Our overnight train pulled into Mughal Sarai an hour and forty minutes late. We were met on the platform right outside our carriage by a man employed by the hotel to collect us, with Dad’s name held up for us to see.
I felt a bit better by this point, but really still not great. I sat in the front of the car as we drove toward Varanasi. We crossed over the River Ganges on a huge big bridge, then followed some poorly made up roads into the city.
The taxi man stopped and said that he couldn’t drive any closer but that he’d help us with our bags. From the road it was about ten minutes walk through narrow alleys full of cows, shrines, temples, people, bicycles, litter and cowpats to our hotel. As we walked up the slightly sloped final alley to our hotel the Ganges came into view, and our hotel looked right out over it.
Our bedroom was big, bright and cool, with a balcony over looking the Ganges. The balcony had wire netting enclosing it, and we couldn’t quite understand what it would be for until later some monkeys came swinging past. Nobody wants a monkey in their room!! From the balcony I could see boats ferrying people to the sand on the other side of the river, boats taking people up and down the river, children playing marble in the dirt by the hotel, buffalo being brought down to the river, and right below the hotel I could see a group of buffalo soaking in the water as if it were a nice hot bath. They looked so happy and content, some of them just had their heads above the surface of the river.
After a while my Dad went for a walk to scope out a place he’d heard took people on the river for a reasonable price, while I showered and then had a very broken Skype conversation with my Mum and nephews.
It turned out that this nice German bakery and cafe’s boat rides were quite expensive and so we went through the hotel for a little less. We met a guy down in the reception area of our hotel at half five, and he lead us down the steps to the river and a small wooden rowing boat. There was an old man there too. The younger guy didn’t even try to help the older guy as he struggled to paddle our boat upstream, nor did her alert him when there was a boat coming toward us. Neither of them spoke any English at all, so we didn’t learn much about the Ganges, the ghats (buildings, steps and platforms leading down to the river) or events that were going on at the side of the river.
We saw the burning ghat where bodies are cremated, and we saw a ceremony of some sort, which had clearly once been a ritual for something but is now just a big show for tourists. The two boat men couldn’t explain anything and as many questions we asked they just kept saying “ceremony” and pointing.
We did put some floating candles into the water and watched them float away, although there were too many boats around so we didn’t really see them go far.
We felt pretty disappointed with our boat trip, and decided that the morning’s boat trip would have to have an English speaking guide of some kind, or it would be a waste of a trip.
Success! At the crack of dawn there was a loud banging on the hotel door. It was our guide. He lead us down to the same boat, but with a different rower, and off we went. It was a very hazy morning and so the sunrise wasn’t so much a sunRISE as the place just got a bit brighter.
He explained that the burning ghat is used to cremate Hindus, but they must only have been dead for three or four hours. The wood is carefully weighed for each body and the people doing the burning know exactly how much wood is needed to burn the body completely. There are five types of body that they will not cremate here: died from a snakebite, died from leprosy, a pregnant woman, a child under twelve and… I’m sure he only told us four – unless the body dead longer than three or four hours counts as the fifth. Those five (or four) get wrapped in straw, taken out to the middle of the river by boat and dropped into the water.
There used to be hostels beside the burning that’s where older people who knew they were going to die soon would come and wait for their own death, so they could be close to the cremation site – but not anymore. It’s the aim of every Hindu for their ashes to go into the Ganges river, especially at Varanasi. If they live too far away then their ashes will be kept until a time when their family can go together to Varanasi and the oldest son will throw the ashes backwards into the river. He can not look back again – that is the final separation and when the spirit will move on to the next life.
Later in the morning, we took a walk along the ghats, just having a look and seeing what was happening. There are many miles of small alleys like a maze leading down to the river and we spent some time finding this baker/ cafe where Dad had visited the day before.
Once we found it we had some lunch. I was still feeling pretty horrible after my food poisoning so didn’t eat it all. Luckily the cafe had take away boxes and so I took the rest of my dinner for the train that afternoon. The train ride was set to be a long one at over fourteen hours, so it was lucky I didn’t feel as bad as I had a few days before or it could’ve been a lot worse!