A Fiery Finale to India

You know what makes Varanasi feel so refreshing? There are puppies and women. Puppies and women! What’s not to love? I knew something was amiss after all this time in India, and it was too many Y-chromosomes in the air. Finally, the ladies are back. And they brought with them puppies. Well no, I guess it’s just “puppy season,” as Ananya, the daughter of our Homestay owner Harish, told us. (Now that should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit.”) But seriously, there are women everywhere, which is not the case in all (most) other parts of India we visited. Especially at night. And here we saw lots of women out, young and old, day and night, in groups and alone. Which makes me feel safe, and happy. Also, Ananya took us out for an alley walking/food tour one day, and the company of another young woman all day was so welcome and refreshing to me. I forgot how comforting the presence of other ovaries can be.  (Alan says:  This is our first post together on the combined blog, and I bet you can guess who wrote this paragraph.  Though I do love me some ovaries.)

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities and one of the holiest places for Hindus.  It sits on the banks of the River Ganges and the stone ghats leading down to the water are the epicenter for both ritual ablutions and cremations atop wood-fueled pyres.

We expected Varanasi to be a highlight. When we began our trip we knew we were going to spend 25 nights in India, and the only places we knew for sure we had to see were Kerala and Varanasi. And so we booked flights into Kerala and out of Varanasi. The rest of the stuff in between was planned as we went. But Varanasi we’d known was a must-do. In fact, it’s the one place in India I’ve been talking about going since I started talking about going to India. The only reason we skipped it on our first trip was that the idea of watching people burn the bodies of their loved ones seemed even more antithetical to the idea of honeymooning than did the risk of Delhi Belly that everyone felt inclined to warn us about when we revealed our plans to spend our post-nuptials in such a locale.

Well, we came in prepared for intensity, for emotions to be tugged, eyes opened, cultures experienced. And that it was, but what was perhaps most intriguing was the experience of joyful emotions in Varanasi. It does not feel like a sad place.  The contrast of extreme happiness – people going on pilgrimage to one of the holiest places – and extreme grief – burning the bodies of their loved ones – is fascinating. We learned from Harish that death at a relatively normal age (e.g. not a child or young person whose children have not yet been married) is not so much a cause for mourning as it is for celebration of a life well-lived. After the friends and family of the loved one carry the body to the river and it’s been cremated, the family (if not poor) of the deceased provides food and sweets to thank those who came. Interestingly, the cremation is generally to happen immediately, but if family members need to travel to attend and see the body, the local members might keep the body warm (in winter, or cold in summer), as Harish did with his mother, by rubbing ghee on the body until the rest of the family can come pay their final respects. It was an emotionally powerful story and an experience difficult to imagine.

We saw the cremation ghats from a handful of different vantage points: the first time on a sunset boat trip up the river, seeing a few cremations from a distance, where the impact is somewhat diffused. (Though you do get a pretty up-front view of the nightly pooja ceremony, which to be honest felt like a show for the tourists). The next morning we woke early to see the ghats by sunrise, and while it was quite foggy, it was still a special experience, seeing all those people up at the crack of dawn to bathe in the freezing cold waters of the Ganges on a winter day. And let me tell you, it was cold. Alan was wearing long underwear! Most moving by far was witnessing the cremations on our last day when we walked to the main cremation ghat of Manikarnika. We went in expecting an intense experience, and intense it was, in some ways expected, others surprisingly so. Of course, it’s a moving experience to see the bodies carried to the river on bamboo stretchers, dipped in the water and then placed on a pile of logs to be burnt while dozens of people crowd around. I was somewhat surprised, though it makes perfect sense when you think about it, to see how many animals congregate by the main cremation ghat. They come seeking warmth, and next to the eight burning bodies are a mix of cows, dogs and goats, everywhere. It can be hard to watch, to see slowly the cloth wrapping the bodies consumed by flame and evaporating into ash to reveal the soft beige of a human skull, and to see the still intact feet poking out of a fire in which the legs and torso have all but disintegrated already.

While the cremations were impactful and emotional, they weren’t necessarily disturbing to us.  What was quite so, however, were a handful of young men and boys around the ghat. We’d been warned in advance, like so many tourist destinations in India, that unsanctioned “guides” will try to sell you tours for money. Here, of all places, seemed to us a disgraceful place to do such a thing, and to top it off, they lie about the money, claiming that they only request donations to provide firewood for the destitute, where in reality they are keeping it themselves. This is one of the holiest places in the world for Hindus, yet this disgusting dishonesty is taking place for personal benefit.

