Life and Death in Varanasi

October 3, 2009

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.

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A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

October 3, 2009

Due to the length of our trip we are, by necessity, budget travelers. We arrange for periodic episodes of luxury from time to time to keep our spirits up, and to see how the other half lives in some of the places we’re visiting. We tend to do this when the opportunity presents itself or when we really need a break. Our friend Jackie recently provided such an opportunity. She is an executive at a company called ‘Kiwi Connection’ that provides a luxury hotel booking service. She is in no way from New Zealand, but she was our Kiwi connection to the Oberoi Grand, the finest hotel in Kolkatta.

We arrived by taxi from our 1-star guest house to this 5-star palace. It is an oasis in the middle of Calcutta, tucked away behind busy streets lined with hawkers and crowded with people.

We wrote about our experience for Kiwi Connection’s travel blog JetSetter. See the article we submitted below. Thanks Jackie!

A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

I recently had the pleasure of staying at The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, India. Kolkata, often referred to by its previous name Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal state and was the original home of the British colonial government in India. Although it’s a large and vibrant city, it also has a rich culture and history. The Oberoi Grand is one of the landmark hotels of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, which has nineteen luxury properties across South Asia, the majority being in India, Egypt, and Indonesia. India has a reputation among some groups as an exotic travel destination but Oberoi offers luxury hotels and resorts throughout the country.

The Oberoi Grand is quite literally a breath of fresh air, accompanied by a hint of fragrance from the huge bouquet of fresh flowers in the lobby. The hotel is a haven in the middle of the city. Just stepping into the building provides one with a palpable sense of calm and tranquility.

My wife and I arrived by taxi and experienced a seamless transition from the entrance to the lobby to our guest room. In the process we received a traditional Indian greeting from no less than ten attentive staff. The Oberoi Grand takes the security of its guests seriously, discretely checking cars, people, and bags as they enter the hotel. Hotel staff instantly recognized our reservation through Kiwi Connection, and we received a complementary upgrade to a luxury room with high ceilings and a view over the central courtyard. Our room was elegantly furnished including a four post bed and large flat screen television, with fresh fruit and flowers.

The Oberoi Grand is conveniently located, close to the main business and shopping districts of Kolkata — Park Street, BBD Bagh, and Chowringhee. The hotel is over 125 years old with Victorian columned architecture. It is in impeccable condition, with interiors and rooms stylishly appointed and spotlessly clean. The hotel has a lounge, two restaurants, and an outstanding buffet breakfast was complementary. Our Indian dinner at the restaurant was one of the best we’ve had in India. The Oberoi Grand has a luxurious spa, modern fitness facility with terrific equipment, and a relaxing courtyard with pool. Wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel.

Soon after we arrived at the The Oberoi Grand, senior staff introduced themselves, and then addressed us by name for the remainder of our visit. They inquired frequently and sincerely if we were enjoying ourselves and if there was anything else we required. They discreetly asked about our plans, without being intrusive, so as to better assist us. They politely and efficiently handled the special requests that we made, like scheduling an appointment at a recommended hairdresser for my wife. We visited Kolkata during the final days of a large and spectacular Indian festival, Durga Puja, and the staff were pleased to provide us with information about the festival and how best to participate.

The Oberoi Grand provided everything we expect of a luxury hotel, plus a little more. We would recommend it for any business or leisure traveler seeking an exceptional stay in the heart of Kolkata.


The Meter Man

October 3, 2009

One of the challenges with traveling in India is getting the taxi drivers to use their meters. Like in most major cities of the world, meters are installed in all taxis to fairly calculate the fare, including factors like distance, wait time, time of day, etc. The rates are set by the city and all taxi drivers are required by law to use the meters, in part to avoid unscrupulous drivers from taking advantage of tourists. In some Indian cities our guidebook says that it is virtually impossible to get the taxi driver to use the meter, and so in most places we’ve just negotiated a fare, which is almost certainly higher than the meter would have calculated. However, in Calcutta, our guidebook makes no mention of this issue so we expected that meter use would be de rigueur here. In fact, we’d been told by a local man that the drivers always use their meters, and we had observed this first hand. When local people get into a cab the drivers turn their meters on immediately to start the clock running as quickly as possible. Not so for us.

