Friday, 27 May 2011

India - The first burning ghat

May 19-22

Hello everyone!

The story of being briefly stranded on the Ganges took precedence over everything in the last blog. It had to, really. But as a result, I had to skim over much of the detail that makes Varanasi such a unique place in the world. I also had to leave out how I was feeling as I arrived in one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities.

Varanasi is the final major stop on my subcontinental adventure. I’ll leave the summing up for a later edition, but I didn’t approach this place with the excitement and vigour that I would have done if I had seen it in the middle of my trip. The reason for this is because a strange feeling often takes over me on my final stop of a trip. Sometimes it’s a desire to go home (New York post-camp); other times it’s a bad experience (Amsterdam on the Eurotrip); it can even be missing the place you have just left, having spent the last year of your life living there (Kuala Lumpur after Korea). Sometimes I have been too drunk to notice (Qingdao in China), but the point is this: in my final location on an adventure, my mind seems to ‘check-out’, and consequently the place I have visited doesn’t seem…well…as good as it could be.

That’s not to say I hated those places. I loved New York, and was surprised at how much I liked KL. Amsterdam…well, I need to go back to brighten my view of that place. But this notion was eating away at my mind as I got off the train and set about finding a rickshaw to take me to the old city; the area of the ghats and the magic.

Varanasi has a reputation of being crammed with as many touts and underhand rickshaw drivers as it has narrow alleys around the ghats. If you’ve never been – that’s a lot. This, unfortunately, is true – I was being offered ridiculous prices for a ride to the old city, and was offered hash too many times to count as I meandered through the alleys. It starts the same way:

Man: ‘Hello my friend which country’

Me: ‘UK (or, if in a bad mood, China)’

Man: ‘Oh very nice place you like Varanasi yaar’

Me: ‘I just arrived’

Man: ‘Varanasi very nice listen my friend (voice quietens) I have good hash good opium’

Me: (Maybe lying) ‘I don’t smoke’

Man: ‘Oh OK…so good hash, come to my shop, very nice relax hash good –‘

Me: ‘No’

That continues for a while until they finally get the point, or if they spot a soldier in their path. One man hilariously offered to take me to his ‘government shop’ for some coke, hash and opium. I know many Indians have a problem with their government, but surely…

This isn’t unique to Varanasi, however, and is something that you just have to accept will happen, to which you respond politely and with a smile, before move on without letting the irritation get to you. Not easy in the heat, but to be overwhelmed by touts and sellers would be a shame. If you surrender yourself to this holy city then you can be overwhelmed in the most positive fashion.

The mystique and magic of this place if difficult to orate. As you walk along the ghats lining the Ganges you see people unrelentingly devoted to their life and their religion. You also see scores of cricket games, which alters the mood somewhat. At the more southern ghats they have actually put holes in the steps to plant the wickets in. But even as you sit silently watching the future Tendulkar’s and Sehwag’s trying to launch a ball into the holy river you cannot escape the spirit of Varanasi. Families washing a lifetime of sin away. Prayers chanted by groups of devout Hindus. Bells being rung and drums being beaten at every turn. This city lives for faith.

This devotion is most noticeable at the ganga aarti ceremony at Desadwamedh ghat. It is an evening ceremony of puja (prayers of respect), fire and chanting. The mood is empowered by the darkness in which it is performed. The ritual itself is mesmeric, full of noise and colour. Smoke drifts from the flames as seven chosen men manoeuvre the fire in a choreographed pattern. Bells and symbols are clanged as thousands on the steps and in the boats clap and chant. It encapsulates the power of religion.

I mentioned last time that this is a place tinged with passing and death. Everything in this city revolves around the Ganges, and if you die here you are liberated from the cycle of birth and death. Religious reasoning also makes Varanasi a place where many Hindus wish to be cremated. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the cremation process is undertaken in full public view, and is graphic in the extreme. I’ll talk you through it quickly, but it’s a horrifying event which abuses most of your senses and is very difficult to stomach.