Armed with the knowledge of where this money actually goes, we refused any tours from these boys, one of which was quite pushy. When we told him we didn’t want a tour he stormed off saying, “fine, go away then.” We stayed on, observing quietly and respectfully (no photographs), for a while after. As we were walking away the boy called out after us “good, leave and don’t ever come back here.” In some bit of shock we turned around to confirm he was directing this towards us, and to our dismay he was. Trying to avoid confrontation Alan gave a pitied laugh at him, and this flared the boy up, trying to start a fight I suppose, yelling after us things like “don’t laugh at me, I don’t like your laugh. You stayed here a long time and did nothing.” As opposed to this boy? Who stands there while people return their loved one’s bodies to the earth and scams tourists so he can go buy himself some cigarettes? I am quite an emotional person, and had expected to be moved to tears at the sight of the cremations, but ultimately it wasn’t the cremation but these shameful boys that made me lose my emotions.

By the way – I read recently an article on NPR about how people can send in the ashes of their loved ones to companies that will compress them into diamonds that you can wear as keepsakes. Clearly Varanasi is not the market for these companies as the ashes are going into the Ganges, but I thought it fascinating. Apparently the diamonds usually come out blue, though some are yellow or black. Does that mean you have a dark soul?

Another highlight of our time in Varanasi was the walking tour we took with Ananya. We ate LOTS of food on this tour, starting with a plethora of pakoras. We learned that anything fried in graham flour can be a pakora. We tried tomato, eggplant, cauliflower and a few others.  And we had some terrific chai. I’ll miss Indian chai, I will. That sweet, spiced goodness. Here, Ananya threw in a Kit-Kat as well. Chocolate, as she says, is not a dessert in India. What is it then? A snack. Meandering through tight alleyways packed with people, mopeds, cows, dogs, goats and Bengali style houses with peaceful little courtyards, we stopped a man pushing a food cart full of peas to try “Indian peas.” These looked to us like regular old, get ‘em at your local grocery store snap peas and so we stuck them in our mouths, pod and all, and took a bite. Ananya turned around when she saw a man laughing at us and quickly informed us that you aren’t to eat the outsides, but just pull the peas out from inside. I don’t know, tasted fine to me. But she sure got a kick out of it. Next on the culinary tour was lassis at Spicy Bites. According to Ananya they are the best lassis in Varanasi. They definitely aren’t the best lassis in India, but they did have some of the most unusual flavors I’d seen. We went with a tried and true classic: chocolate banana coconut and chopped nuts, and a newbie: blueberry. Stick with the classics. That said, the best lassis we’ve had in all of India were probably the saffron lassis at Raas hotel in Jodphur. After “whetting” our appetites we went for a South Indian lunch at Dosa Café. We shared the masala dosa and veg uttapam, which is kind of like a pizza with a polenta crust. Both were heavy on the coriander for my taste, but Alan seemed to enjoy.

Onto dessert! Varanasi is well known for its desserts. And Malaiyo is one of its showcase sweets. It’s a special treat that’s only made in Varanasi and only during the coldest winter months (this, also, should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit”). It’s made from milk, which is boiled for a long time until it turns into an airy foam. It’s also got some cardamom in there, and I believe a bit of rose water. We’re told they place big pots of this on the roofs at night so that they chill.  Served in clay cups that are thrown away after a single use, they look like mounds of yellowy fluff. And they taste like an airy, lighter than mousse creamy cup of goodness. Make sure they pour a little condensed milk over top of it for the full effect. Ayo for Malaiyo.

Of course, this was only the teaser, and we went next to a sweet shop for a gulab jamun (basically fried dough soaked in honey and rose water, oh god), and a couple other sweet balls of rose water/cardamom/pistachio based goodness. They all taste similar, but vaguely different. Some of them have silver foil atop them, which you eat. It’s hard to fight the urge to peel off what looks like tin foil.

The alleyways range from fairly deserted and pleasant to walk around (albeit you always have to dodge the occasional pile o poop), to crazy and hectic.  The difficulty level of crossing the street doesn’t quite rival Mumbai but is made none the easier by mopeds driving on the wrong side of the divider. The environment feels ironically happier here than so many places we visited in India. It’s strange to find that in a place most strongly associated with death. Especially when you have to step aside on occasion as groups of men pass by with dead bodies hoisted on their shoulders.

Especially near the mosque where lines of locals wait eagerly for their turn inside, there is a large security presence. I never did quite adjust to the number of weapons that the officials carried here with such cavalier indifference to where they’re pointing.

We passed a number of music shops where the hippie variety tourists toted sitars around.

Ananya told us how from December 14 through January 14 it is not a time for weddings, but instead Hindus eat only bland food (rice with this daal type stuff) and grieve for ancestors lost. After the 14th there is a celebration with lots of kite flying. A friend I met while studying abroad also told me about the same festival, which is celebrated with more flair in Gujarat beginning January 14. We unfortunately missed it but it sounds worth checking out.

