We're in the holiest and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India - Varanasi. It's supposed to be the craziest, the most spiritual city ever, and I was super excited about it, as well, a little bit worried because I thought if this is the craziest city, how will I feel after it, will everything just look plane like fries without ketchup? To my big luck, I didn't feel anything, no craziness, and no spirituality, Andy loved it though, he said it's a city where you could live in. It has everything you need for a normal life, as well as western food and if you want to get immersed in the culture, just make a trip to the river.
Pretty much everybody we met who's been to Varanasi, got really really sick. Sometimes it went for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes people ended up in the hospital. There are 2 reasons for that. One, the river Ganga - the holiest river in India, the water is said to come out of Shiva's feet, is the dirtiest thing I've ever seen, and even though restaurants don't use river water for cooking, they do use it for washing the dishes. Another reason is that in the past greedy medical practitioners, made deals with restaurants to put poison in the foreigner’s food to make them sick, then treat them and claim insane amounts of money from the insurance companies. Unfortunately tourists not only got very sick, some of them have even died. We never ever ordered any street food or any freshly squeezed fruit juices and only bought fruits that had to be peeled, drank only bottled water, and ate in the most recommended LP restaurants that were constantly full of tourists. We didn't get sick, and as far as I know, we are in the minority!
I wanted to buy a pashmina. We went to the recommended shop that sold them along with scarves and saris. There are literary thousands of shops selling that staff, but most of them are fake, others don't know English, and still others would hold you in a death grip and won't allow you to leave, if you will leave without buying anything, they'll be terribly upset, and you might hear some unpleasant rambling behind your back. Shopping in India is not enjoyable at all, there is too much pressure to buy and you don't even know the price. For that reason we went to the recommended shop where the owner had perfect English, was polite, calm and relaxed and told us everything there is to know about pashmina. He asked me to rate different qualities of silk, and told me how they're made, and how to test them for purity. He burnt maybe 6 different scarves for me (threads, not whole scarves :) ), letting me see and smell the effect of the fire on the material. Polyester turns and smells like plastic, some others smell like burnt plants, some leave a lot of ash behind, while others leave a very small trace of very fine ash, and that's the one I bought. The best quality ever, with the wool produced in very small section of the world, in high plateaus such as Kashmir, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there are goats with straight hairs. It didn't take me long to decide on the quality, it took me much much longer to decide on the color. The colors are so beautiful, they're two-sided, and they blend one into another in a perfect unison. When I had some idea on what I liked, he would take another stack of pashminas and spread them all over the gigantic bed (that's how shopping is done in India, on a huuuuge bed!). When I was finally down to 3, it took me another hour to pick the one I liked. He didn't mind though because at that time there were no other clients. When I finally chose the one I liked, which is pink on one side and darker pink on the other side (they don't have to be the same shade. I really like one that was green on one side, and red on the other, but Andy said it looked too Retro style), the owner took my scarf and pulled a thread out of it to do the burning test. A look of horror was in my eyes as he pulled it out, and I had to close my eyes not to watch my scarf being pulled to pieces. It was only in my mind though, it looked just as perfect after 1 thread was missing. He said he wouldn't allow me to buy it unless I'll be sure of its authenticity. I quickly took it and hid it behind my back telling him that he's not allowed to touch my scarf anymore, I trust him and no burning sacrifices have to be further made! :)
Andy thought it's unfair that only I bought an Indian souvenir, and his hands got itchy to spend some money as well. We went into the best known suit store for men where for the strangest reason ever tailor made suits are cheaper than the ones that are already made!! He went with my material choice, and ordered the suit in probably a quarter of time that it took me to choose a pashmina :) It takes them 2 days to make the suit, and it costs $90. If I'll ever need business suits, I'm flying to India! :)
Next day we woke up early to take a 5am boat ride along Ganga to see all the activity at the ghats. It was a very relaxing ride except that at 6am it was already boiling hot. I think I got my revenge on Indians that morning, taking their pictures with them being unable to do absolutely anything about it. Ganga is the holiest river, and people do everything in it. They swim or just dip themselves into it, they wash their cloths, pray, meditate, do yoga, put candles with their wishes, take a shower in it, and I saw some drink it too ... that's disgusting. A sure way to go to heaven fast!