The body, covered by silky and shiny material, is carried down to the burning ghat on a stretcher by chanting men. It is then splashed with holy water from the Ganges, before being laid down whilst wood is carefully arranged. At this point a cow tried to eat the corpse, which could be funny if it wasn’t so mortifying. Imagine somebody you know, who you want to rest in peace, being devoured by a cow. No, not at all funny, actually.

The body, now removed of the silk but still wrapped in linen so it resembles an Egyptian mummy, is placed and locked into the wood. More wood is added on the top of the body and then straw, lit from an already-burning fire, is placed under the wood and body to initiate a fire which is then increased by white-hot wood from the other fire. The family members and friends then watch as the fire slowly burns away the person they once knew so intimately.

I stayed for a while, silently and respectfully watching the procedure from above, but had to turn away and hold back tears and vomit at one point. The linen is, naturally, the first layer to burn away. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was to then see a human face sticking out of the wood, being licked angrily by flames. Someone with feelings; with stories; with family. The face changed from its natural skin colour to white and then to black. A human being, being cooked like a sausage on a barbecue. A life with so many stories behind it just being burnt away, frittered into the air. The smell is pungent. Ashes float in the air. It’s overwhelming.

It’s difficult to criticise – it is a very important ritual for Hindus, and it’s a process that happens at home; just in private. It adds to the unique feel of Varanasi, just like the dozens of cows who position themselves in the river to cool off from the burning sun. I saw the burning face as I walked along the ghats towards the city’s crumbling fort. This is a long way away, so at the final ghat I had to take a cycle-rickshaw towards the bridge. Let’s just say the road was very bumpy.

The bridge across to the fort isn’t really what we may think of as a bridge. If you have ever played Mario Kart, it’s like the track which is just a wooden boardwalk with the abyss on either side. To call is rickety is a gross understatement, so to be shot across it on the back of a crazy man’s motorbike is tantamount to giving yourself a time slot in the burning ghat. Petrifying. I guess that’s the negative side to hitchhiking.

So how to describe Varanasi? Unique. Haunting. Mesmeric. Graphic. Spiritual. There are things to hate. There are things to love. There are things to sicken. There are things to hearten. There are tasty Rs3 samosas. There are distinctly sub-par parathas. There are magical lassis served by a charming local man who is fluent in Korean. There are offers for all kinds of illegal substances from not-so-charming men who struggle with English. There are alluring boatrides at dawn on a holy river. There are dead dogs in a holy river. But I’m not going to sit on the fence here and say that Varanasi is a marmite city. I really like it here. It is a fascinating place, and one which certainly will not let your mind ‘check-out’ of this fantastic country before it is time to leave.

Love you all


Tuesday, 24 May 2011

India - The first trip on the Ganges

May 18

Hello everyone!

This story is about a boat. Hop aboard, it’s a good one.

Everyone has a travel story they like to tell. Their ‘go-to’ story if they are asked to tell a travelling tale. A story that will keep the attention even of someone stricken by ADHD. I have a few: the Serbia episode; the Korea World Cup game; the Thai mafia tale; the crazy 24 hours of Beijing. But up to now I wouldn’t have said wholeheartedly that I have anything resembling an epic tale from India.

Potential epics? The World Cup final day would certainly be up there on the list, as would having to clamber over cliffs in darkness in Gokarna. Holi would rate highly as well, but there is no standout saga. I guess this means that I’ve had several superb experiences here, but I do now have another adventure to add to the shortlist.

Context is needed at this point. After all, you don’t even know where I am at this juncture. I left Khajuraho, the place showcasing the events that instigate the creation of life, and arrived in Varanasi. The place of death.

Well, not entirely true. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and is a particularly auspicious place to die or for the process of death to be completed. The reason for this trickles gently along the banks of the city. Varanasi sits on the Ganga – the River Ganges. The water that flows along this waterway is revered by Hindus. They wash clothes in it. They wash themselves in it. They drink it. No matter that some of it is so filthy that some areas are classed as septic. Devotion to religion surpasses and trumps logic in Varanasi.