We usually cover accommodation in the “Practical Info” section below and we added some advice there, but we are including here our thoughts on TripAdvisor ratings and a lengthier discussion because in Varanasi our lodging was a more integral part of our experience than usual.  We stayed at a homestay, named, aptly, Homestay.  It’s the number one rated spot on TripAdvisor and people really rave about it. We’re coming to the realization that ratings on TripAdvisor can seem inflated, perhaps because people give ratings on different scales in different locations.  For instance, we’d rate our hotel in Cochin to be a “5,” for India and for the price. It was one of the best places we stayed, with a nice location, large room, functioning WiFi and A/C, but it’s no way a “5” compared to say, where we stayed on our honeymoon in the Maldives (for 28x the cost). You begin to notice in India especially people raving about things like “water actually got hot!” Also, a hostel might be a “5” for a hostel, but it can be difficult to know whether something is a “5 for a hostel cheaper than your morning latte in New York City for dirty backpackers with ridiculously lowered standards” or a “5 for a charming experience if less than luxurious spot” or the “5 for anything in the world at any budget.” So, take your “5” ratings with a grain of salt.

That said, Homestay was pleasant and we’re not trying to tear them down. It’s just not the BEST. The family who runs it is quite nice. You interact mainly with Harish, who is helpful and friendly, if also a bit long-winded. Our biggest complaint with Harish is that he spends so much time talking about how much his guests love him and how well he treats everyone that you never really get a chance to see it. Maybe it’s just that we spent four nights there and so heard his spiel to each new guest as they arrived. He also likes to opine on things on which he lacks personal knowledge, a bit of a pet peeve of ours. For example, he likes to explain why foreign tourists see certain local acts as irritating, because he apparently understands the psyche of Americans better than, say, the American tourists sitting across from him. And he’ll tell you how a sight in India is the second most impressive in the country, so beautiful, second only to the Taj Mahal. And fifteen minutes later he mentions he’s never actually been there. You can also expect to pay a bit more for transport and tours than you would otherwise. For the most part this is fine, because his guys aren’t going to try to take you around to shops and restaurants where they get a commission (much appreciated), but the tuk-tuk driver we’d hired didn’t speak any English, so if you’re looking for more of a guide, it’s definitely not a bargain (especially compared to what we got for less money in Cochin). Also, his airport shuttle fees are expensive and his argument that he’s saving you money because you aren’t dealing with commission schemes falls short here. Again, though, after a long 3.5 weeks in India we were just so over haggling.

Breakfast (included) and dinner (I can’t recall exactly but I believe dinner cost around Rs 250/person) are served communally. Harish’s wife, Malika, does the cooking. It’s pretty good. We loved her pakoras and the paneer curries. Weirdly, the dish I liked least was her paratha. Breakfasts are quite basic, pretty much toast (though with some fantastic homemade guava jam) and one hot Indian item that’s hit or miss. And when the power goes out (which happens pretty frequently), the toast switches to bread.

It is quite nice to share your meals with the other guests. We met several interesting people over the course of our breakfasts and dinners, including one couple that was also on a long-term round-the-world style trip including extensive travel in India. It was really fun to have people who could relate and discuss in detail with us such exciting matters as obtaining malaria pills and getting diarrhea (which for the record, was the woman’s opening line as we introduced ourselves at dinner. “Hello, we were supposed to arrive two days ago but I’ve had diarrhea for days.” Oh India and the things you learn about those you travel with).

The monkeys in Varanasi are scary little mothers. Our room was on the top floor, and we had to walk outside across the roof a bit to get to our door, which was something we avoided doing when the monkeys were out there. But the good news is that Jenni’s fight or flight instincts are intact. While dining on a rooftop in the old city, some monkeys snuck up there and in an impressively swift motion she jumped and ran inside the building before Alan could even grab the banana lassi and her sunglasses.  Which he sat valiantly protecting.

Other Varanasi Sites

We’d planned for four nights in Varanasi, expecting to have a work day and catch up on blogging/planning for the upcoming countries on our trip. Otherwise, we would not have spent so much time here. Given that we had plenty of time to spare, our first day we visited Sarnath. This was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps if you have a passion for history, Buddhism, or both, this would be more fascinating.  Deja vu to our commentary on Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.  Or if you hired a knowledgeable guide. But as a sightseer with little understanding of the ruins you’re viewing, it’s a bit underwhelming.

However, I was more than pleased to discover an Indian zoo tucked away behind some of the temples. All you culture-ites, please avert your eyes. In lieu of checking out more of the temples… we went to the Indian zoo. And it was awesome. They had a collection of deer-related animals, a host of the most exotic looking birds, crocodiles and these strange-looking incestuous accident of a crocodile’s offspring: the cavial. It’s like a croc, but with a wicked fat tail and a long skinny nose.