Like elsewhere in India the drivers flatly refuse to turn on their meters for us. In broken English, they provide every excuse in the book as to why they can’t use the meter – it’s broken, it’s night time, it’s a holiday, etc., none of which are valid. They have other more drastic excuses also, but we had no idea just how far they would go until last night, when we decided to push it.

We were heading out to a place to which we only had a name, but no idea of the distance or what a reasonable fare would be, so we wanted to use the meter. We hopped into the cab first, before telling him where we wanted to go, and then insisted that he use the meter.

We named the place and the driver asked for 100 Rupees (Rp). We asked him to use the meter. He refused. Then he started to provide the usual excuses. We insisted on using the meter. He started to drive ahead, but only because we were blocking traffic. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to pay his exorbitant fare, he pulled over and asked us to get out. We refused. We raised the prospect of having the traffic police from the corner come over to remind him of the rules, but he called our bluff and said go ahead. But we weren’t getting out of the car.

He then pulled into gas station and claimed that he was taking the car to the garage. I said that if his car was broken, that we would leave when he found us another cab — one that would use the meter. While Diane waited in the cab, he stood with Patrick by the side of the road, flagged a few other cabs, and half-heartedly tried to convince them to do what he would not, but of course they wouldn’t go for it. When Patrick returned to the cab, the driver moved it ahead to get fuel, and began to complain to the station attendants about us. He was getting really frustrated. He then started to shake the car back and forth from the outside. Was he hoping to dislodge us by vibration? We thought this was pretty funny but tried not to laugh.

Now at this point, most tourists would have backed down. Diane would usually have called an end to the experiment at this point, but we’d had a drink with dinner and were emboldened to take it further. Eventually the driver got back into the car, but this time with another guy from the gas station. It wasn’t clear if he was just giving the guy a lift or if he was trying to intimidate us. In India disputes are often settled on the street by shouting matches with the public deciding. Perhaps he wanted to have an even number for what was building up to be such an event.

The driver started moving towards the destination (we hoped), but continued to insist on the 100 Rp fare. We told him to turn the meter on, or we would pay a fare of 50 Rp only. He did turn the meter on, but covered it up with a cloth to obscure it, but the fabric was so thin and the red LED letters so bright that we could still read it. We traveled in silence.

It turned out that the trip was less than a kilometer. We could easily have walked. It took under five minutes to get there plus the twenty minutes of debate before we departed. When we arrived at the busy square, the police were controlling the traffic, and stopping was restricted. As soon as we arrived, the driver cleared the meter so the fare was no longer showing. We got out of the cab and paid the correct amount (in Calcutta, that’s double what is on the meter plus 2 Rupees), which was 10 Rp, or about 25 cents. The driver insisted on being paid what he’d originally asked for, which was ten times the correct fare. We refused. Tensions mounted. Soon a police officer came over and told the cab driver to move on. He complained that he hadn’t been paid. We explained that we were paying per the meter and that he was trying to get much more.

The police officer went to get his supervisor from down the block. The cabbie ran over to a random group of men on the street and tried to solicit them to support him. He was trying to win over the gathering crowd, which is usually the right approach to winning a dispute in India.

At this point the cars were backing up and honking. The senior cop arrived. Patrick summed up the situation in a sentence, and the animated cabbie did the same. The clincher was when the cabbie mentioned the name of the place we’d come from (Park Street), which the senior man knew wasn’t far away. At that point, he told us to give the 10 Rupees to the cabbie, and then told him to move on. We walked away with smiles on our faces. Undoubtedly the fact that cabbies are known to extort tourists also worked in our favour.

We were shocked at the lengths to which a Calcutta cab driver will go to extort tourists. It is almost certain that no other visitors would do what we did to pay the correct fare. We thought it important, at least once, to see if this was possible but we never expected it would take what it did. We’d like to think we were striking a blow on behalf of tourists everywhere, but I doubt the cabbie will act any differently with his next tourist. After this experience, on our two subsequent cab rides in Calcutta we also paid the correct amount, but with slightly fewer shenanigans.


Durga Puja

October 3, 2009

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.


Oh Calcutta

October 3, 2009

Leaving the South of India we returned to the North, catching a flight from Chennai to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. Kolkata was previously known as Calcutta.

Diane was a bit apprehensive about coming to Calcutta. It is India’s second largest city with over 15 million people. In addition to being the source of the expression “the black hole of Calcutta”, its reputation is that of a poverty-stricken city. It is the location of Mother Teresa’s famous mission to help the sick and the dying. We expected it to be poor and a bit depressing, and while there definitely are these aspects to Calcutta, it also has many other virtues that surprised us.

We shared a cab from the airport with an American couple who were arriving to spend four months at a yoga ashram. It took almost two hours to make our way through the Calcutta traffic in the heat of the early afternoon. It was very hot. The streets were congested and the smog was thick, the worst we’ve experienced on this trip so far. Diane thought that we’d arrived in a hell hole.

After an hour of walking with our packs on due to Patrick’s navigation error, we found a cheap guest house just a couple of blocks off Park Street, home to many of Calcutta’s nice shops and restaurants (a bit like staying in the downtown east side and walking to India’s equivalent of Robson Street).

The next morning we went to a restaurant called Flury’s, a Calcutta institution since colonial days. We were amazed to find a nicely decorated and spotlessly clean café, as remarkable as anything in Vancouver. We drank good espresso and amazing Assam tea and enjoyed freshly baked goods. We had two peach danishes — the best we’ve ever had. We got into a pleasant conversation with a British lawyer at the next table and ended up spending a couple of hours over a lovely breakfast.

We then walked to the Victoria Memorial, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1901. It wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death. It is a beautiful building and a grandiose example of colonial extravagance. It is surrounded by reflecting ponds and landscaped grounds, and it houses displays of paintings, photographs, and an interesting history of Calcutta.

The Victoria Memorial is located in the Maidan, a large park in the center of the city (like Central Park in New York). We started to walk across the park, but Diane decided to retreat because it had long grass which could mask any number of unpleasantries, was partially flooded, and contained a lot of homeless people. The Maidan is also the site of Fort William, which the British built to protect their trading outpost here. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula recaptured the city from the British, and imprisoned the colonial leadership in cramped rooms underneath Fort William. In one night about 40 British died from suffocation, and it became known as ‘the black hole of Calcutta’. When the British re-captured the city they cleared the land around the fort, including demolishing an entire village, so that they would have a clear line of sight for their cannons. It is this area that became The Maidan.


We caught the Metro (subway) to an area called BBD Bagh to purchase our onward train tickets. It is named after three men (Binoy, Badal, and Dinesh) who tried and failed to assassinate British Lieutenant-Governor Lord Dalhousie in 1930, an early step towards Indian Independence. BBD Bagh is home to many of the beautiful old colonial buildings in Calcutta and houses many of the government offices today. It’s ironic that the area of these colonial landmarks is now named after three men who tried to bring an end to colonialism.

The Metro was packed, and we were squished, but the mostly male passengers were helpful and polite. It wasn’t unlike riding the Skytrain in Vancouver during the peak of rush hour — perhaps a bit more crowded like New York, but not as bad as Tokyo. Diane is often the only woman (or one of the few) when we do certain things in India, like riding some buses or trains, going to a bar, etc.

BBD Bagh is home to the Foreign Tourist Office of the Eastern Railway. Calcutta is one of the few cities in India that reserves a small quota of train tickets that can be purchased only by tourists. This is so that travelers like us that want to have a flexible itinerary can get tickets on short notice. The downside is that the price is much higher than if we’d booked the normal way. However, we knew that we’d be leaving Calcutta the day after the end of a major festival, along with everyone else in town, and that all other train tickets had been booked weeks in advance. The tourist quota is very valuable to us in situations such as this.

We walked back through the part of town where most backpackers stay called Sudder Street. The wide sidewalks on the major thoroughfare of Chowringhee Road were packed with street vendors, shoppers, and pedestrians. It was the first time we’ve really felt the crush of humanity since arriving in India. Men were standing on their street stalls yelling about their wares and prices. We needed to literally squeeze through the crowd. Diane was fully stressed.

But we made it to a bar called Blue and Beyond, on the rooftop of a nine story building from where we could look over the city at night. After some time and a beer to relax, we went to one of Calcutta’s most popular restaurants called ‘Peter Cat’, a very strange name for a family restaurant with the feel of the 1970’s steak house. We arrived at 10 PM and there was a waiting list with people lined up outside.

Such was our introduction to Calcutta. It is a very hectic, exotic and fascinating place, and after a few days there, Diane was a bit sad to leave it.