20 Nov - 06 Dec 2014 Varanasi

Hinduism's Holiest City… 
Matt: Marvelling at the strangeness of the most alien of Indian cities, Varanasi aka Benares aka Kashi, with its tight mesh of ramshackle alleys, religious accoutrements, the host of deities (…and the proximity of death) and hanging out with sadhus and pilgrims who come for their daily ritual ablutions to the hundred 18th- and 19th-century stone ghats on the west bank of the sacred River Ganges.

and the death which comes before it,
is the primary business of Varanasi.”

Matt: Watching the sun rise over the east bank of the filthy and heavily polluted River Ganges (polluted with visible human/animal body parts and with invisible heavy metals and chemicals), rambling along the famous but crumbled ghats, great riverbanks with stone steps, built high with pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, dodging multitudes of shady drug dealers, tarted-up commercial sex workers and shaggy boat touts, discussing with pot-bellied beggars the health benefits of a sugar-free pure-vegetarian diet and sipping unsweetened masala chai (INR 5.- or US$ 0.10 per small cup) with bold early-morning bathers taking a dip in the river, shrewd Brahmin priests offering puja and ethno-homespun clad Western neurotics practising meditation.

Matt: Becoming lost in the narrow alleys and gloomy back lanes of Varanasi's Old City, passing many (i) repeatedly rebuilt and destroyed Hindu temples (guarded by armed police to protect them from Muslim fanatics) and (ii) repeatedly rebuilt and destroyed Muslim mosques (guarded by armed police to protect them from Hindu fanatics), dodging free-roaming cows, goats, dogs, monkeys and rats, haggling with street vendors over the prices for pesticide contaminated veggies (cucumbers for INR 40.- or US$ 0.60 per kg, tomatoes for INR 25.- or US$ 0.40 per kg, cabbage for INR 15.- or US$ 0.25 per kg, onions for INR 30.- or US$ 0.50 per kg and 3 lemons for INR 10.-) and Indian bananas (5 to 8 pieces for INR 10.-), getting used to Indian booze (750-ml bottle of Old Monk Rum for INR 520.- or US$ 8.40; "Absolutely No Natural Ingredients!") and to those well-known peculiarities of the Indian culture (from Indian holy cows which feed on garbage to Indian unholy men who urinate in public). 

Matt: Patrolling the sacred River Ganges by means of a leaking rowing boat aka bajra (INR 100.- per hour for both boatman and boat) and watching devotees (i) washing their genitals, and all the rest of it, in the holy river, (ii) brushing their teeth and rinsing their mouth with water from the holy river and (iii) collecting the unfiltered river water with all kind of containers in order to drink it.
"Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Matt: Meeting and listening to the laundrymen aka dhobi wallahs which operate their threshing family businesses along the ghats, pulverise rhythmically my clothes in pursuit of purity and form an interesting and very distinct Indian caste bound by rules of endogamy.

Matt: Visiting both the Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, the two major "burning ghats" (ghats used for cremation, easily recognisable from the smoke of their funeral pyres) on the west bank of the filthy river, which both run 24/7, burning hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight, and asking for a no-obligation quote for my own cremation: (i) a minimum of 300 kg of dry firewood (preferably hard wood from the Himalayan forests) for a price of c. INR 20.-/kg, (ii) a few bags with quality saw dust from sandalwood (c. INR 250.- per bag, negotiable) and (iii) some cheap ghee anointment for my skinny body, plus, of course, all the expenses for the spiritual hocus-pocus, which couldn't be specified since Varanasi is the undisputed number-one crossing place for the souls to their final liberation and money shouldn't matter at as such an important location...

Matt: Putting temporarily aside all thoughts about how the unburned parts of my heathenish body and how my heretical personal ash would contribute to the pollution of the sacred river, basically an open sewer, taking no risk and therefore inquiring about the plethora of life-enhancing and life-improving services offered in Varanasi (with names which seem to come from a New-age Bullshit Generator): Cosmic Healing, Power Meditation, Spiritual Nourishment, Divine Life, Meditative Enlightenment, True-nature Discovery, Rebirth Encounter, Harmonic Yoga, Krishna Consciousness, Wisdom Culture; you name it!

