Tag Archives: Ganges

Life and Death in Varanasi

Varanasi is an ancient city and perhaps the holiest city in India for Hindus. It is located at a confluence of the sacred Ganges and several other rivers. All Hindus wish to die in Varanasi to have a chance to end the cycle of reincarnation. If they aren’t lucky enough to die here, those who can afford it want to be cremated in Varanasi and have their ashes cast into the holy Ganges.

For tourists, one of the highlights of a trip to Varanasi is an early morning boat ride along the river to view the ‘ghats’, stepped platforms along the rivers edge where people come to bathe their sins away. There are about eighty ghats in Varanasi stretching for several kilometers along the river. In addition to people bathing, many others come to pray, make offerings, do yoga, wash clothes, hang out, or to sell things to people doing these other things.


We rose at 5 AM and were at the main Dasaswamedh Ghat by 5:30. We negotiated with a boat man for a one hour trip and shared the large rowboat with five people from South Korea. He rowed us up and down the river for an hour as day broke and activity commenced along the bank. The ghats of Varanasi are an unparalleled people watching opportunity. They are lively, bright, and busy places, with people of all ages participating in acts from the most mundane to the most sacred. It provides a rare glimpse into people’s private moments amid a spectacle of colourful pageantry.

There are also two burning ghats in Varanasi where Hindus are cremated. Bodies covered in brightly coloured shiny fabric and flowers are carried through the streets to the rivers edge on bamboo stretchers followed by family members. Diane and I spent an afternoon walking along the ghats and arrived somewhat unexpectedly at Harishchandra Ghat, one of the cremation ghats. We stopped to watch.

The corpses arrive at the river wrapped from head to toe in white cloth shrouds. All the work is done by outcasts called ‘doms’ who are considered unclean by other Hindus. The bodies are immersed in the Ganges before burning, then placed on piles of wood and covered with more wood. Their wrapped heads and feet stick out. Flammable liquid and powders are added, and the fires are lit using a bundle of straw. The shrouds turn brown then black as the fire rises.

There were five different cremations happening on the beach while we sat there. They were all in various stages of immolation. As the fires burned down men in bare feet with green bamboo poles pried the logs to stir the contents. No bones or skin were visible, but there was a lot of smoke and the smell of burning flesh. We sat upwind to avoid breathing it.

Male family members gathered around or sat nearby on the ghat to watch. There were no women in attendance other than Diane. The whole thing seemed very normal. It was surprisingly devoid of emotion. We didn’t see anyone crying.

We watch one corpse being rowed out into the Ganges on the bow of a boat and dumped into the water. This is the fate for those whose families can’t afford the wood required for cremation (each log is weighed to determine the total price). Yes, these bodies are dumped just upstream of the hundreds of people bathing at the ghats down river.

We were encouraged to depart by a man who claimed that we were sitting in a family-only area. He directed us to another area where he would be glad to explain what we are seeing, for a fee of course. Although this was likely a scam, we weren’t sure of the etiquette here, and didn’t want to do anything that might offend, so we decided to move on down the river.

We handled this whole scene surprisingly well. Although it was a bit disturbing, it seemed like a natural part of life here, and so it wasn’t really upsetting to see.

On a remotely related note…

Last night we were walking down a narrow dark alley when we heard a great commotion ahead. Dogs were barking and growling, people yelling, and there was a strange screaming noise. A few meters ahead we upon the scene. An Indian ‘saddhu’ (holy man) dressed in saffron robes was chasing a pack of dogs away from a small monkey that lay on the ground. It wasn’t moving. A man threw a bucket of water on the monkey, which he’d originally brought to throw on the dogs. It remained lifeless. Its monkey brethren were chattering and yelling from above, looking down on their fallen comrade. Eventually the saddhu lifted the dead monkey by the tail and removed it from the alley. The Indian people were cowering, staying back from the scene. We weren’t sure why until we passed by the crowd that had gathered. A monkey threw something down on us, just missing Diane as we scurried through. Even in the crowded lanes of Varanasi’s old city, life can be brutal and short.

Durga Puja

We spent most of last night wandering the streets of Calcutta. We had no idea
where we were or exactly where we were going. It was amazing.

We’re here during a major Indian festival called ‘Durga Puja’. It is celebrated in many places in India, but nowhere with the fervor of Calcutta. It is like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve combined.

Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of the Hindu goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur who had taken over heaven and earth. The three main Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (all male) were unable to defeat him individually so they combined their powers to create Durga. This strong female goddess has ten arms carrying the signature weapons of each of her creators and rides upon a lion. Durga was able to defeat Mahishasur restoring heaven to the gods and earth to humanity, and the festival Durga Puja celebrates this triumph of good over evil. In Calcutta it is also believed that Durga leaves the home of her husband Shiva (yes, this bad-ass chick is married) once a year to her parental abode. She appears for only a four day period during the festival to eradicate all evil from the earth, after which she returns to her husband’s abode at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.

People in Calcutta spend much of the year preparing for Durga Puja. Huge images of Durga and her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik) are prepared and placed in temporary structures called ‘pandals’ for public display during the period of festival. They are elaborate and beautiful, made primarily with painted clay over straw and bamboo.


The pandals that house them are the size of houses and both they and the streets around them are lit up with electric lights, often animated in displays superior to the best Christmas lights. The streets are full of vendors selling food and drink for the visitors and loud music is usually played about twenty hours a day. Neighborhood associations are generally responsible for putting the pandals together with the help of corporate sponsorships. They work all year, similar to the ‘crews’ of Mardi Gras. It is estimated that there are 2000 pandals throughout Calcutta, with many more across the state of West Bengal. On our trip to the Sunderbans we passed many of them in small villages.


