Thursday, February 18, 2010

No, No, You Go. I Already Had A Bath - Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi is India's most revered city and is the place where people come to obtain moksha, ending the cycle of death and rebirth. If people are unable to get their relatives here to be cremated, they will cremate them elsewhere and make a pilgrimage to Varanasi and scatter their ashes into the Ganga. At over 3000 years the city of Shiva is one of the worlds oldest city's and you definitely feel that as you walk around. It doesn't seem like much has changed in a millennia. Even though the city was destroyed by Mughal invaders leaving present day buildings relativly new at two to three hundred years old, the city still retains an ancient feel to it.

The first couple days here showed only dirt, noise, and people peddling karma at discount prices. Some go so far as to use the crematory grounds as a ruse to pry rupees from your wallet. But as the days wore on I discovered that Varanasi had much more to offer than filth and lies.

The center of life here is without a doubt at the ghats (steps that lead to the Ganga). Early mornings you will find a technicolor array of saris drying on the ghats, people taking puja in the Ganga or chai-wallhas dispensing hot chai to Indians and foreigners alike while the sun quietly rises. In the afternoons the ghats become much more vibrant with children playing cricket, men and women getting their head ritualistically shaved or the myriad of pastel colored boats ferrying people to and fro. In the evenings the ghats become somewhat of a Varanasi club scene as hundreds of worshipers mix with tourists to witness Aarti, the ritual of offering light to a deity while songs of praise are sung by the crowd.

One of the best ways to discover the city is by boat. With an endless amount of boat men eager for business, I had no problems finding one quickly and at a good price. The hour long ride was relaxing and beautiful as the morning sun cast a golden hue on people bathing, washing and having chai with grand buildings towing behind them.

Varanasi offers a budding photographer like myself infinite photo opportunities. It was definitely the most inspiring place thus far. I never ran out of amazing moments and had to remember to just sit back and relax and soak it in from time to time.

As with most Indian cities the beauty of a place is often over shadowed by a serious environmental problem, and Varanasi is no exception. The Ganga is exceedingly polluted. Most of the towns sewage is dumped directly into the river (a treatment plant was built but because of frequent long blackouts it only works intermittently) along with chemicals, corpses and copious amounts of trash. In spite of all this little is done to change detrimental state of the river. This poses a large risk to the millions that life by its banks.

However polluted the river becomes people still bath, wash cloths and drink the river for its holy and "healing properties." I was shown a wallha who made his chai from river water. Religious lore seems to hijack reason, science and common sense far too often here.

Once again the Indian Organization of Monkeys Tormenting Adrian, or IOMTA, has found me and upped its efforts. Every night outside my guest house a group of monkeys would jump from tin roof to tin roof screeching and calling out my name keeping me up for hours. I think it's time to make an offering to Hunuman the monkey god and try and negotiate a peace treaty. On the plus side, the guest house was run by a wonderful Spanish woman named Maria who is also the head of an amazing NGO called Seeds For Change. Maria gives poor children who can't afford schooling the chance at an education at a decent school. It was a pleasure to meet her and her passion will not be forgotten. I only wish I could have stayed longer.

Good-bye India, good or bad I will always remember you. I'm off to Nepal.

"Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"
George Taylor
Planet Of The Apes

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