India is an experience. Everything here is pushing your senses.
The sunrise was beautiful, somewhere around 6:15 am but I was up earlier to get it when it comes up. In spite of everything it is a pleasure to be on the ghat bin the morning and see the pujas, the offers to the Ganga, the prayers, the candles, the fumigating sticks, and many, many, many flowers. They will become the garbage that clogs everything eaten by the cows latter on but its morning beauty is uplifting. I was trying to get some shots with people praying but it is very hard to know who will do what and I had to move from ghat to ghat just to notice that behind me there were interesting things happening. Finally, when the sun was too high to be nice anymore I left to explore the smaller lanes and alleys towards the Golden Temple.
The most famous temple in Varanasi is Vishvanath Temple. The current terrorist situation in India calls for extreme measures so nothing is allowed in the temple except the offers. So I went to the hotel around 10:30 am to pack, free the room, charge a little more the batteries from camera and iPhone and left the entire baggage, except passport and money at the hotel and took the way of the Temple. The temple is hidden in some alley behind the main ghat, together with the mosque built by Auzerghab and its proximity is flagged by the long lines of pilgrims caring offers followed a very heavy presence of police and military that checks you in order to let you enter the compound. They body check you but very seriously, not like in the airports. Two guys, one after the other body checked me and have in mind that there are thousands of pilgrims coming here……I was allowed to get inside the enclosure , the temple being inside beside another barrier of police. Theoretically only the Hindus are allowed inside the temple but being India, and people being nice in general, the foreigners are allowed if they fill up their passport, address in a log. I did the process, I left my sandals and got inside after another body check, the third one. All the beautiful and old stuff cannot be filmed/photographed and this temple is really very interesting. The architecture is kind of generic but is covered in gold and silver and the hordes of pilgrim make a great show. But it is true that if they let people use the cameras would be a complete traffic jam inside with so many pilgrims so they ask you to keep moving. When I got out I was up for a surprise finding out my sandals missing. Somebody “confused” my sandals with their slippers and the first thing I thought was of C who would be the happiest person to find out that my sandals are gone. I suspect that she made some arrangements with the Indian mob to hijack them. They were a relic of the past, sandals that traveled the entire Asia, and they looked like this, as a result they were banned from the house and spent last winter on the deck. The missing sandals was not a big deal at all, especially at the end of the trip, and being in India not even the fact that I had to walk barefoot on the streets. You have to do it no matter what because in temples and their compounds, that are as clean as the streets, you are forced to do it. Obviously, if you had to walk like this in any other city you may be concerned about the broken glass, nails, rusted metal, lit cigarettes and many other, but in that moment I realized that these kind of things do not exist on the Indian streets and alleys. There is NO industrial garbage because everything is collected and reused, the only things that rusts in the sun are the carcasses of mangled trucks that cannot be cut into pieces by the nearby locals in order to be reused. But the main problem is to walk barefoot at 12:00 pm when is blistering hot so I had to plan my trip to the hotel in the shade and only the last 100 meters would be in the sun. It was also the option to look for some flip-flops but I could not locate a store. On the way I stopped for a break at the German Bakery, made with tables like in Morocco where people lay down on pillows being full only with foreigners and I got a banana chocolate pancake, my brunch. Varanasi is full of foreigners of all kinds and countries. From the guys lost in India who are living here for long time and are dressed in hippie clothes, to the ones who are migrating between Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangkok, to the more uptight young couples who will never come again -you could tell easily-, to the older couples coming in a trip after they worked all their life in demanding jobs to put the kids out of college. All of them are roaming the ghats and the main streets with red faces heat stroke, wasted and like in a trance, tired of all the aggression that surrounds and with which many are not used. The older they are the more disfigured their faces look…I got very quickly at the hotel, got my sneakers and left right away to explore again the area around the temple. I got in some narrow lanes but all of them communicate, cross and merge coming to main roads.
At one point I saw a funerary ceremony going to the burning ghat. The dead is completely covered, like a mummy and covered in shinny orange, the color of the monks. It is carried by 4 fast moving guys and are followed by a whole procession dressed in white, the color of death, that has to move very fast to keep up with the guys in front. They will go to the burning ghat where the dead will be deepened in Ganga after being put in position on the funerary pyre that will burn for about 3 hours. After more walks I went to the Dom’s house, the leader of the untouchables, these being the people that perform the funerary and are allowed to touch the dead. The Brahmins and all the other castes consider this unclean but this stratification comes with advantages and job security. Only some dalits are allowed to do this job, other are allowed to clean the streets, to sweep the compounds, etc. Coming back toward my hotel I stopped to take some shots from the shi-shi roof top restaurant I ate the previous night, “The Dolphin” and latter to buy another CD with Krisha Das. But is hot and I took a stop to eat something, a honey nut, totally dry, cake and get some Internet time.
In the afternoon I am leaving to Delhi with Poorva Express that leaves Benares at 18:46pm arriving Delhi tomorrow morning so I would leave at 5:00 pm for the train station. This may be the last posting till I get in New York, where I already have meetings all next week. I think that is still better in India. I got back at the hotel close to 4:30 pm and found an entire assortments of foreigners in the lobby waiting to leave somewhere. In India you are constantly on the go waiting for all means of transportation. I left at 5:00 pm with a couple from Montreal who was going to Kolkata and got a cyclo and went to the train station. The best resource for travel in Varanasi is the tourist office from the station. Helpful and very articulate in English they are always pointing you in the right direction. Also they give you a free map of the city that is really great. I finally carried my luggage on the platform just to find out that the train, Poorva Express, was 30 minutes delayed. No big deal, I said, but after 30 minutes it became one hour, and after one hour the station master said that it will come right away: “10-20 minutes is here”. And he was right, the train came and with a little more than an hour delay left to Delhi. The carriages definitely saw better times. Relatively clean, they have in AC2, 4 berth separated by curtains from the corridor in which there were two more berth one on top of the other. So the passing corridor was narrow being not so easy to carry your luggage. But it was AC and it worked. I got a berth by the window on the lower side in the corridor and I got myself in the sleeping bag refusing the sheets offered latter by the conductor. This proved a good move, especially when I noticed in the morning the tones of gray the sheets had and to no surprise because when the conductor came back to gather them, he very neatly pack them ready to be reused. Not too many laundry people around and no Ganga….The express was supposed to stop 4 times till Delhi and he did his stops till morning when with the delay he got before I expected an arrival time at around 8:30 am but the moment the sun came up, maybe the heat made it change its mood and it got lazy and slow to the point that it stopped for an hour and everything went downhill from it. It started and stopped continuous in every tiny station that I ended up to know more than I needed about these places, meanwhile train after train passing it and gloriously we entered the New Delhi station at 1:00 pm with 6 hours delay.