"Benares has had a tumultuous history, both materially and spiritually. It started Brahminically, many ages ago; then by and by Buddha came in recent times 2,500 years ago, and after that it was Buddhist during many centuries - twelve, perhaps - but the Brahmins got the upper hand again, then, and have held it ever since. It is unspeakably sacred in Hindoo eyes, and is as unsanitary as it is sacred, and smells like the rind of the dorian. It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church. But it is not an overstock, for they have all India as a prey. All India flocks thither on pilgrimage, and pours its savings into the pockets of the priests in a generous stream, which never fails. A priest with a good stand on the shore of the Ganges is much better off than the sweeper of the best crossing in London. A good stand is worth a world of money. The holy proprietor of it sits under his grand spectacular umbrella and blesses people all his life, and collects his commission, and grows fat and rich; and the stand passes from father to son, down and down and down through the ages, and remains a permanent and lucrative estate in the family."

Matt: Re-entering this mortal and material world and enjoying the rather kitschy and contrived tourist show (so-called River Worship Ceremony aka Main Ganga Aarti) every evening at Dashaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi's most popular bathing ghat and ground zero for tourists, newly-weds, beggars, scammers, artists, pundits and pilgrims from all walks of life and after-life, in short: a street photographer's paradise. 

"Here comes the sun, here comes the sun.
And I say it's all right.
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter.
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here.
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun.
And I say it's all right.
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces.
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here.
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun.
And I say it's all right."

Matt: Dragging myself away from entertaining Varanasi, flagging down a no-pollution cycle-rickshaw from Shivala Ghat (Singh Guest House +915426457150) to Varanasi's surprisingly well-managed Cantonment Railway Station (c. 5 km, ½ hour, for a non-subsidised INR 80.- or US$ 1.30 per person), leaving incredibly air-polluted Varanasi and taking the night train no. 21108 in the filthy sleeper class with barred windows from Varanasi to Khajuraho (453 km, 12 ¾, for a subsidised INR 194.49 or US$ 3.10 per senior citizen), booked one week before with reliable MakeMyTrip on the internet, thus crossing from Uttar Pradesh ("Amazing Heritage - Grand Experiences") to Madhya Pradesh ("The Heart of Incredible India"), and sharing a taxi from Khajuraho's train station straight to the recommendable Hotel Zen +917686274228 (8 km, ¼ hours, INR 30.- per person).

"Love is in the air. Love and pollution."

For Raoni, Tien and Ronja:
Die Stadt Varanasi liegt am Ganges, einem grossen Fluss, der quer durch ganz Indien fliesst. Das bebaute westliche Flussufer, die soganannten ghats, bildet die Hauptattraktion von Varanasi und zieht alle moeglichen Besucher an: Touristen, Spaziergaenger, Priester, Glaeubige, Verkaeufer, Spinner, Artisten, Taschendiebe, Jungverheiratete, Kuenstler, Wundertaeter, Waescher, Betrueger... So viel Abwechslung, Kurzweil und interessante Unterhaltung geht hier ab, dass man leicht den ganzen Tag am Fluss verbringen kann, was ich auch getan habe. Am interessantesten sind wohl die vielen indischen Betrueger, die stets zu Beginn unter irgendeinem Vorwand ein scheinbar harmloses und freundliches Gespraech mit einem Fremden suchen und am Ende dann doch irgendwie Geld haben wollen.
Die ghats hier in Varanasi haben uebrigens auch manche Gemeinsamkeit mit den bebauten Uferanlagen (riverfronts, waterfronts, harbourfronts) in anderen Staedten. In Bangkok (Khlong San), Hamburg (Speicherstadt), London (Canary Wharf), Kapstadt (Victoria & Albert Waterfront) und Venedig (Canale Grande) geht es zwar zivilisierter und sauberer zu, aber zu sehen gibt es da auch viel und die gestalteten Ufer haben ebenfalls einen tollen Unterhaltungswert, genauso wie hier in Barrie am Lake Simcoe, an unserer schoenen Kempenfelt Bay, der Centennial Park, oder wie in Toronto am Lake Ontario das Harbourfront Centre. - Wann besucht Ihr in diesem Winter den zugefrorenen Lake Ontario?
From India, with Love!

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