City of Varanasi

Our time in Varanasi is over, and we couldn’t have had a better time here. Varanasi is the oldest continuously occupied city on Earth, and it shows! The streets conditions here are significantly more “3rd world” than anything we saw in Delhi. With over 3 million people living in the small city, there are incredible traffic problems, the likes of which we have never seen (mind you here what passes for traffic is a mélange of bicycles, motor bikes, rickshaws, ox carts, pedestrians (no sidewalks), autos, and random cattle). Still, it somehow seems to flow and work in spite of the appearance of complete and utter chaos. Another thing that flows is filthy sewage-soaked water through the gutters and into the festering underbelly of the city. Without proper water and sewage sanitation systems, the city is left to rot in its own filth and yet, as with the traffic, it just works itself out.

Being the most important holy city in the Hindu religion as well as the birthplace of Buddhism, the city is steeped in spirituality and ritual. We had the chance to visit several of the 30,000+ temples in the area (this number includes private temples constructed inside and on top of homes in the city). We also learned that not all temples are buildings; some are more like small outdoor shrines with a few idols and perhaps an altar for incense and other offerings. Brahmin priests perform a nightly ritual on the bank of the Ganges, with thousands of followers coming out to make an offering to the river goddess Lady Ganga (no, they did not blare the Hindu version of “Bad Romance” through the loud speakers). We observed the ritual from above the crowded Ghats (steps that descend directly into the Ganges and line the river). After the first few incantations Simon started to doze off, so it was off to walk through the jam-packed market streets on our way home. Arriving at the hotel, we were approached by this creepy astrologer who wanted to do our “numbers”. He asked for our our names and birthdates including times (SO candidates for identity theft!) and we begrudgingly obliged. He said he would work the numbers and give us our reading the next day.

The next day we woke early and were out the door by 05:00 to see the sun rise over the Ganges. We hired a boat (they work at a fixed rate of $2.50 / hour) and watched as droves of Hindu men, women, and children bathed themselves in the water of the Ganges at dawn. Morning is apparently the preferred time to pray, and there were certainly lots of people doing just that. We also saw people doing laundry, swimming, sleeping, and being cremated along the banks of the Ganges. There were also Muslims in the Ganges and it was very evident who were Hindu vs Muslim as the Muslim children were playing and splashing around, whereas the Hindu’s were cleansing themselves and seemed to be more deliberate and composed about their actions. We asked our guide, who was Hindu, if that irritated the Hindu’s and he reluctantly conceded that it did. The final part of our boat ride was past the area on the shore where they self-cremate dead bodies of loved ones. Our guide explained the rituals around how they do it, which was fascinating, and oddly we didn’t find it macabre or creepy despite seeing a piece of leg sticking out of the roaring fire.

After the boat ride, we walked through the impossibly narrow and winding passageways that comprise the old city. Probably the filthiest place of all, but somehow Simon managed to find a hole in the wall that was selling burfi (his new FAVORITE sweet), and immediately purchased and devoured two pieces of back-alley-burfi (in fairness, it was now 08:00 and we hadn’t had breakfast despite waking at 04:00). Burfi is made of a sweet condensed fermented milk product, often with finely ground nuts and spices for flavor. It was spectacular; two incredibly different pieces each with incredible flavors all for the low, low price of 12 cents. His favorite was a mild lemon decorated with silver leaf on top, and was finished with a hint of sweet rose water. MMM! Delicious even in those squalid narrow streets.

Following a bit of shopping in crammed little stalls for essential oils and spices (Simon picked up some tea masala used for making chai), we drove around to see a few other parts of the city and then back to the hotel for breakfast and some more sleep. The afternoon consisted of a tour of a silk factory where they hand make some of the finest brocade (i.e. made with silvered silk thread) silk products in the world (Varanasi is known as the best place in the world to pick up these products). Men work at looms with immensely intricate series of strings tied to strings and pulleys that they operate with wooden foot pedals to move the weave up and down and thread in the exact pattern they’re making with various colours. The “modern” method was developed c 200 yrs ago, and uses punch-cards. The “original” method was c 500 yrs old, and is currently only practiced by 5 families in the India. It is extremely time-consuming, and there is only 1 pattern used by each family in their lifetime. They can make up to 6 cm/day, and the pattern is stored not in a punch-card, but partly in the mind of the master and partly in a collection of thousands of knots which looked to be incomprehensible without his manual input. The son works the opposite side of the loom and slowly learns the pattern from his father. The advantage to this ancient technique is the use of colours: the original technique allows up to 200 colours to be used in one piece, whereas the modern technique only allows 16.

When we got back to the hotel, the creepy astrologer was there again with our numbers done. James was not at all interested in any of it, so we brushed him off and went for lunch. As a side-note about the service at the hotel, although we literally couldn’t want for anything, it’s a way too “hem-hem-hem” for us (as in, “hem-hem-hem, bring me some beluga caviar!”) There are seven rooms in the hotel (it’s a converted small palace), and we have our own private butler assigned to us. With more staff than guests, the moment you leave your room they come in and tidy it for you, and they always leap up when you walk by the front desk and beg you to be comfortable and ask if they can do anything you could possibly desire. We were walking on the grounds the other afternoon while it was hot out, and one of them came running across the property with two parasols for us. So anyway, not only were we avoiding the creepy astrologer, but also trying to sneak away from the hotel staff so they wouldn’t try to dote on us every step of the way.

Creepy astrologer dude finally caught up with Simon on his way back from lunch. The report was riveting; apparently Simon’s “lucky days” are about every other day of each month, and he will live to be 92. He went over all these planets while Simon just sat there thinking about burfi. At least the future has lots of luck in store, since some of Simon’s planets have been neutral for a while but that’s all going to change over the next few years (insert enormous eye roll). We will see if James can successfully avoid him again today until we depart for the airport.

Now it’s off to Delhi for a night as a way-station to Agra, where we are going to see the Taj Mahal! We hope everyone is doing well, and will write more soon!

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