A few months ago, I wrote another post called “A Day in the Life of a Nomad” (Link) that described, as you might imagine, a random day of my travels. It was written about a particular day from my trip to Moldova over the summer and at the end of that post I mentioned that I would write about more random days from my travels every now and then.
So here it goes…the second installment of this random series about random days of my traveling life.
And since I’m in India, I figured that I would write up an Indian version, describing a full day from my visit to Varanasi this week, the city that I highlighted through photos (link) in my last post…
(If you want to really understand how crazy a trip to India can be, be sure to at least read the section below with the subtitle “The Boat Ride & The Human Leg”.)
A Very Early Start
At 5:30am, my alarm went off, something that was quite surprising considering how many times I have set it incorrectly on this trip and ended up missing out on some activity, or even a train, that I had booked in advance. This time the alarm worked (or rather, my own brain worked) and even though early mornings are not my friend at all, I forced myself out of bed this time around.
I brushed my teeth, quickly threw on some clothes, including my jacket as the morning temperature was quite cool, and walked outside. And then I turned left onto the narrow lane in front of the hotel, turned right, headed down a set of huge concrete steps under a dark tunnel, turned right again and there I was, standing at the top of Rana Mahal Ghat, one of over one hundred ghats (steps that lead down to the Ganges River) in this city.
In front of me was the holy Ganges River and after descending the thirty steps of the ghat, I was standing on its banks, along with dozens of holy men, bathing Indians, laundry-men washing clothes in the river by beating each item against a rock, cows wandering around, chai sellers serving up cup after cup after cup of steaming chai and of course, no shortage of boatmen trying to attract customers for a sunrise boat ride.
I had pre-organized by boat ride with the same boatman who had taken me out on the river the day before and so I walked over to the next ghat where this man and his boat were waiting.
And that’s when my day really began…
The Boat Ride & The Human Leg
For one hour I enjoyed a slow ride close to the banks of the Ganges where I was able to get a perfect view of all the activity taking place on every ghat we passed. There were maybe one hundred or more other boats out there on the water as well, creating a beautiful scene as the sun rose above the horizon, and as the bells starting ringing at the Hindu temples and the city started to come even more alive, I was quite happy that I had actually woken up for this activity.
Once the hour ride came to an end, my boatman, Lalu, dropped me off where we had begun and after paying him 150 Rupees ($3 USD), I turned around to walk back to my hotel. And that’s when my jaw dropped and I suddenly found myself unable to move at all.
There before me were two dogs standing only a couple of meters away from the water. Not only were these dogs standing but they were also eating. The thing is, they were eating a human leg, complete from knee to toes, that had obviously washed ashore, a leg that belonged to somebody whose dead body had been dropped into the Ganges instead of being cremated. (As Varanasi is the holiest city for Hindus, many people come or are brought here specifically for cremation.)
I think I watched these dogs chew this leg for about fifteen minutes, and I even took a few photos as well, photos that I won’t display on this site. It was a disturbing and nauseating scene, yet fascinating at the same time. India, once again, despite my ten visits to this country, had managed to shock me and to challenge my beliefs about what is normal in life.
After that experience, still feeling strange and a bit ill from what I had seen, I returned to my room, my small but comfortable room with a view of the Ganges from my window, and almost immediately I fell asleep.
Lunch & An Old City Wander
Two hours later I awoke feeling better, but hungry, and so, following a water pressure-less shower, which basically involved standing under a tiny stream of hot water dripping down from the shower head, I was out the door and off to the Shiva Cafe, a small restaurant run by a group of Nepalis that serves up some of the most consistently delicious food I had found in this city.
And even though it was somewhat of a struggle to eat my late breakfast (omelet, brown bread and potatoes) due to the image of those dogs eating that leg that constantly appeared in my head, thus sucking my appetite away for a few minutes at a time, I managed to finish it all after about an hour.
