From the tiny town of Orchha we took an overnight train to another small city.While there was not much to see in this particular city, it did begin our adventure down the Ganges River. It took a couple hours drive to reach the Ganges, and on the way we passed through many small towns as well as a holy site where three rivers come together to form the sacred Ganges river.
The Ganges river begins as many small streams in the Himalayan Mountains that slowly join together to form the mighty river that stretches through India. All of life happens on the river and it is considered sacred because it is believed that those who die near the river are able to break the reincarnation life cycle, and achieve nirvana. Devout Hindu’s who know death is imminent travel to the Ganges to spend their final days. Upon death, their loved ones will cremate the body on the banks of the river, collect and keep the ashes for a short time, and finally sprinkle them into the river.
Over the next few days we camped on the river side, and also visited the city of Varanasi which was truly an amazing place! Details can be found below.
- Overnight Train – The overnight train was not too much of a culture shock for us since we had been on similar trains throughout China. Each sleeper train carriage was split up into various compartments. Each compartment consisted of 6 beds, which were essentially like two sets of bunk beds stacked three high with only a shoulders width of walking room in between. Each car also had an eastern, squat toilet with an open hole that looked directly down at the train tracks. We had an interesting nights sleep on the train and enjoyed watching the people on the many passing trains.
- Cruising and Camping on the River Ganges – Our train stopped one station short of Varanasi. From here we took a short ride to the river, and hopped into a boat to go the rest of the way. The boats were small, wooden row boats, but carried 5 or 6 passengers comfortably. The seating area was covered in pillows and cushions which made it easy to stretch out and get comfortable. We spent 3-4 hours drifting down the Ganges, watching the small villages slowly pass by, getting to know the boatmen, and our fellow travelers. This part of the trip was yet another example of why we really enjoyed our tour company. Not many travelers make it to places like this, and so we were able to see village life up-close while also helping provide work for the boatmen (they were formerly fishermen, but these jobs ceased to exist several years ago). The boatmen also made excellent meals for us, and just like the cooking class that we attended, it was nice to try home cooked meals instead of those just from restaurants.
- Camping on the Ganges – After floating down the river, we spent the night camping under the stars on a small, uninhabited island in the middle of the Ganges. It was incredible to see the river up close, and hear local villages celebrating a festival near by. We also could see cremations taking place on the shores further down the river (more to come on this), various wildlife (including local dogs and a fox), and countless stars in the clear night sky. While it was a truly a picturesque scene and the below pictures do not do it justice, what they do not show, however, is the…interesting…side of travel that we seldom mention. This includes the stagnant heat, buzzing mosquitoes, using pit toilets, and a local Hindu temple blasting the same song well after sunset and well before the sunrise. Its nights like this that we will never forget both because of the AMAZING experience as well as the unforgettable, but often comical nuisances. The following morning we finished our voyage down the river and finally arrived at Varanasi!
- Varanasi Waterfront – Varanasi is considered to be the most holy cities in all of India as it sits along the banks of the sacred river, Ganges. The waterfront of Varanasi is absolutely fascinating! The only constant feature along the waterfront are the ever-present stairs slowly descending into the river. The stairs come in no particular uniformity; some are thin and steep, others wide and and more gently sloped, but all eventually terminate at the river’s edge. The water level rises and falls considerably, so the number of steps above or below the surface varies greatly month-to-month. All manner of buildings can be found lining the waterfront: coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, sites of historical and/or religious significance, and so on. A short walk along the waterfront can truly not be put into words. Just in our short time we saw hundreds (thousands?) of Hindus bathing or doing laundry in the water, monks doing religious rituals, hundreds of cows cooling off in the water, and of course, cremations of the deceased.
- Open Air Cremations – We were told that many people from different religious backgrounds come to Varanasi to cremate the bodies of loved ones along its banks; however, it is most strongly dominated by Hindus. Cremations were confined to two specific areas on the river bank, and we were told they were very strict about not allowing any sort of photography, which we made sure to respect. We spent several hours sitting on the steps and watching this holiest of Hindu rituals take place. As Westerners we did not fully understand the meaning and sentiment behind all of the rituals, but in the end the cultural openness when dealing with issues life and death were truly refreshing. Below our account of just one of these ceremonies we witnessed. Behind each site are stacks of wood which are used for the cremations, and are probably about 30+ feet tall. To begin an individual’s cremation, several men would put as much timber on their shoulders as they can carry and haul it down to the rivers edge to begin building a pyre. Shortly after this, a procession of loved ones carrying a body in gold and other brightly colored wrappings would be brought to the river’s edge. The body was then placed in the river, bathed, the ornate wrappings removed (only white, gauze-like wrappings remained), and the body delicately placed atop the wooden pyre. Several more logs would be placed atop the body, final rituals would take place, and then the fire was started. The onlooking crowd was always an interesting mix of both participant and spectator; it was not always clear which was which as obvious signs of mourning are discouraged for religious reasons.
- On the Ganges in Varanasi – On two occasions, one at dusk and one at dawn, our group got to take a boat out and witness Varanasi’s spectacular waterfront from the river. During these times of day the river banks seems to be teeming with life as people go through their daily routines. During our dusk boat ride, our guide had a special surprise for us when we anchored a few hundred feet from the shore and released a number of candle votives into the river as we made a wish. It was really beautiful to watch as they drifted away gently, illuminating the twilight air around them. Unfortunately, Andy’s wishes may not come true as he said them out loud and it is believed that prevents the wish from occurring.
- Hindu Worship Ceremony – We were able to visit a couple different Hindu temples during our visit in India, and to see the nightly prayer ritual that take place. While the ritual was mesmerizing in many of the temples we visited, it was the the ritual at the edge of the Ganges river that we found the most special. The unique ceremony is a religious ritual performed by Hindu’s several times each day. In Varanasi, this takes place at one of the temples along the waterfront. With space limited, boats cram up all along the river’s edge to provide additional seating; we watched the from our boat after our dusk voyage. The ceremony unfolded in front of us with 5 religious leaders on individual stages lighting various lanterns and candles, dancing, chanting, singing, ringing various bells, and all the while devotees would make various offerings at small shrines located throughout the area. The boats themselves were tethered together and people freely walking on/through the jumbled up boats selling various products. We quite enjoyed being able to experience this culture.
Varanasi was our last stop in India. The time absolutely flew by, and while we did so much, we were sad to be leaving after such a brief time. However, we could not be more excited to move onto our next stop in Nepal, home of the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest!