Friday, February 06, 2009

Nightcap on the river Styx

Jumping a bit ahead in the chronology, the last stop in India was the holy city of Varanasi aka. Benares. Without going to the less wealthy parts of Mumbai or Calcutta, it's probably as extreme as India gets. The big attraction to Indians is that people who get cremated in Varanasi and have their ashes dumped in the Ganges get a free Don't Pass Go ticket to nirvana. The burning ghats (staircases down to the Ganges) are pretty pastoral with goats and cows wandering past the pyres and easing flower garlands and other leftovers, and remarkable non-smelly. This is largely thanks to the new custom of pouring some vegetable oil over the bodies to get the flame temperature up a bit.

But, it also means that many of the poorest faithful move to Varanasi to wait for the end. How poor? It's mostly people whose families could not afford to pay the 5000 rupees ($100) for the wood cremation, or even the 500 rupees for the electrical. We rode by some ruins that now house the waiting, often for years. Surprisingly, the number of beggars and touts was fairly low—much lower than in Delhi or OMG Khajuraho. And there were, for the first time on our trip, more than enough tourists to go around.The best views of Varanasi are from the river at sunset and sunrise, so we did boat rides for both. The morning one in the fog is especially eerie and in almost medieval silence. No motorized vehicles can make it through the tiny alleys that border the river, and only row and sailboats are on it. In the early morning darkness, it is like floating on the Styx.

The evening has some additional appeal like the candles floating down and the glowing pyres, but the silence is scattered by the huge evening religious ceremonies piping prayers through loud speakers.

Great planning in India, part 21498: On new years day, the road department painted a huge "Happy New Year 2009" across the always congested main road. Then they roped off the two lanes around the inscription, completely choking off traffic.

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