The aura of Hinduism and its characteristics is omnipotent here. The sense of spirituality is best encapsulated in a ceremony at one of the ghats (the steps leading up to holy water – but I told you that in Pushkar, remember?) called the ganga aarti, which is held every evening as night encompasses the river. What many are told – even The Bible says so – is that the best way to witness this is from a boat on the Ganges. My hostel provided a free boat ride for this – perfect!

After spending my first afternoon in Varanasi relaxing and avoiding the stifling heat, three of us hopped onto a rickety wooden boat and were introduced to our rower and guide, a genial and plump man called Sanjay. Motorboats cost money and only worsen the pollution of the already gunky river. Our vessel lazily follows the current down past the fumes of the burning ghat, past the dead dog in the water that resembled a stuffed toy, past a swimming lesson.

The problem with the free boat ride- as with most things – is that it wasn’t ‘free’. We had arrived over an hour in advance of the ceremony, so we were given the choice of being taken back to the hostel or chucking Sanjay some rupees and being taken around other ‘sights’ before returning in time for the main event. We opted for the latter.

The first location on our extracurricular boat tour was the beach. You may have noticed that one side of the river is built-up, and the other seems to be a barren wasteland. The reason for this is the monsoon. Simply put, that barren wasteland – known locally as ‘the beach’ – doesn’t exist during the rainy season. When we were in Varanasi, however, it did exist, and was an alternative place to wash from the more densely-populated ghats.

It was when our little boat meandered across to the beach that the elements seemingly began to change. The heat and humidity was very much present, but other, darker forces started to emerge. What had been a bright, happy sky began to blacken. Ominous clouds drifted speedily above. The wind, benign up to this point, started swirling menacingly. ‘I think it’s going to rain’, I stated matter-of-factly. ‘No no’, Sanjay enthusiastically responded.

I’ve made this seem like a gradual change in the climate. No. What concerned the British trio of passengers, at the whim of a cheery local captain, was the speed of the change. Re-read the last three paragraphs again. The changes happened in the time it took you to read it. Don’t believe? The girl took a 360’ video, at the bottom of the blog, lasting around a minute. When she returned to her starting point, the sky was a different colour, and the ghat much less visible. Rapid.

The atmosphere in the air was thus rather surreal as we disembarked on the beach. The mugginess was still prevalent, but was soon displaced by a cool, strong gust violently rocking our boat, which seemed to be shrinking with each passing minute. The increase in the wind’s velocity had another, arguably more pressed effect. We were on a beach, after all. Within seconds, our vision had been greatly reduced, and we were shielding our eyes from a vicious sandstorm.

A low, dull haze had now concealed many of the ghats across the river. ‘A storm is coming’, the other British man announces. Rather obviously, except that Sanjay refused to believe the obvious. Instead, he decided to take a dip in the river whose gentle movements had become jerky from the muscle of the wind. He motioned for the girl to join him. She said maybe, but naturally refused when pressed on the matter. Septic, after all. If your religious and karma views are particularly strong, you may suggest that this rejection lead to what happened next.

Rain. A deluge of rain. A giant angry cold tap turned on over the holy city. Not something you prepare for when you leave your hostel looking at a pastel-blue sky with only the occasional cloud dotted within it. Even the few locals on the ‘beach’ dashed to cover under the temporary women’s changing stalls. They were temporary. The wind howled and some of the material offering protection started to soar into the stormy sky.

Not that the irrepressible Sanjay would have allowed that. We were gently rocking in our small ship, making idle conversation as the raindrops penetrated our clothes. Wind swirls. Eyes are shielded.

Crack. Flash. Boom. Crackle.

