Journal entries and photos tell the story of our journey through Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi to Kathmandu with G Adventures.
Part Two: Orccha, Varanasi
The bus dropped us off at the train station around 8am. It wasn't as crazy as I expected. Fairly calm, actually. It was a little dated and grimy. It's here that I realized a strange Indian phenomena: people are constantly cleaning, and yet everything is still grimy. At the station there were people power-washing the rails and sweeping and mopping the floor - but it seemed only to make the place dirtier. Like people sweeping the filthy streets - only the garbage never goes away.
The train was nice at first glance [...] But after you sat down you realize the caked-on grime on almost everything. Another conundrum is that the train is grimy and the tickets unbelievably cheap, and yet the service is highly prioritized. A guy came along and gee us all 1-litre water bottles. Then they collected all the garbage, then brought around free breakfast.
We arrived in Jahnsi to a much busier station. A sea of rickshaws all clambered for our attention.
We drove for half an hour or so to the Tara Gram paper factory. A small and meagre NGO-supported factory that makes paper out of old bits of scrap cotton from garment factories. It was interesting but also kind of shocking - hard to imagine ourselves doing such repetitive work all day every day. It was fabulous to see the recycling of material that would have otherwise been thrown out.
We walked together through the village to an old Hindu temple. It was abandoned (seemingly) and host to monkeys, bees, birds and bats. It was very atmospheric to be inside. We took off our shoes and explored.
We arrived at the [contemporary] Hindu temple and of course took off our shoes again. It was yellow and white plaster, opening up to a large tiled courtyard. [...] People had lined up long before the prayers started and then walked/shoved along the railings, offering sweets and money. [...] Two "assistants" [to the priest] were striking brass plates with hammers making a loud, clanging drone. Eventually the priest came out, received offerings and blessed the people with holy water.
The first optional activity in the morning was a local village walk, then back to the hotel before visiting the cenotaphs (memorials) and Orccha Palace. The evening activity was a highlight so far - an Indian cooking class!
The trip to the village was pretty sobering. First we visited a government-subsidized cow farm [...] The whole system was really very sustainable and the cows were excellently cared for.
We then walked through a very rudimentary village.
My first reaction was that they didn't actually live there and they were just putting it on for the tourists.
After visiting the village it really struck me that life thousands of years ago would have looked like that. Walking over the hardened earth floor felt like walking in an archeological site. It felt like a historical re-creation, not somewhere someone would actually live with their children. Almost like, "and here we can see the remains of a small cooking hearth, where the women would cook a simple bread over a cow-patty fire". Only I was seeing it here, now, in 2016.
We didn't have much time left so we popped over to the school. It was so rudimentary I could hardly believe it. All of the kids were in one rectangular room sitting along the walls. Typical kids - just smiling and curious. I asked if I could see their books and what they were learning. I sat on the floor with them. A few kids stood up and recited stuff for us, like numbers and the alphabet. I told the guide I was a teacher, a music teacher, and he said "Oh please sing something for us".
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with emotion and tears sprung to my eyes. I thought of all my kids back home and how they have everything. I pulled myself together and since I'd heard the kids recite the [English] alphabet, I sang the alphabet in call-and-response. They picked up on it and we got through the whole thing. It was cute but very emotional for me. As we left I just wanted to stay all day and help the teacher and be with the kids. It was emotional again, thinking of my kids in Ecuador and my kids back home.
The rickshaw ride back to the hotel was a pensive one as I thought about the futility of it all.
The cenotaphs looked more like what I thought Thai architecture would look like. [...] I particularly liked how connected to nature they were after so many years. Enourmous bees' nests hung off the eaves, their colour blending so well as to make them look part of the building. Green parakeets and other small birds darted from tree to building and back to tree.
The most a mazing animals were the giant Egyptian vulture that made their nests on the rooftop.
[...] the gardener showed me the best view to see the nests and chicks. Their little white heads stuck up from their nests as the mother fed them with prehistoric crooked necks. They were fascinating; yet another element that looked out of time.
View of the cenotaphs from a bridge in Orccha
This palace - Jahangir - was built as a gift for the Mughal king at the time. He came and stayed one night, accepted the gift, and then moved on. Unfortunately he died soon thereafter, and so the palace was used for only one night.
The palace also has remnants of bright blue tiles that once covered the upper part of the palace.
Also, inside the bedrooms and dining room were beautifully preserved frescos. They mainly depicted the reincarnations of Lord Rama, which very strangely follows Darwin's theory of evolution. Fish, turtle, boar, half-man-half-beast, dwarf, Lord Rama, Lord Vishnu, Lord Buddha, and finally, an incarnation to come, a man on a white horse.
Writing from Varanasi, 03.19.16
After the Palace in Orccha we walked to the main market area where the usual sales people were selling the usual stuff. We had another short break before our favourite activity so far - the home cooking class (Post to come).
That night we left for the overnight train. We reached the train station to find a bit of chaos. Many people sleeping or napping everywhere - on the ground, the platform, the benches. Women with babies, old men, homeless people, everyone. It was hot and loud and sticky with all the [now] regular smells.
We were all given seat/bed umbers but didn't really understand the system. Most of us were in a car together spread across three little areas. The bunks were three tall on each forward-back side and two tall on one window side. We arrived exhausted and many of us feeling sick. The bunks were thin and pleather-covered. They provided two sheets, a thick blanket and a sad dirty pillow. We all laughed at ourselves as we tried to make our beds while sitting on them.
I did sleep for 5-6 hours, tossing and turning, but pretty well. I read, wrote, dosed, tried to sleep... We all started stirring (around 7am) and many people felt ill and sore. My husband had a really rough night, with growing stomach ache, nausea and allergies.
All in all we left for the train at 8:30pm, boarded the train t 10:30pm, arrived at the platform at 1:00pm. 14 hours of train and a 16 hour journey. Too. Much.
Writing from Nepal, near Lumbini, 03.21.16
To respect the family members of those being cremated my photography of the ghats and especially of Manikarnika is limited. I choose instead to paint a picture of this sacred place with words.
Varanasi, heading for the Ganges at sunset. Some people still ill from the train. We climbed aboard more rickshaws and headed out into what would be the craziest roadways yet. As we drove along the main road it became more and more packed with rickshaws, scooters, bikes, cycle rickshaws and mostly, people. We had to dismount from the rickshaws when the streets became too packed with people. Or maybe it was a pedestrian area. Who knows.
Walking along was a mass of people in colourful saris, carrying offerings, babies, bags, countless cycle rickshaws and bicycles, vendors selling everything, from plastic toys to flowers to chai. Crossing the roundabouts was the craziest yet - a sea of people not unlike Madrid on World Catholic Youth Day* - only more alarming because you know Varanasi is like this every day.
*Catholic youth day is an international convention for catholic teenagers held every few years in a different city. The year my husband and I went to Madrid the convention happened to be there. Needless to say we can now picture what a million people look like - there were over a million extra people in Madrid. But that's another story.
We emerged onto the ghats and atop the Ganges. The steps were wide and littered with cow patties. Holy men (some legitimate, some false) beat hand drums and chanted (and asked for money - the fake ones anyway). Down the steps avoiding cows we came to the river bank where dozens of rowboats lay in wait.
After boarding one and pulling slowly away the mysticism of Varanasi revealed itself.
The ghats stretched lazily into vanishing points of haze. Three and four-story buildings competed for space like an uneven row of teeth. "Varanasi - the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, comparable to Babylon". Far up the river a few smouldering fires cast dark charcoal smoke in the air.
The river itself was not as filthy as I had imagined. I had pictured a stinking, oozing, filmy, thick soup with garbage floating and dead fish. It certainly had no smell and it wasn't as polluted-looking as I had imagined. The water was thick and dark and all the garbage had pushed over to the banks.
We stopped at the sandbank and got out by stepping from boat to boat. Here there was garbage and dead fish, but also families swimming happily and tossing pool toys around. The view from the sandbank looking west across to the ghats was powerful. The cobbled building, hundreds of boats. thousands of pilgrims and people and tourists on the steps and in the water. Again I found myself gazing into history. no archeological thesis needed.
The world was here, pulsing, beating with heart of thousands of years.
The sun set on the lapping water and despite the dead fish and the garbage and sewage I found myself wanting to go in. (I didn't).
Back in the boat and along the water to the cremation site (Manikarnika).
The fire and smoke drew closer and the air became more somber. The cremation area had two sets of steps with a raised platform in the middle. Barefoot men tended to a few fires, some burning out and others burning hot. A smouldering pile of ashes spilled gently into the river, I guess ever burning and settling and blowing away. From the water the place seemed foreboding, hot, ancient. Mars and Pluto seemed invoked here. A few buildings rose above the fire and ashes, blackened by unfathomable years of soot. In the centre building in the central archway lived the dusty eternal flame.
