India: An Eye Opening Experience!

Day 7 – Banaras – December 5th, 2017

Oscar and I had no plans to meet this morning.  He set off early for a boat ride on the Ganges, and I woke up around 0830.  I decided to walk all along the ghats, all the way to Manikarnika, the ghat where they perform cremations.  As told by one of the locals, about 200 bodies are cremated everyday, all year round!  The early morning walk was calm and peaceful.  Men and some women took their early morning bath at the steps of the river while other men got their boats ready for the day ahead.  Wherever you walked, you were never very from someone selling chai.  I found this to be very convenient 🙂 As the crowds grew, so did the frequency of men selling various goods, from bags to toys to clothing.

As I arrived to Manikarnika I was greeted by a local, who decided to walk with me.  In the end, it was just about getting money from me and I fell into the trap.  Oh well.  As we were walking, however, he was explaining to me the process of the cremations.  I already had some knowledge, like the 3000 year old fire that still burns to this day, to the very few who are even allowed to touch the flame.  As I approached, there was a body of a man resting on the pyre.  The son of the father was smearing ghee over the bare skin of his father to keep the smell down, as I was told.  It was shortly after that I decided to leave as I was not ready to watch a body burn.  However, there were a couple other tourists who were taking it all in.  With my ‘donation’ given, I walked back and decided to head towards the famous Durga Mandir, also known as the Monkey Temple.  I had no agenda for the day except that this was my last full day here and I wanted to go on a boat ride and see the Aarti from the start.

You have to be careful walking the narrow alleyways and streets as cows roam around leaving huge piles of shit.  If you’re not careful, you will be stepping on the shit and possible falling (as it is also slippery!).  Thankfully, I avoided all obstacles.  Walking through the streets was different from walking in Delhi.  There was no smog to contend with.  Although hazy, it was welcoming.  Since Banaras (Varanasi), ancient city, you can only imagine how old some of the buildings are that lined the street.

I was not comfortable leaving my footwear at the steps of the Mandir so I decided not to go in.  I could have put them in my backpack but that would have been messy, especially with shoes.  Just outside the entrance of the Mandir were hawker stalls and I decided upon trying something new.  Not kachori but bati.  It was delicious and spicy; a perfect snack!

What’s the best way to wash it down?  With chai of course!  With streams of water in any major city in India, garbage is all too prevalent and Banaras is no exception.  The river banks were lined with garbage and rubble while animals such as pigs and eagles feasted.  A sad sight, but it is what it is.  Having walked for about 2 hours now since leaving the ghats, I headed back.  This time I went to the famous Assi Ghat.  I was surprised to see that this was not as populous during the day.  But it didn’t matter, the goal was to find a boat to go up along the river and back.  It’s not hard to find someone to take you.  Just walk up to the shore and within minutes you’ll have someone ask if you need a ride.  I opted for human power rather than a motorized boat.  I wanted the ride to be quiet, and after talking to this kid for about 5 minutes, I convinced him to get me a person that would row.

The kid found me Ramesh.  He took me all the way up to Manikarnika and back.  I asked him to drop me off sooner but he said not to worry and ended up rowing the boat for a good hour and a half.  It was hard work and you could tell.  I knew it was hard work from the start so I didn’t bother bargaining for a better price.  In the end it comes down to what the moment is about.  The people I came across are hard-working and you have to appreciate that fact.

What kept Ramesh going was paan, especially the tobacco and chuna.  He also quenched his thirst at one point simply by drinking the cool water straight from the river.  The ride itself was calm and relaxing.  You could hear the occasional motor powered boat crossing the river.  The river itself was surprisingly clean, it was not littered with floating garbage or any dead bodies.  I ended up giving Ramesh ₹500 and he thanked me.  I offered to send him his pictures but unfortunately his smartphone is somewhere deep in the river as well lol.

Assi Ghat was quite a walk from where I had to go so I walked all along the steps towards the room.  I needed to rest for a bit before the Aarti started so a shower and nap were due.  I was hungry and found a place close by called Bowl of Compassion.  The reviews were great so I gave it a shot.  A roof top restaurant with a school/hotel below was interesting.  This place provides free education for the poorer kids as well as food.  Great concept.  The restaurant was adjacent to other buildings and being high up I got to see kids flying kites.  I was mesmerized after only having seen this in movies, and it looked really fun!  The kid on the next building was able to snag someone else’s kite, only to lose his on the next round.  The food was alright, nothing to write home about.  For whatever reason it took about 30 minutes in which time I was served a warm Beer.  The guy told me their fridge wasn’t working.  But what got me really cheesed was that after I was done I asked for a bottle of water, which was super cold.  Now how do you do that with a broken fridge?

I found another place with the help of Google called Babba Lassi.  Even with a super filled belly I just HAD to.  Babba Lassi as the name suggests is well known for their thick fresh lassi.  This shop is super small but also pretty cool, as can be seen from the writing on the walls.  This was the Guava Lassi; super thick and super rich, and super delicious!

Guava Lassi

Guava Lassi

I don’t know how I did it but I managed to get up and walk.  It was just about sunset and the Aarti was about to start.  I managed to get a seat in the front.  Over the next 30 minutes, the crowds grew and at the sound of the shankha (conch shell) the Aarti started.  The smell in the air was absolutely intoxicating.  Incense or dhoop was burning and filling the air with a sweet smell.  This is something that you need to experience if you are in Banaras!  The Aarti might now be more of a tourist attraction but it’s still important for the locals who come there.  There were four pedestals with four priests who were chanting and synchronizing their movements.  There are five main stages to the Aarti – blowing of the conch shell, prayers with the incense, prayers with dhoop, with diyas and waving with a peacock or yak tail fan.  Devotees have the option to partake in the Aarti by offering a small donation.  As the Aarti came to an end, donation trays went around and I put in ₹100.

I was still stuffed after a hefty meal and dessert (the Lassi) and decided I needed to walk some more.  Walking through the narrow alleys you could still smell dhoop burning as the shop-keepers keep them lit.  You will pass many textile, jewellery, souvenir and food shops.  It is very very easy to get disoriented!  If you are travelling light, Banaras is the place to buy clothing.  At very reasonable prices there is almost no point in even bartering!  I managed to pick up two very nice cotton shirts for only ₹150 each, so about $3 CAD!!

Walking through the alleyways

Walking through the alleyways

No matter what, you have to try some of the fresh hot gulab jamun.  Albeit the fact that it’s sugar overload, it’s totally worth it after a long day of walking.

Fresh hot Gulab Jamun

Fresh hot Gulab Jamun

Somehow, I ended up again at the cremation site and this time was able to witness a lit fire!  Even seeing the burning from far was kind of eerie.

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