Northern India 8

Monday 27th February

The alarm went at 4.45 – I had no idea such a time existed! We assembled in the foyer at 5.30 and set off at about 5.45 as the drivers and our guide were somewhat late. Still they made up the time and we arrived just as the sun was nudging over the horizon. The Ghats were bathed in a soft yellow light as were the many pilgrims who had come to offer pooja. A sadhu was sitting on one of the steps , wearing only a dhoti, and accepting gifts of food.

We walked down the Ganga Ghat and onto a boat with a rather noisy diesel engine. It took us southwards along some of the other ghats. People were bathing in the water, while others were washing clothes. One ghat was strewn with what appeared to be bedsheets, drying in the morning sun. We passed a cremation site and were warned by a man covered in ashes not to take pictures. He seemed quite angry! When we got to the fort at Chet Singh Ghat, the boatman cut the engine and allowed the current to take hs back northwards, while our guide explained something if Hinduism and the importance of the Ganges.

We travelled further north than the Ganga Ghat and at Manikatprnika Ghat watched the end of a cremation ceremony. Another body arrived through the gateway as we waited. Cows moved amongst the ashes, some still smouldering, others positively burning. Back at the Ganga Ghat we disembarked and made our way up the steps and back through the crowded streets. As usual we dodged, cyclists, motorbikes, vans, cows, other pedestrians, accompanied by the loud honk of horns. It was  pandemonium and I loved it!

We enjoyed a late breakfast and a brief rest before heading out again in the buses to see what else Varanasi had to offer. Our first stop was ‘the Temple  to Mother India’ which was actually a building housing a vast relief map if India cut from marble. It dates from around 1900 when a man had the idea of building thus map out of blocks of marble. It really is quite incredible and particularly pleasing to a Geographer.

From there we went to Sarnath, which is where the Buddha first preached in 528 B.C.. It was a deer park then, but became a monastery and a religious centre over many generations, until the Moslems arrived and destroyed it. However the ruins survived and were later excavated by British and German archaeologists. The most astonishing ruin us that of a giant stupa dating from the 5th century A.D.  As well as the religious complex there is also an excellent museum with some wonderful carvings of both Buddhas and Hindhu gods.

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Back at the hotel we freshened up, had a late lunch and relaxed before leaving for another visit to the ghats. This time we took a boat from the Ghat nearest the bridge and travelled upstream to the Dasashvamedha Ghat where the evening aarti are held. We moored alongside a lot of other boats and looked towards the crowded Ghat. Seven altars had been prepared and before long seven monks appeared and began the prayers. I suppose it was quite impressive, but it felt more like a show for tourists than a solemn rite which it in fact is. There was lots of incense and bells – quite Catholic actually! Then pyramids of oil lamps were swung about, followed by smoking bowls, and then flaming bowls. Various other things were moved about as well, but I wasn’t sure what they were. It was very pleasant sitting on a boat on a warm evening watching all this. I have to say though that youcan can have too much of a good thing when it comes to bells!

We lit our votive candles in little pots within foil trays and surrounded by marigolds and floated them in the river And then phutted our way back to the Ghat we started from, past some quite spectacular cremation fires. As we reached our dock all the lights went out and stayed out, so we had to be very careful as we climbed back up the ghat in the dark.

I rather liked Varanasi, although many didn’t. It is noisy and dirty and thereis Clearly much poverty, but it is full of life and hope and in places is quite beautiful

Tomorrow a late start as we fly to Mumbai and our last two days.

Tuesday 28th February

Belatedly I thought I would bring this blog up to date!

We journeyed by coach to Varanasi airport where our Air India flight was delayed by two hours. In compensation we received some barely warm curry and the chance to watch lots of other flights taking off on time!

Once in Mumbai we were taken by coach to The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, right opposite the ‘Gateway to India’. This is probably the poshest hotel we shall ever stay in! We were greeted royally and given our rooms in the modern tower block alongside the older hotel. The rooms are beautiful and have stunning views.

We enjoyed a delicious meal in one of the many restaurants and then went for a walk. We had hoped to visit the ‘Gateway’ but it  was completely blocked off by police barriers.

Instead we wandered along the seafront and saw the end of a spectacular wedding which had been held at the waterside.

When we got back to our room a bowl of warm water and rose petals, along with some sort of unction was awaiting our tired feet – bliss!

Then it all started to go wrong for me. I won’t go into details but I spent much of the night in the smaller of our two rooms losing my meal and I felt really terrible. Then I slept…and slept….and slept! I knew nothing of Wednesday except that Christine kept coming and going. I suppose it was good that I was ill in such luxury, but I had hoped to see something of Mumbai.

As it was I saw only the journey back to the airport. Luckily I was well enough to travel thanks, largely to St Immodium who is ever the traveller’s friend. At the airport we disc0vered our flight was again delayed by two hours. Time to wander the overpriced shops and enjoy a final chat with friends from the trip.

I slept and watched films on the way home, but others had a more ‘exciting’ time, as apparently one of the passengers overindulged and some of our party had to be moved from his drunken abusiveness. At Heathrow the police were waiting for him and we were therefore delayed again! We finally got home at about 12.30 on Friday morning, following another 40 minutes delay on the M25 thanks to roadworks.

But, hey, these are all minor events in what has been a most amazing trip. We have seen some wonderful things and met some lovely people. True, we have done a lot of travelling, but it had to be done, if we were to see so much. India is an beautiful, vibrant, exciting and delightful country and I am sure we will be back. Many thanks to Mark for organising it and to Soul of India for making sure it all worked so well.

Now, where next…….?

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