they did ! The temple is certainly worth the visit.

...Ram Nagar Fort & Museum. The return ferry trip across the Ganges costs three rupees. It's Rs 1.50 to enter the Ram Nagar museum. It's interesting enough, but some of it (e.g. the display of the cars) is totally neglected. Also the buildings themselves are in a sorry state. Interesting items for me were the present(s) given to the Maharaja by the deceased king of Belgium, Boudewijn I and the really big, old clock that was ignored for many years but has been repaired a while ago. All in all, I found the short trip to Ram Nagar more of an experience than the fort itself. Some people I talked to, including Indians, agreed with me.

...Bharat Mata temple. In one word : fantastic. Good views from upstairs, but they'll cost you five rupees. There's a very good book stand here selling lots of books and postcards about Varanasi & surroundings and about religious subjects.

...Tulsi Manas temple. Not bad at all, but describing it as a 'very enjoyable' visit would be exaggerating. Only if you can read Hindi, are the texts on the walls interesting. The different main chapters are denoted in English, but that's as good as nothing.

...New Vishwanath Temple. An interesting and beautiful temple, the interior as well as the exterior. Photography is not a problem here and there are some good opportunities : the architecture, the rhinoceros outside and the lingams inside. The activities around the main lingam make a great shot, but there's also a very beautifully sculptured, black Shiva lingam, with the faces of the god all over it.

When in Varanasi, a visit to nearby Sarnath is essential and I liked it a lot. My visit to the excavation area was considerably enlivened by a Burmese monk who accompanied me. He was a first timer here too and wanted to know more about the place himself. I hired a guide (very cheap; just a matter of rupees) to show us around.

The archaeological museum here has a great collection, the eye-catcher obviously the capital of the Ashoka pillar. Then there's the great, well-known Buddha sculpture too and if you've just visited the excavation site, you're interested in seeing the large 'umbrella' which used to cover the Buddha meditation site. It's only too bad (again) that photography is not allowed inside the museum. All bags have to be left at the ticket booth which has a left luggage service. Unfortunately, I couldn't cram my bag into the lockers. It was too big. If you're alone and you want to see the museum (everybody would want to, if only to see the capital of the pillar), then there's only one option left and that is to leave your valuables with the luggage guard, an old 'n' friendly guy. I took my chances. While inside, I couldn't help but rushing through to be able to return to my bag with my invaluable photographs as soon as possible. When I did, everything was still there and I handed the guard a good tip. Ticket price is Rs 0.50 per person.

Between the museum and the excavations (but nearer to the latter) is also a welcoming Sikh gurdwara. Another welcoming, but very touristy place, is the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar. Inside the temple there's a good booklet about the frescoes available. Unfortunately, it's hellishly expensive : Rs 75 for only 20 small pages. Continuing past the museum along Ashoka Marg, you'll come to the Chow Khandi stupa. It's not that interesting, but is also less touristy and makes a nice short escape from the crowds. It dates back to the Gupta period.

To conclude my visit of Sarnath, I took a tour of the monasteries. It may look a bit stupid to try to rank them in descending order of interest, but I do it anyway, just to give an idea of which one(s) I'd recommend to visit if you're short of time (like some people that I saw and were on a package tour). Here goes : the Tibetan, Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Burmese.

After busy Varanasi, I went to Jaunpur. The evening I went there, it was Diwali, one of the big Hindu festivals. So, the trip and the stay were enlivened with fireworks, crackers, sweets and oil lamps burning everywhere. It would have been great to have been in Varanasi that time, but I decided to leave anyway. I don't really know why. Perhaps for several reasons. First, I felt that I had to move on at that time because I had already overstayed my (very rough) schedule. There were more places to be seen, so no matter if you take a liking to a place, you have to move on. Secondly, I wanted to experience the celebrations in a smaller place to see how things work there. And last, I suppose that I got a bit scared of getting burns, getting deaf and getting blind because of the massive fireworks and bomb attacks. What ? I'm a sissy ? Maybe, but I heard some frightening stories from some more sensible Indian folks while strolling through Varanasi the night before the big celebrations (there were already explosions everywhere, even at that time). A very good advice for all people participating or wanting to participate in the celebrations, is to take good care not to get hurt by this stuff. In Belgium and the Netherlands there are a lot of regulations which to respect when handling fireworks and regardless of this, every year still many people get burned badly or get deaf. In India, there are no rules. So take care.


saikat said...

we are doing a similiar trip next month and your post was really very helpful. thanks much.

Anonymous said...

quite an interesting one ..A friend and I are doing the same route. always wanted to do the gangetic route ..nothing religous ..but just to experience the central parts of india where they say that the indian civilisation was firsts started ...
going to Haridwar- rishikesh- Varanasi- sarnath- allhabad- delhi - mumbai. your input would defi help