Today was our only full day in Varsnasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and one of holy cities of Hinduism. It is believed that bathing in the Ganges river washes away a lifetime of sin. Since the Ganges plays such an important role in the spirituality of the city, it is lined with temples and ghats (series of steps reaching down to a body of water) all along the western bank.
We made it another early morning to go on a boat ride down the Ganges and observe the many ghats front on. There must have been hundreds of rowboats out in the water along with us, all doing the same thing. It was cool to see the ghats come to life as the sun rose up and people started to come down into the river to bathe and pray.
One of the recommended places to eat on our travel book was literally right around the corner from our hotel, so we decided we'd skip the free hotel breakfast and try this place instead. It was a nice little cafe which also doubled as a store for locally crafted textile goods.
Unfortunately the food was extra average. I had a masala omelet and a banana muffin which were nothing I couldn't have made better. In their defense, the book listed it as the best espresso in town, and the cappuccino I had was the best cup of coffee I've had in India. And extra points for the cool and laid back atmosphere and fre wifi.
After breakfast, the girls went for a tour of the city with our local driver while I roamed around and explored on my own. I like to set out with minimal objectives and then just wander around and get lost in alleys as I go wherever something catches my eye. I realize this form of free roaming exploration is not for everyone, which is why I like to do it alone. I don't like to feel like I'm dragging anyone along, and by extension feel like they are holding me back.
Anyways, I started by heading north when I came upon Harishindra Ghat, one of a couple of "burning ghats" dedicated to the cremation of bodies. As I arrived there a funeral procession came down the steps carrying a body on a bamboo stretcher. The body was wrapped in golden cloths and covered in orange marigold garlands. They carried the body all the way into the river where they submerged it and then brought it back on land. Once they set it down they went back and forth into the water to scoop water in their hands to pour it on the head of the deceased. While I watched the family perform these rituals, two more bodies were brought down. It is amazing how death is presented so matter-of-factly here. I watched for a while, but without knowing how long it would take until they would light the pyre, I decided to move on.
I continued walking up a mile and a half stretch of ghats, enjoying the scenery as much as the people watching. People do everything there, from bathing, to laundry, to playing cricket. These series of steps are so central to life here that there is always something interesting happening to capture your attention. Unfortunately it was high noon, the light was bad, and it was irritatingly hot. I think I'll return in the early morning to photograph the scenes.... If I wake up in time, of course.
When I thought I'd gone far enough, I headed westward into town and then back south toward the hotel. Walking along the alleys provided a very welcome relieve from the sweltering sun. On the down side, I had way more cow poop minefields to contend with. Let's just say if they had been actual land mines I would have died several times over.
As I made my way through the narrow alleys I came across a herd of buffalo walking single file in the same direction. I let them pass and went into the middle of the ally to take a picture when I heard a little kid yelling at me in Hindi. I turned to look at him and saw him pointing behind me and when I turned around I saw another buffalo, which had fallen behind, coming straight for me. Thank god for that kid because I do not think that buffalo would have stopped for me!
A bit farther down the road I saw an open door revealing a nice little courtyard with a sleeping cat and dog posing perfectly for me. I barely set one foot in when the dog jumped into full guard mode and started coming at me barking. It kinda freaked me out because of the thousands of dogs I've seen here I hadn't seen a single one bark at people. The children of the house came out to quiet the dog down and to tell me he wouldn't bite. They were really sweet and asked me to come in. Of course at that point the scene was ruined. I pretended like I was still trying to take a photo for their sake, but even the cat wouldn't cooperate. He simply wouldn't stop shoving his face in the camera, haha. I didn't get the picture I wanted but I got an even better memory.
We went searching for another place recommended on our book, but when we got there we we came to find out that it was a vegetarian restaurant so we hightailed it outta there. We went to the cafe right across from the one we went to in the morning and it was very clear that they were trying to emulate everything the other place was doing. I just ordered some juice and saved my appetite for the hotel restaurant. There I tried the other mutton dish. It was pretty excellent, but not quite as good as the one I had the previous night.
An aarti is a Hindu rirual of offerings to Goddess Ganga, the Holy Ganges personified. The ritual is performed every evening on the ghats, but the biggest and most impressive one is held at Dasaswamedh Ghat. There, eight priests perform a series of synchronized fire offerings while chants are sung to the rhythm of ringing bells. People then cup their hands over the flames and pour the smoke over their heads to receive Goddess Ganga's blessing.
Despite getting there just as the ceremony started we were able to work our way to a pretty good spot close to all the action. During the ceremony all three of us got blessed by a priest and afterwards we floated lamps down the river to bless our families.