What can be holier than the holiest river in the holiest city? Indians believe in reincarnation. If you do well in this life, in the next life, you'll be born into a higher class, and if you do badly, you can be reborn as an animal or an insect. To die or to be buried in Varanasi releases you from the cycle or reincarnation and you will hopefully go to heaven. Along our walk near the ghats we stopped near a burning ghat where dead bodies are paraded through the city streets while chatting ram ram ram ram and then burnt in the public view. One of the guys who worked there came to talk to us and explain the process. 5 kinds of people can NOT be burnt, and they are children, pregnant women, sadhus (holy men), people who died from a snake bite and lepers. The reason is that they are already blessed and pure (snake is one of Shiva's symbols), but burning lepers can spread the disease around, so instead they are tied to the rock and sunk into the river. If a person who's dying has a wish to be burnt in Varenasi, the family members better fulfill their wish, otherwise the spirit will come and hunt them. The body is walked through the streets, then dipped into the holy water of Ganga to cleanse it and to remove the bad karma. It's then placed on 350 kgs of wood (different wood costs different price with sandal wood being the most expensive) with average price about $80. It's massaged by 5 different oils, and then relatives put more water on it, and walk around the body 5 times for the symbols of water, air, fire, earth and soul. Women are not allowed in the ghat because they are too emotional and if they'll cry, then their sorrow will not allow the soul to go to nirvana or even worse they will jump into the fire themselves. The body is then set alight. It actually burns much slower than I anticipated. A few minutes later the feet come towards each other, and the arms spring up 90 degrees with fingers in a spasm like position. It takes about 3 hours to burn. An hour later the skull is smashed by one of the relatives (usually a husband or a brother) and that's when the soul is released. 3 hours later all that's left are the strongest bones in the body, the rib cage of a man and hip bones of a woman. These bones are then picked up by the relative and are thrown into the river. And that's the cycle of life, fish eat the bones, people eat the fish, dogs and goats eat the remainder of the body which didn't burn. Once the ash had time to cool down, the untouchables (people who burn the bodies) collect the jewelry that comes from the burnt corpses and sell them on the market. Pretty good job because when people are getting burnt, they put the best cloths and the best jewelry for such a special occasion.
Pictures of the ghats are strictly prohibited, but I still managed to take a few. At some time taking blind guesses, at others using Andy as a shield. These still didn't turn out to be that great, so some of the pictures I copied from the internet.
At night time we went to one of the holiest ghats. For a few days me and Andy had some arguments, our honeymoon was over. I guess it's hard to be with a person 24/7 right away without even knowing anything about the other person. We come from different backgrounds, we had different upbringing, different believes, different types of friends. Once he told me that a guy with a mo-hock was so popular in the bar, all girls went for him! Mo-hock??? Yeeeewwuuu ... I don't know a single girl who would go for a guy with a mo-hock! The only thing we have in common is the ability to drive each other crazy ... not on purpose of course. I once asked him how we managed to travel that long together, and he said that probably we take advantage in hanging out with a person with whom we'd never hang out in our regular lives ... I guess it's true. We had another argument at the ghat, and I left to watch the activity around the river alone. Andy then came and gave me a candle for me to make a wish (how very nice of him considering the circumstances). We lit it up, and I put it in the river wishing for understanding. Later on we became a part of a ceremony. I'm not sure what this ceremony was all about, but it involved a guy all dressed up standing on a very pretty table with a bunch of items on them, doing 7 motions with the hand in 4 directions, repeating the procedure with every item, and there are LOTS of items! Something smoky, then a steel cobra vessel, something that looks like a mop, a shell ... I was bored out of my mind! I rested my head on my hand only to be approached by some dude and telling me to clap. We then chanted and clapped some more, then we were given flowers and went to the river to throw them in the water. Then a line up formed for people to be blessed but at that time we made our escape. I think watching this ceremony from a balcony of a restaurant is much more entertaining!
