22nd and 23rd January

Wednesday 22 January

Today, we finally can sleep a little. We meet our guide, Sandip, at 10. First thing, we go to the train station to buy our tickets for Delhi. In fact, there is an office reserved for foreigners. That’s a good idea, because the Indian mess makes it impossible for us to buy our tickets and ensure we can take the bicycles inside. After checking if we can take the bikes in the train, we book the tickets. We did not expect it would be so easy!

low-4
low-42

Then, we go by walking, along the Ganges river, where there is the heart of the religious Varanasi (now focus, it’ll get complicated!).

Varanasi: The city has different names: Kashi, Benares, Varanasi. Kashi means the city of Shiva, because Shiva, after the death of his first wife, Sati, cremated her here. Benares is the Arabic name of the city. There are many muslim people in Varanasi, maybe 30%, and they produce the famous weaving, silk fabrics, pashminas, ! Finally, Varanasi is a portmanteau of the two rivers names that flow into the Ganges river: Varuna river, and Asi river.

Varanasi is a holy city for many religions: Hinduism of course. But also Jainism (they should always stay naked, they never wash and only eat things they can pick up!) . And Buddhism, since it is in the town of Sarnat, in the vicinity of Varanasi that Lord Buddha gave his first speech. So Varanasi is a very important centre of pilgrimage. As our guide explains us, Varanasi is a city with 24h of learning and 24h burning: many come here to study (including spiritual knowledge), and all the Hindus want to be cremated in Varanasi at their death, to get closer to the Nirvana (the paradise).

Casts: In India today, there are 5 main casts: the priests (brahmins), the warriors and rulers (Kshatriyas), the skilled traders, merchants, minor officials (vaisyas), the unskilled workers (sudras), and the untouchables (pariahs). In addition, each cast hase 7 subcasts. And for arranged marriage, not only the cast must match, but also the subcast.

Ghats: The famous and holy places to see are the Ghats. They are stairs, allowing to go down to the river. In the city, there are more than 80 ghats in total. Most of them were built by rich people, or Maharajahs, some 200 or 300 years ago. Some ghats are reserved for bathing, or for ceremonies, or for cremation. We start with the Assi ghat, the southernmost, and continue until Harish Chandra ghat. Assi ghat is very used for ceremonies, the Pujas, especially the ceremony of early morning, at 5h.

low-5

low-24
low-31
low-35
low-57

Tulsi ghat has the name of a famous writer/poet who lived in an house on this ghat in the 16th century. Tulsidas wrote the epic Ramcharitmanas, about the god Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu). Just behind the ghats, there are many buildings, from colonial time or before, that are now used as accommodation for Ashrams. Ashrams are like societies, working on charity, in order to help some people. For example, we see Ashrams for widows, for Sadhus (people who dedicated their life to spiritual knowledge, like hermits, spending their days smoking marijuana and meditating about the gods), for pilgrims, for the poor, ! The Sadhus are in white, or orange, while the Babas are the same but in black (kind of hardcore version, with a skull for meditation)

Is anyone still following? Where is the Baba?

low-28
low-50

low-59
low-12

So, to summarize, you have the Ganges river. On one side, you have different stairs to reach the water, with different purposes: ceremonies, bathing, or cremation. And above the stairs, you have buildings to provide accommodation and food to the ones who need it.

We pass by the Jain ghat, decorated with a huge Om symbol. The Om symbol is the biggest mantra (slogan) used during meditation. It’s a universal sign, for many religions. For Hindus, it’s the symbol of Shiva (anyway, anything superlative is the symbol of Shiva!). We have some Nepalese style momos for lunch. And just after, we go for the Harish Chandra ghat. It’s a ghat where they realize cremation. We see several piles of wood burning, with body being cremated inside. It’s quite shocking: you see the feet emerging from the wood, while the leg is getting burnt and the rest of the body is already totally black. Apparently, for the Hindus, it’s totally natural to see this.