It is said that if you are burned at Manikarnika your soul ascends straight to Nirvana, never to be reincarnated.
Being at the cremation site was very somber. It was a world I didn't belong to, a world we'd collectively forgotten. A world we weren't privy to. (This opinion changed the next morning).
We pulled away in near darkness and had a little flower ceremony. Our guide told us to thank the Mother Ganges and make a wish as we lay the offering in the river. Watching the little lights float away was serene and a wave of emotion flowed through me. Our guide said to never tell what you wished for, and it will come true.
After watching a payer ceremony, [...] all the tourists started exiting at once. Boats and boats and streams of people, we walked hurriedly up the ghat, through the alley-ways, back to the main street where the dust and pollution seemed to have multiplied exponentially. Our (ordered) rickshaws didn't arrive and we stood, exhausted, hot and coughing. The volume of people was astounding, and not a single open rickshaw passed us by. This was the moment I think [the group] had collectively had enough. Enough heat, dust, sweat, vendors, honking, motorcycles. Enough India.
We eventually boarded some rickshaws for the longest stop-start journey so far. So much exhaust and thick sooty dust made the ride intolerable.
After a good crash at the hotel our alarm went off at 5am to head out for another trip to the Ganges.
The difference at 5am was astounding. Ashy dust was everywhere, grey and charcoal and almost volcanic. Even the sky was twilight dust. The river and the ghats were much quieter and more peaceful. The soft sun played on the gray water. The vibe was one of tranquility and softness.
I couldn't believe how peaceful it was at sunrise compared to sunset. The water was gentler, the noise lesser, the intensity lesser, too.
[...] to our surprise we got off at Manikarnika. What was truly amazing was walking around the cremation site. At first the place seemed like a ghetto and very foreign. But as we walked the people were friendly, normal, smiling; their feet caked in soot and their grins toothy. The cobblestone streets were narrow and yet again a memory of the past. The small shop-fronts, hodgepodge buildings and crooked alleyways were enchanting. Many men slept on the ground. We passed the smouldering eternal flame, much less epic than imagined. We emerged onto the central cremation platform led by a guide.
[...] Manikarnika was not as it was the night before from the water. Not foreboding, not foreign, but entirely primal. Cows lay about the ashes, lazy from the smoke. Dogs rans playfully chasing each other. The soft morning light made the whole scene peaceful and approachable. A few piles were burning softly, small pieces of bone visible. [The cemetery] was really quite small considered how many bodies are cremated there each day (100-180). Caretakers tended the fires and ashes and it was truly a peaceful place. The smell was aromatic and nostalgic; to foreign as I expected. The river below lay peaceful and a sense of overwhelming humanity engulfed me.
Leaving Manikarnika and going back through Varanasi a feeling that had been growing was strengthened:
This is the world. This is Society. The "first world" in the anomaly, the experiment, the untrue. z
This theory came to climax for me in Varanasi.
The sense of community, aceptane, belonging, grief and peace. The filth, the dust, the animals and living and dead together as one organism. This is the world.
Perhaps there is something to be said about being "born again from the ashes".
From the water it looked like a sketch you'd see in a history text book. Something in charcoal with heavy, exaggerated black smoke. But on ground zero it was alive, real, Sublime. Where life meets death and sky meets smoke and river meets ash. On and on it goes, burning eternally thus living eternally and also dying eternally. Yes, it is the longest living organism in the world, the fire and ash and bone, breathing and climaxing and subduing for millennia.
Writing From Nepal, Tharo Community, Tuesday March 22nd
After visiting the Ganges that morning [...] we went o a walk of the textile/weaving quarter. We had a friendly toothless guide and several ragged children following us around.
The textile quarter was loud, narrow, old and winding. The small streets were dotted with knotted bits of thread, garbage and stale food. When a cow walked down the way, it dominated it. The buildings on top of the streets were tall and a little crooked, small windows hanging with children and birds in cages, it hinted at an old European ghetto, only it was still alive and pulsing.
We had a tour of the different stages of weaving from the bobbins to large spools to fully mechanized looms to hand looms. Amazing were the punchcards that were made by hand - the holes correspond to which threads are selected by the loom (made on a pre-determinded pattern).
The automatic looms we visited were in a few rooms and made a deafening clikada-clackada from four to six machines per room.
It was our last night in India and we were ready for a change of pace. One last night in a hotel before setting out at 4am to begin our longest journey yet.