â€œThe site of the burning ghats where they perform the funeral pyres for all the Hindus who are fortunate enough to be burned by the Ganges River is an awesome and disgusting place. It was a very powerful practice for me to watch the bodies burning and to contemplate that my own body is just the same as those, impermanent and decaying.â€œ
Dharma Punx â€“ Noah Levine
, the city of Shiva and formerly known as Benares, is one of the holiest places in India.
Ghats, Varanasi, India.
Hindu pilgrims come here to wash their sins away in the GangesRiver or cremate their loved ones since it is believed that this will earn the deceased straight access to nirvana.
Varanasi is more than 2000 years old and is proof that beautiful creation and destruction go hand in hand since the same Mughal rulers that had made the stunning buildings at Jaipur and Agra had also looted and destroyed this centre of spirituality.
found us at the banks of the Ganges where the ghats, bathing steps leading down to the river, stretched as far as the eye could see.
Bathing in the Ganges, Varanasi, India.
I felt a lot better than the previous day; staying in bed had been a sensible decision. At Dasaswamedh Ghat we bargained hard for a boat that would take us southwards to the small cremation ghat Harischandra and back northwards to the bigger cremation ghat Manikarnika. A magical experience never to be forgotten. In the hazy morning we watched people wash themselves and their laundry in the highly polluted water of the Ganges. Sadu's (holy men) performed rituals and at one spot a guru was being filmed by a camera crew.
There currently wasn't any activity at the southern burning ghat, but several cremations were taking place at Manikarnika ghat. A guide showed us around and explained the funeral rituals to us, which were very similar to those I witnessed at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. We had the questionable honour of standing one meter from a funeral pyre that still showed the burning head of the deceased, while elsewhere a family was poking with sticks around the smouldering remains of their loved one. A strange experience, although I have to agree with the guide that these people have a much better way of dealing with death than we Western people do. At the end of our tour we were blessed by the eldest woman living at the ghat and were asked to donate money for funeral wood, which we did generously although not sure if it would really end up as such. Fortunately the Lonely Planet confirmed that this was indeed a normal practice.
When our boat trip ended we decided to experience the ghats from the banks, walking down from the Dasawamedh ghat all the way down, beyond the big water purification plant at Talshi Ghat, to the Assi Ghat where the AssiRiver joined the Ganges.
Finally being in an eating mood again we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel for a late breakfast. The travel agency's representative that had picked us up at the train station yesterday arrived a bit late at with our new driver Umarkand (U.K. for short). UK turned out not to be as talkative as Kimi, was wearing a strange hat that could easily be mistaken for his hair and had an uncontrollable desire for honking.
Burning ghat of Harishchandra, Varanasi, India.
This was the start of the Buddhist pilgrimage part of our journey. The coming week we would visit the most important places of the Buddhaâ€™s life. Before starting a long drive to Bodhgaya we first visited Sarnath, near Varanasi. After reaching enlightenment at Bodhgaya the Buddha had journeyed to Sarnath where he found the five monks he had previously travelled with at a deer park. The Buddha gave his very first sermon, the dharma chakra or 'turning of the wheel of law', to these five monks and over the centuries Sarnath - helped by the economic power of nearby Varanasi - developed into a major monastic site with over 1500 monks. Emperor Ashok, a devotee of Buddhism erected stupas and one of his famous pillars here. The archaeological museum at Sarnath clearly showed how Buddhism went into decline after the 7th century: all recovered art beyond that age was Hindu in origin. Like Varanasi, Sarnath was also completely destroyed by the Muslims.
Sadu at the ghats, Varanasi, India.
Besides visiting the aforementioned museum we also visited the park where the ruins of the monasteries and stupa's could be found. The strangely shaped 34m high Dhamekh Stupa, constructed by Ashoka in 249 BC, dominated the park and marks the spot of the Buddha's first sermon. Among the ruins lay the remains of the Ashoka pillar, the lions-topped upper part of which could be seen in the museum. A deer park had been recreated behind the ruins.
Getting away from Varanasi involved conquering another horrible traffic jam that seemed to consist of a countless number of trucks waiting for a railway crossing. In the meantime Bart had developed a new hobby: taking pictures of people pissing in public. Passing a miles long stretch of parked trucks we left the state of Uttar Pradesh and entered Bihar.
Laundry at the ghats, Varanasi, India.
The disadvantage of leaving rather late (a necessity to be able to see something of Varanasi after yesterday's delay) was the fact that part of the journey had to be done after dusk. Now, Bihar is perhaps the poorest state in India and has been known for its lawlessness and pirate-like behaviour. Kidnappings and robberies are not rare here and it's advised not to travel after dark. Combine this with the fact that highway #2 does not have any lighting and the most unexpected things can happen, like traffic suddenly coming from the other direction on a one way road. As you can imagine we were glad to finally reach Bodhgaya at hours, without a scratch.
Laundry at the ghats, Varanasi, India.
Tomorrow we had the whole day to explore Bodhgaya, so we decided to grab a bite in the restaurant of the hotel and take it easy this evening.