Cremation ceremony: Sandip explains us in details the traditions when someone dies. As soon as the official papers of the decease are done, they prepare the body for the cremation. All the belongings of the deceased are removed, and given to the poor. It helps to break the attachment (and so go to the Nirvana). Then, the body is brought to the Ganges river, for a last purification in the water. For all the ceremony of cremation, the women are not allowed because they are too emotional. One person has been chosen by the deceased to be responsible for starting the fire. This fire lighter wears a traditional white saree for men. If the deceased is a man, he is totally dressed in white, while if it is a woman, she is dressed in red, with also red makeup. The family of the deceased buys the wood directly on the ghat. Between 130kg and 250kg of wood are needed to burn correctly a body. (In case you don’t have the money, there is now an electric cremation, that transforms the body into ashes in 45 minutes, for 500 rupees). It takes around 3h to burn down the body. The fire is taken care of by professionals, not by the family. Not all the parts burn entirely. Generally, the chest for men, and hips for women are not totally burnt. They are thrown into the Ganges. The rest of ashes are collected by the fire lighter, and brought home. During 10 days, this person cannot speak to anyone, has to wear the same saree, and has to come every morning for purification in the Ganges and then stay at home. Finally, on the 13th day, the ashes are thrown to the Ganges, and there is a big dinner with the family and friends.

This cremation ceremony is used for purifying the body of the deceased. There are 5 cases in which the cremation is not needed. In those cases, the body is placed in a boat to do 5 circles in the Ganges river for delivering it from the attachments, and then tied to a big stoned and sunk down in the river. (As a curiosity, it may happen that the ties get broken, in which case the body will float down the Ganges river! and some community doing black magics may use the body for their ceremony, they eat a little of it!). So, are not burnt:

  • Children under 12: because they are pure, they did not know the sexual relations, they don’t have attachments
  • Pregnant woman: because like the gods, they create life, and so are pure
  • People deceased from snake bites: because the snakes are animals of gods, and its venom purifies the body of the deceased
  • Sadhus (ermits): because they have a lot of knowledge that should not be destroyed
  • People who suffered from leprosy: it’s considered that if you have leprosy, it’s because you misbehaved in a previous life. So, the people dying of it, they suffered all their life to pay for it, and are pure.

Every day, in Varanasi, some 450 people are cremated.

Hindu Gods: During our stroll in the ghats, and later in the city, we see also many temples. Most of them for Shiva, Hanuman, Mother Ganga, ! In Hinduism, there are 3 main gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the keeper, and Shiva the destructor. Each of these gods has his vehicle. Shiva is the most powerful one. Shiva was married with Sati, but she died. After many solicitations from Parvati, he married her. Together, they have two sons: Kartik and Ganesh (the one with the elephant head). Shiva has 108 different names (and so appearances). Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu. Rama is married with Sita (careful, not Sati). Hanuman (the one in monkey shape) is a devotee to Rama. Mother Ganga represents the Ganges river, and is respected all over India. According to what they want, the Hindus have many Gods to pray: for good luck, it’s Ganesh. For love, it’s Krishna (another incarnation of Vishnu). For money, it’s Lakshmi. For power, it’s Hanuman! and so on.

So, here, you have Shiva (with his trident, cobra) and Parvati, and then Rama (with his bow) and Sita.

low-45
low-27

In India, they say they have 4 mothers: of course, the biological mother. But also Mother Ganga, representing the sacred river. The mother cow. And the mother goddess.

There are thousands of tales with adventures of the gods, explaining that the Ganges river flows from one hair or Shiva head, explaining why Ganesh has an elephant head, explaining why the symbol of Shiva is the Lingam, a phallic symbol, ! don’t hesitate to read more about these stories, it looks captivating.

After a nice pause in a restaurant nearby the Gange, the visit continues inside the old city, with many temples, and the Muslim neighbourhood, where they weave the sarees by hand, or work with silk, pashmina, …

low-37
low-36

low-41
low-44

Finally, we go back to the guest house, to digest today’s discoveries.

Thursday 23 January

After a good sleep, we pack our things, and get ready for taking the train this afternoon. Once we are ready, we go for a small walk along the Ganges river, where we went yesterday. We have lunch in Ashish cafĂ©, a very nice place near the Assi ghat. We have delicious food for cheap price: the Thalee is a set of 7-8 typical Indian food (rote, dal, chola, curd, !). And the French fries are home made, and absolutely divine. In the end, we do not have much of a walk, it’s more like a culinary expedition.

low-51

Finally, it’s time to go to the station. We have some margin, so we take time to go there. And today, in the middle of the afternoon, the traffic looks much less busy. In the station we go to the post section in order to leave the bicycles. There are a lot of forms to fill, including the frame number, the price of the bikes, ! And we spend the rest of the afternoon waiting there, in order to keep an eye on the bikes.

The train arrives at 19h and both the bikes and us, we take it without problem. The train is huges, with at least 30 wagons. We are in second class, sleepers, so with 3 superposed beds as we had in China or Vietnam. Well, there not so much comfort, but it’s ok for the night. And the people around us are also discrete, so in the end, the night was rather good.

Have a look to our small presentation video: