Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Days 125 to 129: Amritsar and Varanasi

I am just returning from a trip back in time.

The last couple of days were spent in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, only the motorbikes and sporadic electricity differentiating it from the medieval era. India might not generally be at the cutting edge of modern, but Varanasi with its tiny, winding lanes with wandering cows, with its shambolic and eminently charming squalor and downright dirt, with its howling monkeys jumping from building to building, with its ramshackle collection of buildings piled on top of each other and looming over the lazy and utterly filthy River Ganges, with its pilgrims bathing and surely poisoning themselves in the same river, with its thousands of temples packed in and one of them literally sinking in the sand by the riverside, and finally, with its burning human bodies on open wood-fires a mere minute from our hotel, yes Varanasi is like medieval gone mad and has no inclination of modernising any time soon.
I'll get back to Varanasi in a bit, but first the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, where we were for the couple of days prior. Amritsar didn't have the intense feeling of having journeyed back into the middle ages - there were far too many noisy vehicles beeping their horns for that - but it was as battered and dirty as I'd imagined Indian cities to be. Burness tells me it's nothing special for an Indian city, but I rather liked it. Being Sikh, there's plenty of turbanned men kicking around, many with wonderfully wise beards. There's something about an old man with a turban and a long, wispy beard that makes him look wise. They all look like excellent grandfathers.
Our purpose for visiting Amritsar was for the Golden Temple of course, as covered in my review, but although the Golden Temple was by far the dominant focus - not just for us, but for anyone visiting Amritsar - the city has another little trick up its sleeve. Amritsar is very near the Pakistan border, around 30 kilometres, and every day at 4.30pm there is a border ceremony between the two nations. Hang around anywhere outside the Golden Temple after lunch and there are numerous people offering shared taxis, and we picked up one for just over £1 each, return trip.
It was just as absurd as I'd hoped. Both sides effectively have a stadium - or permanent terraced stands, at least - set up on their side of the dividing line. Arriving at the border, as foreigners we were ushered into a special section of the stands, which actually gave us the best view, Behind us was a stadium full of patriotic Indians, as well as a number of soldiers with guns. One particularly patriotic Indian, with burning fervour and more than a little insanity in his eyes, was allowed into our foreigner section, which only had a handful of foreigners, where he waved a massive flag for the duration of the ceremony.
The terracing on both sides centred around a road, running across the border. Gates from each country sliced the road in two, and were quickly opened at the beginning of the ceremony as a plush-looking bus crossed from India to Pakistan, to great cheers again. Gates close again. Mentalism begins.
The hour-long ceremony that followed, performed by the military, was a crazed mixture of aggression, ministry-of-funny-walks, crowd hysteria, good humour, and wild partying. At the beginning, women and children were on the road, tearing up the dancefloor. The soldiers took over, and in pairs or sometimes solo, performed amazing high-stepping marches to the border gate, with furiously severe expressions on their face. Upon reaching the gate, they would stamp forcefully, which as it was a very wet day resulted in them sending a puddle over themselves. All this was being done, almost in unison, by the Pakistani side.
The crowd were loving this, and got more wound up by a guy in a white tracksuit, something like a compere, who would shout out stuff into a microphone and across booming speakers (the Pakistani side, as you might imagine, were doing exactly the same thing). Quite often, both sides would pick their best man, who would shout what sounded like "GGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL" into the microphone, holding the sound as long as possible. It sounded just like a Brazilian football commentator after a goal has been scored. I don't know what it meant, or why it had to be yelled for as long as possible, but the crowd loved it (the Indian guys in our shared taxi also loved it, and were trying it on the journey back).
All this was as choreographed as it sounds, and they surely must practice with the Pakistanis, because on several occasions there was interaction. Once, when both gates were simultaneously opened, after a bit of stamping, an Indian guy and a Pakistani guy shook hands firmly. Later, the flags were raised in unison. Rivals they may be, but the sort of rivals who practice their dance moves together.
The atmosphere was all very light-hearted and comedy-aggression, and very much like a football match, with both sets of supporters enjoying themselves and trying to goad each other. While I've no doubt much hatred exists between the countries, it wasn't on display here. It was just a bit...silly. And a fun day out for the family.
It was a 22-hour train to Varanasi the following evening, which remarkably was entirely on schedule. I might write a little more about the train system in Indian another time, but know this - I love it. I love the massive "Train At A Glance" timetable book, which I waste hours retreating into a world of times and numbers, working out journey permutations. I love the ticket system, with the waiting lists and the special last minute tickets - "Taktal" - which were the only reason we got the fully-booked Varanasi train. And the trains are good, if late (I waited five hours for the train I'm on now, returning to Delhi, in a cold, crowded station. It's due to arrive eight hours behind schedule). Sleepers are cheap and comfortable - you feel like a human being at the end of the journey.
Varanasi then. The reason we went wasn't for any Wonders, but because Burness had been here six years ago and was enchanted with the place. "It's the most Indian of cities," he said. The city of the Hindu god Shiva, for whom 90% of the temples there are set up to worship, it is one of India's holiest cities and attracts a never-ending crowd of pilgrims, who go there to wash in the Ganges or cremate the body of a loved one.
It's this latter feature that I think lingers in the mind the most. Varanasi is full of "ghats", or steps down to the Ganges, and there are a couple of these which are "burning ghats". Burning ghats are essentially areas for burning bodies, just by the steps. A body, wrapped in a shroud, is taken and dipped in the Ganges, then placed on an unlit wood fire. More wood is piled on, and after a small ceremony, a fire lit. Alongside sometimes several others, and in full public, the body burns. Although the male members of the family will be present (the women do not appear, by tradition, and because - as our guide, J. P., on our final morning explained - they cry too much), there are dedicated workers who tend to the fires and the burning. The wood is precisely weighed for the fires. The worker has no compunction about breaking off parts of the charred skeleton to get stray arms or legs back into the fire.
I've never seen anything like it. Bodies burning in public. Feet sticking out of a fire before being back into the middle. A man's face, in a freshly-lit fire, come free of its shroud and turned to face me, his eye red, maybe poked with something, and oozing. The smell of burning bodies in the air. Skeletal remains roasting.
It sounds utterly grotesque, and in one sense you'd be right. But the mood by the burning ghats isn't sombre. It's all very straightforward, without any sense of the fear of death. The presence of tourists is perfectly permitted, although photography is obviously banned. Belief is pretty ingrained here, and the burning body is less a person gone forever, more just a person moved on elsewhere. For those of us in the West, death is a bit of a fearful unknown. It's not here. The only time I saw a relative with something approaching grief on his face was at a smaller burning ghat. A man with lines of grief etched on his face came down to the river. On his shoulder he was carrying what looked like a small cloth bag. He laid the cloth bag down, and we realised this was the body of a very young child. We were watching other things when Burness suddenly said to me, "Come on, let's go," and I realised the cloth had been unwrapped and the dead infant was lying there before us. We left - there are some things you don't need to see.
The burning ghats are the most stand-out feature, to put it one way, of Varanasi, but as my opening to this entry suggested. it has quite a lot of features going for it. Pushing past cows in narrow streets for one. It becomes normal quite soon. Having a shrieking monkey charge at me on my small balcony is another - that only happened once and I don't think it will ever seem normal. Getting asked if you want to go on a boat-ride quickly becomes background noise, although we did opt for one in the end, courtesy of our hotel.
Our hotel was a pleasant surprise. We were in suggestible mood at the train station and allowed ourselves to directed there. Called the Mishra Hotel, very near the river, it looked nothing special at first, but soon revealed itself. It had a pretty good rooftop restaurant with great views over the city by the river, had a speedy internet room, but best of all was the shower. Oh, the shower! North India is cold right now, below 10C and at night having a peek at freezing, and our accommodation in Delhi didn't even have a shower and out hotel in Amritsar had the merest of lukewarm water. But the Mishra Hotel had a battered old shower that looked as though it would be an abject failure, but instead delivered wonderfully. Piping hot water, loads of it, at high pressure. It was a sheer joy, and worth the £5 a night room rate alone.
Our first evening, a gift courtesy due to our on-time train, was spent wandering by the riverfront. At 6.30 in the evening, there is a daily ceremony, called the Puja, which involves lots of bells being rung and some men doing slow movements, usually with fire involved, and sometimes flowers. This was the only part of Varanasi I felt nodded its head to the tourist. I'm sure I'm wrong and it goes on in just the same way regardless, but the tourists and tour groups were out in force. It seemed especially popular with Koreans.