Now it was a serious storm. A flash of lightning and a crack of thunder led even Sanjay to accept that. Boom. Strange – that came from behind us. Another boom to the side. A flash in front of our eyes. I’m becoming disorientated with each sheet of light and each roar of sound. Then the realisation slaps us viciously in the face. We are smack bang in the centre of an unrelenting storm. And we are on the wrong side of the river.

Clothes are saturated, so the whipping wind is making us shiver. In the distance on the beach side sheets of white light proliferate the sky without rest or abandon, making the skyline resemble a Libyan battlefield. Looking south down the river and across to the ghats, which have become more visible as the murky clouds have slightly lifted, the sky is illuminated by both sheets and spectacular forks of lightning. At times it was like a pen was drawing squiggly lightning bolts across the sky. The forks seemed to last an eternity in the air.

The storm was also proving to be eternal. The other pilgrims on our side took the substantial risk of crossing back against a strengthening current, but they had one advantage that we did not possess – a motor boat. We were now alone, soaked, stranded. I checked the time. We had been moored in the same spot – hunched in the same boat – for close to an hour. We were getting cold, and the storm above us was motionless.

Yet suddenly there were bursts of warm air trying to resuscitate us from the numbness. And suddenly the rain stopped. And suddenly the Ganges becalmed, and we were able to move. The problem was that, whilst we could move, the boat…wouldn’t. It had wedged into the sand. It needed to be pushed, and that needed us to step into the moving septic tank. It’s…warm. Uncomfortably warm. The merciless wind started to strengthen once more as we crossed the river, but Sanjay summoned some inner strength of his own and dragged us towards the ceremony.

The ceremony! It had been delayed by the storm, but was about to start. Did we watch? Like hell we did. We were soaked and shivering. We went straight home, and negotiated a heavy discount from our eccentric oarsman. We hadn’t seen any ‘sights’, after all.

What struck me as we were rowing back under the flashes of lightning (they continued all night) was the atmosphere that was generated by the weather. What we witnessed from the beach was haunting; yet also incredibly alluring and spiritual. It felt like a supernatural force was at work. We were helpless, at the whim of the elements; yet it also brought Varanasi irreversibly into my heart. I felt Varanasi’s power; it’s aura.

It was at times a scary, surreal and overwhelming experience. But it was also phenomenal and other-worldly. It’s not something worth explaining. Words can’t explain it. If you come here, you will feel it too. Though I hope you don’t have to go knee-deep into the Ganges to find it.

Love you all


Sunday, 22 May 2011

India – The first Kama Sutra temple

May 16-17

Hello everyone!

Warning: some of the content of this blog is of an adult nature, and may not be suitable for people under the age of…umm…oh whatever. We all watched an 18-certificate film (U.S. translation: R-rated movie) before we turned eighteen (U.S. translation: before you turned…R?? How does that work, really). Most drink alcohol before they are 18/19/21 years old. This blog is about sex. If you don’t like that, fine. Go and watch Cartoon Network, and dream about being an astronaut.

Let’s step back a day, though. I arrived in Delhi in Monday morning and headed straight to Bashir’s place. Don’t think I’ve been scavenging off Bashir and his friends without offering anything in return. I presented him with my prized possession – my Wales flag. So many memories with that – well, Chennai. That is a long time ago. Many places have been visited inbetween those two behemoths. Bringing us back to Delhi, I was reluctant to venture into the 43’C (109’F) sauna that was the outside world, but it was required. That’s the price of your filthy five-year-old satchel breaking.

I tried two new markets. I bought a replacement bag at the second location; the backpacker area known as Paharganj. I probably wouldn’t have liked Delhi if I had stayed there. The first market, Palika Bazaar, was of much greater interest to me. Why? I had finally found the main market for…ssshhh…counterfeit produce. Down some steps under Connaught Place are regal ‘Rolex’ watches, awesome ‘Adidas’ flip-flops and…’R-Sun’ shades. Amongst the chaos and the squeeze I bought two of these three.