Next day we decided to take a day off of each other. One day we're separate, and people already wonder what happened. The owner of the guest house, the waiter in the restaurant, everybody has to stick their nose into our business. While I was in the restaurant and having the best apple pie with ice cream and a frappe, I noticed that I'm all covered in ash. The dead people are now a part of me.
I went to get a pedicure which was loooong overdue. I actually thought that I shouldn't get one in India because there is an actual use of elephant skin. You have to take your shoes off at every temple and in a lot of stores, and most of the time the surface is boiling hot or uneven with rocks, and a delicate skin would not do well in these conditions. But my heels got so permanently black that it was embarrassing! I took a shower before leaving, and besides sitting in the restaurant, it was a total of a 5 minute walk. When I put my feet into the hot water of the bucket, the water turned black. She scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed my feet, but they were still black. She would put the tool down, look at my foot, shake her head and pick it up again to scrub some more. I can't even say anything, and I look down. She tells me not to worry because the French women and Canadian women and German women all have very very dirty feet. Hey!!! Our feet are not dirty always, they are just dirty because of India. When I travelled for 1.5 years in South America and Africa, my feet were perfect without any pedicures. Then she pointed at my newly surfacing hair on my legs and asked me if I shave. Of course I shave I replied. She shook her head again ... no, no, women should wax, shaving is only for men!
I walked for 2km along the river and ghats. In these 2kms, I haven't met one single woman and even though it was in the early afternoon, the walk felt very sketchy. I walked under the bridges where barely alive people were waiting to die. They don't have money to be burnt, and just to die in Varanasi is a dream. Some look like they should definitely be dead already, but they just lie there as skinny as a skeleton with a pack of flies around them, waiting for their time. Some who don't wish to wait either jump and drown in the river or commit suicide.
It was half an hour before I had to meet Andy in the suit shop to give him my approval look :) Getting out wasn't as easy as I expected. First of all, I got lost in the winding and intertwining and looping and dead end little alleys packed with thousands of people. I finally got out onto the main street only to find out that it's closed to traffic, and I had to fight yet another thousand people to get to a tuk-tuk gathering spot. Of course when they saw a white face, they intended to charge me 200 rps to go 2 kms. I told them that Varanasi should be the holiest city in India, and they should behave like they're in one. And that they'll have a bad karma ripping tourists off and that they should take a dip in the Ganga to cleanse themselves! I was angry! I finally found a cycle rickshaw for 40 and by the time I run into the store, I was half an hour late. 3 men who worked in the store, stood in a line and stretch-pointed their arms in the direction of a fitting room where Andy was waiting for me. So so so sooooo sorry!!! Andy doesn't wear suits, and it was weird seeing him in one, but hopefully he'll find some use in it, and it won't just collect dust in the closet.
Dead people burning is not the only kind of burning happening in India: (LP) In the middle class the woman is far more likely to receive a tertiary education, but once married is still usually expected to fit in with her in-laws and be a homemaker above all else. Like her village counterpart, if she fails to live up to expectations - even if it's just not being able to produce a grandson - the consequences can sometimes be dire, as demonstrated by the extreme practice of "bride burning" wherein a wife is doused with flammable liquid and set alight. Another reason for a wife to be set alight (as in a cooking "accident") is for the son to get remarried again to receive another dowry.
I got some mean looks when I took pictures of people praying in the ghats, and I was told to delete some pics of the burning ghats when one guy caught me watching them on my camera. I refused. I don’t believe in curses, but I do believe that this time I was cursed, since the next two days we went through hell.
Comments are appreciated :)
pix at: https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/Varanasi