On our first full day, we just had a wander around, and experienced all of the above. We arranged a little more for our second day, and were up at 5.30am to get a slow boat ride down the Ganges, watching the morning bathers and the sun attempt to be seen through the thick fog. It failed. Our boatman was a cheeky young 16-year-old local, with an obsession for watching foreign girls in bikinis sunbathe in Goa. He's never done this before, but it was very clearly a firm ambition of his.
We took a walking tour after that, with someone for whom being 16-years-old was but a distant memory. His name was J.P. and he'd been doing the tour for forty years. He was a mine of information. Especially about Hinduism. Hinduism has baffled me to date and I can't really get a hold of it, but his careful explanations were clear. While expert status may elude me for a while, I now think I get it, or at least a little. I now understand why one of the gods, Ganesh, has an elephant-head - he's Shiva's son, and Shiva cut his head off for barring entry to Ganesh's mother, so Ganesh cut an elephant's head off and stuck it on his own. Elephants are considered lucky, so Ganesh is now the god people turn to if they want a little luck. 
Speaking of elephants, we saw this man on our strolls too.

That's the Elephant Baba, a revered Hindu holy man, as featured on "An Idiot Abroad" with Karl Pilkington. That's a photo stolen from the internet - we didn't really feel right going up to him and taking a photo (although I think for a donation he'd have been perfectly). 
The Elephant Baba leads me on to the subject of sadhus, and I realise now that I could go on forever, writing about and describing the many facets of Varanasi. The city lends itself to a lot of description and I expect there's a lot more out there on the internet, by bloggers and professional travel writers who've spent longer there and have more erudite words to say on it. It's to Delhi and Agra now, where a whole host of Wonders await - Akshardham, the Lotus Temple, Agra Fort, and a small, unknown one called the Taj Mahal. And too, the arrival of my girlfriend, who will join me for the next couple of weeks for Wonder-hunting and the wedding of a friend.

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