So an overnight train is taken – second night in a row without a proper bed – and I disembark in a town called Khajuraho. It is in Madhya Pradesh (the 11th state I have visited in India), and is even hotter than Delhi. This – possibly aside from Las Vegas – may be the hottest day I have ever endured in my life. I have it as either 45’C or 46’C – one shopowner insisted it had reached 49’C.

People die in this heat, yet paradoxically I was here for the act which leads to birth. Khajuraho is home to three groups of World Heritage temples which possess very elaborate, powerful – and erotic – sculptures. The visions suggested in the texts of the Kama Sutra are brought to life on the walls of the Khajuraho Monuments.

Before I continue along this most sleazy of trails that I followed, I will sift the mundane from the magnificent and the bizarre. Not every temple is solely decorated with erotica. Religious deities and depictions of epic battles are just as common as bosoms. Of the more sexual sculptures, only a select few showcase the ‘positions’ famed and portrayed in the Kama Sutra. Many are just naked or topless women. Trust me when I say that this is not a negative, though. What I’m trying to expose here is that these temples are much more than sculpted pornography.

After a breakfast of chai and a masala dosa – I have missed the South Indian breakfast staple – I armed myself with a bottle of water and ventured to the western temples. This is the largest collection of the three, and the one which pulls Rs250 from your pocket. Venturing clockwise around the ten temples and shrines, a pattern emerges. Each is made of sandstone; each houses a cooler, darker and less preserved interior; and each possesses brilliant, absorbing storyboards and figurines on its exterior. All were constructed between AD 950 and 1050 under the rule of the Chandela dynasty – seemingly an era of enlightenment and liberal thinking far beyond its time.

Also, a time when Indian women had very large curvaceous breasts jutting away from and over flat stomachs. Either they are exaggerated or the shape of the local women has changed markedly in the last millennium. Often they are posing in dancing shapes, but other princesses of promiscuity are joined by men or animals. Or both, though that is rare. No sheep, which was somewhat disappointing for this young Welshman. Some of the images – woman reaching up with smile to body part of what seems to be a dragon or horse – are disturbing.

Other images – man with arm around woman, facing as if looking into the distance whilst his girl admires him – are cute and romantic. The next stage – man entering woman in various positions – is a natural follow-up to this. Not much imagination required there.

The carvings of sexual positions are known as mithuna, and this is where the creative and inventive abilities of the people involved really expresses itself. The one that will mystify me for decades to come is the pose that defies most laws of physics – the headstand routine. Sex is a natural characteristic of human life and existence, but balancing on head to perform the act is most certainly not. Well, I haven’t tried, but I can’t imagine it is.

Enough of this seedy showmanship! In spite of what you may think, there are a finite number of one-metre figures you can observe and admire before it becomes repetitive, no matter how voluptuous they may appear. But this was only one group of temples so, after a quick nap to escape the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, I hired a bike and rode bumpily to the southern and eastern temples.

Remember how I only learned how to cycle last year? Well, I’m still in the habit of forgetting the basics. Like braking. It took a man shouting ‘BRAKE’ after I bumped into him – and soon after I had careered into an unfortunately-placed stationary bike – that I remembered this vital function. The other temples were great – still laced with erotica and religion – but you only pay for the western temples, and there is a reason for that.

After chatting to locals over chai outside the largest of the eastern temples – I must learn not to mention ‘government’ to an Indian, they all have plenty of strong opinions on that matter and I often struggle to interject – I observed the Sun fall gently behind the western temples for a sunset that was similar to the one I witnessed at the Taj Mahal. You would think that this would lead to a dip in the temperature, but not so. Liquid all over.

Food, shopping and a rickshaw to the train station led me to my exit from Khajuraho, with the third successive night without a bed in a room. It is a town that will make you the deepest shade of crimson – if not from blushing at the incredible architecture, then from the heat – but it is definitely worth a visit. These temples are unique and, even ignoring the nature of the intricate sculptures, are some of the best-designed, constructed and preserved that I have ever seen. Maybe even something you would stand on your head for…

Love you all