People visit the pandals day and night during the festival. They’re open twenty four hours a day. The crowds are largest at night, when the pandals and streets are lit up. The most popular ones receive tens of thousands of visitors per day, filing past in huge lines. It is definitely a family event, and parents walk with or carry their children. The women seem to be wearing some of their finest clothes. Traffic comes to a virtual standstill and public transportation can be overwhelmed. The police are out in full force to control the pedestrians and vehicles. We don’t have anything quite so overwhelming in Canada. Perhaps if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup on Halloween night it would come close. Although the idols are religious for Hindus, there is a definite party atmosphere and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly spiritual occasion. There is a lot of noise, children running around, and drunken men wandering the streets.


On the last evening of the festival, the idols are removed from the pandals, transported, and then carried into the river Hooghly and immersed. The idols are transported in trucks full of supporters cheering and dancing, then hoisted by groups of straining men to the river bank where there are spun around repeatedly before being carried into the river. Thousands of them float away into the darkness.

We visited about twenty pandals during the festival. Some were within walking distance of our guest house on our first night in Calcutta. It’s easy to find a pandal – just listen for the music, look for the lights, and follow the crowds. A couple of nights later, upon our return from the Sunderbans, we went ‘pandal hopping’ beginning at about 8 PM. We caught a cab to the south side of the city to see some of the most highly regarded pandals. All we had was their names on a scrap of paper. We started at Maddock Square and walked from there, reading the names of the places we wanted to get to, and asking people in the crowd to point us in the right direction. We walked for several miles through the streets, getting lost, then re-directed, then lost again. It was very hot, very humid, and very crowded.

We decided to head home at about 1 AM. We were both tired and Diane had a heat rash on her legs. The streets were still packed with people, as were the buses, but they were no help to us since we didn’t know where we were or which bus might take us where we wanted to go. We finally got a cab after about thirty minutes of trying, and made it back to our hotel at about 2 AM.

The next morning Diane was ill, perhaps overdoing it the night before, but she had sufficiently recovered by evening that we could walk down to the river to watch the immersions. The crowds were crazy, the drumming loud, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the water as the police were restricting anyone who wasn’t carrying an idol. We did get a few photos though.


Durga Puja was something that we’d heard about in Canada, and we’re so glad that we were able to be here when it took place. It was bit earlier this year than normal, usually occurring in October or November, so it worked out for us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip to India.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a small city in the state of Uttarkhand that is known for its yoga and meditation classes, trekking, and white water rafting down the Ganges River, known in India as the ‘Ganga’. It is also a holy city where Hindu pilgrims come to the site where the Ganga emerges from the Himalayan mountains. The Beatles visited the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga in the late 60’s and ever since Rishikesh has been a famous place for people seeking a spiritual retreat. Rishikesh is now considered to be to “Yoga Capital of the World”.


On the day that we arrived it was very busy with lots of people and noise, which did not really match the yoga experience we had in mind. The streets were filled with orange garbed pilgrims who had come to worship at Rishikesh’s temples and to swim in the Ganga.

Apparently we arrived at the peak of the Hindu pilgrimage season, but fortunately within a day lots of people had moved on and it was a lot quieter.

In pursuit of a more spiritual experience, we spent five nights at an Ashram, with the plan to participate in yoga, eat a healthy vegetarian diet, and to relax. Our stay included yoga classes two times a day, our accommodations and meals. Each yoga class was two hours long, with the first at 6:00 a.m. and then again at 4:00 p.m. A bell rang at 5:30 AM for morning wakeup, and again before each meal which consisted of basic vegetarian Indian dishes, including for breakfast. Although we like Indian food, we still haven’t gotten used to eating it for breakfast, and try to find eggs, toast, or cereal whenever we can. We ate sitting on the floor cross-legged with our tin plates on a small stools in front of us. It’s been a long time since either of us has sat cross-legged on a hard floor for any period of time, and we were both surprised how uncomfortable it was. After our first meal Patrick said he felt like he had pulled a muscle and he hadn’t even been to his first yoga class yet. Obviously we could benefit from some yoga.

We went to the afternoon yoga class the day we arrived. The classes were good but a bit challenging. Diane is definitely not as flexible as she once was. Patrick never was, but participated fully and went to three classes within the first twenty-six hours at the ashram. Diane came down with a cold and did not feel well enough for yoga after her first class. Just when she was starting to feel a bit better Patrick got sick. So as it turned out, we didn’t do as much yoga as we’d planned, and we spent a lot of time in bed trying to feel better. However, Patrick really enjoyed the yoga and would definitely do it again.

The Ganga runs right through the middle of Rishikesh. Two suspension bridges called Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula connect the two halves of the city. These pedestrian-only bridges have a steady traffic of people, cows, monkeys and motorcycles. So much for pedestrian only.

We spent a lot of time at a restaurant by one of the bridges over the Ganga, which overlooked the 13-storey Hindu temples of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar. This open air restaurant served great home-made vegetable pasta and brown bread. Very nice if you ignored the flies. Patrick discovered a mango juice fruit drink called ‘Maaza’, bottled by Coca-Cola, which was a life saver as he recovered from the stomach flu. During one of our afternoons of people watching and talking with other travelers, Diane got some great pictures of some baby monkeys in the tree below the restaurant.


We aren’t Yoga gurus yet, but we are definitely developing our skills in sightseeing, people watching and knowing when to kick back and relax.