We made a pit stop in Kanpur to see my paternal grandmother and uncle (chacha). My parents also happened to be visiting at the same time which was a bonus! We had great conversations, ate a lot of chaat and consumed a lot of alcohol – something that is somewhat of a trend when Dad and Raj, Chacha and Raj or Dad and Chacha get together. So it was triple the enthusiasm this time ;). Raj collected firewood from the backyard and built a bonfire on our last night there 🙂
Here is a funny picture of Dad getting a massage from chacha who in turn got a surprise massage from Raj!
My grandma and I swapped stories about Rishikesh. She had been there in the late 1950s with four kids in tow (my uncle hadn’t been born then and Dad was just seven years old!). She described crossing the Ram jhoola and hiking up the hill to her uncle’s cottage where they spent a few days. She remembered acres of mango orchards and I was sad to report that I hadn’t seen a single mango tree. She also took all the kids down to the Ganga for a dip in the holy water. I was imagining Dad as a seven year old chilling on the banks of the Ganga surrounded by mango trees 🙂
Kanpur is also on the bank of the Ganga but it is far from a holy place. The leather tanneries let out their waste in the Ganga making it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. While there were no worshippers at the ghats in Kanpur, this pollution didn’t seem to stop or bother the believers who were happy to take a dip, bathe, and swim in the waters downstream at Varanasi, our next stop.
Varanasi is the oldest and one of the holiest cities in India where Hindus from all over the country come to die or cremate loved ones. Many Hindus believe that dying at Varanasi brings moksha. Bodies are cremated on the banks of the Ganga, ashes are sprinkled in the river and heads are shaved for the rituals around death. Death, a concept that frightens me, is so out in the open at Varanasi. The city is so in your face, so raw. I’m glad I went to Varanasi but I don’t think I ever want to go back.
We arrived in Varanasi by train and ‘splurged’ $20 a night for a room with a balcony overlooking the river. We took a boat ride the next morning to explore the various ghats and watch the sun come up. Dawn breaking over the Ganga was beautiful. The ghats came to life with people washing their clothes and themselves, folks offering early morning prayers along the bank and tourists in the multiple boats being chased around by hawkers in smaller boats. The ghats were typically named after a temple or the ruins of the palace by the Ganga.
Our boat driver gave us minimal commentary and subsequently, information about the different ghats and their significance. We came to the Harishchandra ghat where dead bodies are cremated. Three bodies were being cremated on big pyres of wood. Our boat driver came to a standstill there and mentioned that bodies are cremated on that ghat 24 hours a day. The area started to look like a Niagara falls of sort with boats filled with tourists looking on to a family’s seemingly personal moment, some taking photos with zoom lenses. It was a bit shameful, really. I asked the boat driver if he thought it was weird that so many strangers seem to partake into something so personal. He responded with – everybody has to come here one day which meant that everybody’s dead body will be burnt at this ghat someday, so what’s the shame in people looking on. Anyone and everyone who lives in these religious towns is a philosopher! With life and death so in your face all the time, I guess one is forced to think about these things constantly. We asked our boat driver to hurry away from the cremation ghats and drop us off at the main Dasashwamedh ghat from where we could walk back to Assi ghat to our hotel. We saw the same sights on foot as we had seen from the boat including the cremation ghat. This will sound bad but should probably not be very surprising – it smelt like barbeque. I tried not to look at the burning wood pyres and hurried along. And then we came across a sight that is probably etched into my memory forever. A family of five – men and women – were getting their heads shaved by a barber. Beautiful black hair fell onto the steps of the ghat. Nobody was crying. In fact, they were very composed and just looked onto the next person getting their head shaved. For the loss of their loved one and hair, I was overcome with emotion, tears and nausea all at the same time. Raj noticed this and hurried me back to the safety of our hotel room.
After some discussion we came to the conclusion that Varanasi was a bit much for us and we decided to take on the easier, lighter side of Varanasi – narrow alleyways with markets, graffiti and art, even a beautiful Indian classical music concert. We spent an evening with some other travelers drinking beers at one of the nicest (and only) bars in Varanasi – this made me miss my friends back home so much!
Raj and I acknowledged that it was probably a bit of a cop-out to not get over the emotions and truly immerse ourselves into the culture, to get the true Banaras experience. But even now, in retrospect, I’m not sure I could handle the alternative. We left Varanasi a day earlier than planned to visit Sarnath, just 18 kms away.
Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples in 528 BC in Sarnath, making it one of the holiest places for Buddhism. The Dhammekh stupa was marks the spot where Buddha gave his sermon. We spent a day walking around the ruins of the stupas and the old monasteries, and were lucky to see a group of monks chanting in front of the Dhammekh stupa. While these ruins are also protected by the Archeological Division of the Govt. of India, they didn’t seem to be taken care of as well as the temples in Khajurao. People were walking up and down the excavated brick structures in spite of written warnings, and there didn’t seem to be any guards to stop these folks. I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t enough funds diverted to these ruins because they were Buddhist, and not Hindu.
Many pilgrims from Buddhist countries come here to pray. Multiple countries such as Thailand, China, Japan and even Myanmar have set up their own temples and monasteries around the old ruins. We spent the night at the Tibetan monastery with cold bare rooms, great traditional food and surprisingly fast wi-fi!
By popular demand, here is another picture of Raj with one his gai (cow) friends 🙂 This is a baby cow, just three months old!
We were finally at the end of our spiritual/religious journey in India – a mix of good and bad, overwhelming and sobering experiences, sometimes fun other times not so much. We were ready for some fun, light hearted experiences at least for the next few days and hopped on a train to Bengal to see a tiger or two!