Heading back outside, I began my post-meal wander which took me all over the Old City, down dozens of narrow lanes full of tiny shops selling a few basic items such as bottled water, snacks and cigarettes, full of tailors using 100-year old sewing machines, sweet stalls, Hindu shrines and temples, silk shawl sellers, juice stands, ancient crumbling homes, massive piles of trash and endless piles of cow excrement, cows walking around as if they rule the city (which they almost do), along with some guesthouses and restaurants sprinkled in the mix.
It’s a centuries old city that certainly feels centuries old.
The Burning of Bodies
Lost among the lanes as usual, I had no idea where I was most of the time and so I was quite surprised when I suddenly arrived at the far end of Manikarnika Ghat. I had thought that I was far away from the river but now I was standing next to it. And as I stood there, a man approached me while holding out his hand, which I gladly shook. He then held onto my hand quite tightly and as I tried to pull away he said, “No money. I don’t want money.” He started to massage my hand despite my efforts to get my hand back and then he showed me a piece of cloth on the ground and asked if I wanted a hand massage. I said, “That involves money, you said ‘no money’.” He just released my hand and walked away.
Turning the corner, I soon stood at the other end of Manikarnika Ghat, an area that is also known as the “Burning Ghat”. This is where cremations take place 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with up to 200 bodies cremated per day. And all of these bodies are cremated right there in plain view, on open flames along the edge of the river.
Within seconds of my arrival, a third man came up to me and quickly started telling me about the Burning Ghat. Within three minutes, he was explaining that he worked at the ‘hospice’ located behind the ghat and that ‘most foreigners give 1000 Rupees donation so that a family can afford the wood needed for someone to be cremated’. Knowing this scam all too well, I asked the man for his work ID or some paper that showed he did indeed work at the hospice. He just looked at me for a moment and then walked away as well.
Finally left on my own, I climbed up to the balcony overlooking the cremations where I stood for an hour, just watching body after body arrive, each carried on a homemade stretcher and marched through the streets as the family members and friends chant and pray until they reach the Burning Ghat. The bodies are then placed in line until it is their turn to be burned.
I watched feet and hair burn that day, I smelled the burning flesh, I observed a head fall off a corpse and I witnessed the charred remains of one body being poked with a long stick until it turned completely to ash. There was chanting, bodies being dunked in the river, cows eating the flowers that lay upon the waiting corpses and piles of wood being carried and laid out everywhere in order to burn yet another body.
It’s quite an experience to be standing at this particular ghat, an experience that forced me to remember how we all end up the same when this life is over, as dust, unable to take any of our possessions with us. One minute we’re a body and an hour later we are ash. It’s an intense thought and when you see the process unfold before you, it’s even more powerful.
A Ceremony, Dinner & Work
Eventually I pulled myself away from Manikarnika Ghat, and after a slow walk back towards the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, I found a good spot near the water to watch the nightly puja, a Hindu ceremony in which prayers are made to the holy Ganges River. For an hour I just watched the ceremony in silence, listening to the bells ringing once again and listening to the chanting and singing, watching the bowls of colorful flowers float along the water and watching the devout make their offerings, all while realizing that Varanasi is as unique a destination as there is in this world. Here, travelers have no choice but to witness, experience and interact with such a sheer intensity of raw life, so much good and so much bad, the serene and the crazy, the awe-inspiring and the unbelievably shocking, the holy and the most unholy, the dirty and the dirtier, all crammed together into this one city.
Once the ceremony came to an end at around 8pm, my day began to wind down. I walked through the Old City over to a small restaurant that I had eaten at during my first visit to this city back in 2003 and I sat down to enjoy what turned out to be one of the best malai kofta dishes that I’ve ever tasted. I finished my meal with a chai, paid my bill and picked up a bottle of water and a Cadbury Fruit & Nut chocolate bar from a nearby shop.
And then I went back to my room where I worked on my laptop for four hours while trying to get the one hundred or so ants out of my bed.
I fell asleep at around 1am, another day in India having come to an end.