After our outing to Sarnath we jetted over to the old city for ayurvedic massages on the uber-cheap. You get what you pay for. Not the best massages I’ve ever received, but possibly the cheapest. And definitely the most invasive. They really got up into the nooks and crannies there.  Alan said no man has touched him that way since his father last bathed him in the late 70’s.

Some final observations on India.

It can be overwhelming, which can be hard to admit. But it’s at times discouragingly difficult to get by, and I’ll tell you it was a great relief to arrive on the beaches of Thailand for a stretch of days with little to plan beyond “should I order a banana daiquiri next? Or a banana colada?” In fact, I write this post while in a lounge chair listening to the waves lapping a few meters below me, while the sweetest dog keeps us company over our mojitos. Sinfully good this bit can be.

Before India I’d mistakenly believed that the Air Hancock is a universal symbol for “check, please.” This one doesn’t translate to Hindi, unlike the universal language for “pot sold here”: Bob Marley music and/or posters.

Another interesting cultural difference that we noticed throughout India: the non-sexual touching of same sex friends. While it’s quite taboo for men and women to engage in PDA, men and men often, how do I say this, cuddle. No, but really. I’ve seen grown men spooning on the street. It strikes me as odd, that in a country so focused on sexual repression and where the rights of homosexuals are pitifully archaic (I read in the newspaper there that during 2013 they reinstated an old law banning “unnatural sex”), the men touch in ways you don’t see much in the western world.

Practical Info

Transportation: We flew to Varanasi from Delhi on Air India.  Our flight was delayed several hours and many were canceled due to fog, which apparently is common at this time of year.  There are flights from Agra at least a couple days each week.

A car to our accommodation (Homestay) was arranged by Homestay and cost Rs 850, which seemed quite expensive.  Since it can be even more difficult to find things in Varanasi than elsewhere in India, especially in the old city, folks often recommend arranging transport directly with your lodging.

The day we visited Sarnath we paid Rs 100/hour for a tuk-tuk.  This also was surprisingly expensive, and that was a theme of services arranged at Homestay.  For comparison, we paid Rs 60/hour in Cochin and that was for a driver who spoke English well and doubled as a guide.

Accommodation:

We stayed at Homestay and covered most of the experience above.  One of the key decisions here is whether to stay in the old city or not.  The old city is near/on the river, closer to most of the attractions and more atmospheric.  However, it is also more crowded and hectic.  Homestay is about 1 mile from the main ghat.  I believe that many of the higher end properties are away from the ghats.

I think I might prefer to stay closer to the ghats.  While this might be less peaceful in some respects, the ghats and surrounding alleys are fascinating and it would be nice to envelop yourself in this world for a couple days.  Unlike Agra, where the Taj Ganj area does not offer much to compensate for increased tout-presence and commotion.

We had lunch one day at Shiva Ganges View and the building and location were nice.

We heard that one or more heritage properties may be opening in the old palaces on the river in the coming years.

Food: We ate most of our meals at Homestay and the food was pretty good (covered above).  Lunch at Aum Cafe near Asi Ghat was quite good.  It is a crunchy place where we had our most Trader Joe’s-esque meal in a long time.  An open faced sandwich with homemade nut butter, honey and coconut, plus a much-needed salad and a rose lassi.  We also had lunches at Dosa Café (South Indian food) and Shiva Ganges View.  The former was good and its owner friendly; the latter was bland albeit with a roof deck perched way above the river offering nice views.

In the old city we had lassis at Spicy Bites.  The special with chocolate, coconut, banana and nuts was far better than the blueberry.

On our way to the airport we stopped at New Rajshree for sweets and samosas.  It appeared clean and orderly, was packed and tasty.  As mentioned above, malaiyo is a unique treat here, and of course street food is ubiquitous.  We ate a lot of tasty pakoras in the old city on our walking tour.

Activities: The most popular and unique activity is to spend time on the ghats by the river observing ritual bathing, cremations and more.  Dashashwamedh is the main ghat where the nightly pooja ceremony takes place.  Manikarnika is the main cremation ghat.  You can walk up and down the river, and a sunrise (and perhaps sunset) boat trip is de rigueur.  We arranged our sunrise and sunset boat trips through Homestay.  Each cost us Rs 300 and began and ended at Kedar Ghat.  Near the river you will be inundated with offers of boat trips, and I think the going rate is in the Rs 150-300 range.

The well-reputed Banaras Hindu University is southwest of the old city and home to the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum.  The Monkey Temple and Ramnagar Fort are other popular attractions.

Many visitors make the ~10km trip up to Sarnath for half a day.  We found it missable, but if you do go there are ruins and Buddhist temples plus a neat little zoo.  It cost Rs 100 each to enter the ruins and Rs 20 each for the zoo.

January 6-10, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

 

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