Monday, December 14, 2015

Looking for the holy Ganges

With doctor Jaggi having given Mike the go-ahead, as you can read in the previous post, we continued east. The plan was simple: go to where the Hindus go in the Ganges river... I'm sure they go in the Ganges river at various places as it is after all over 2,500 km long, but Varanasi seems to be the spot where it's done. All we had to do now was work out how to get there and where to stay. Two things which are normally quite easy to work out, but slightly more complicated in India :-)

People even brush their teeth in the Ganges...
Looking at a map means nothing here. Sure it will give you the direction but that's about it. The road numbering system is different to both our paper map and the GPS and distances are nothing but a vague indicator. We've had days here where we barely covered 200 km, we've also had days where we did double that in half a day. It all depends on the level of bizarreness on the roads I suppose. We had hoped that if we left early, we could do 500 km... so we left at 7 am and arrived at the town where we had found a reasonably priced hotel at 2 pm... Not bad going. But, as we were about to find out, that was only the beginning... 2 hrs later we still hadn't found the Raka Inn as once again the coordinates given by Booking dot com were wrong. They directed us to Indian Army Barracks... Not to worry, a passer-by with a scooter knew exactly where it was and would take us there. The friendliness in India never seizes to amaze me, people are always willing to help! So we followed the scooter... when he started making several phone calls while riding, we knew we were in for a long ride. In the end he couldn't find it either and dropped us off at another hotel... saying 'maybe they know?'

Just try to imagine what riding your bike through this is like...
An incredible gem of a home stay, Kunjpur in Allahabad
In the end we did find it... but the confirmed booking had not been made, despite the owner's e-mail, and the staff also knew nothing about secure bike parking. After the usual chaotics, which make up India, it became too complicated for the man left in charge, he called the owner and handed me a mobile phone. Supposedly the man was speaking in English... maybe but not in an accent that I could make heads or tails of and so incredibly loud that everything was distorted anyway. The guy who had given me the phone then directed us to another hotel around the corner, which wasn't theirs but the competition...! Just as well he did though as it was an amazing place... and Vince and Karen turned out to be there as well! The Kunjpur Guesthouse is something we had not seen yet in India. Built in the 19th century, it is a grand old mansion. Furnished with period style European furniture and with large classic rooms. We found it a great place to stay and were pleasantly surprised with a very good vegetarian evening meal made from organically grown vegetables (from their own 10 acre garden!) as well. Unlike the Raka Inn, the Kunjpur owner and staff were very friendly and welcoming. It has a grand entrance and our bikes were parked in front of this majestic home! Only just settled in, an e-mail arrived from the Raka Inn, where we had booked, asking when we would arrive... Only in India I suppose :-)

The next morning we left for Varanasi, a short ride of 130+ km. A couple of months back someone had told us the driving would become worse and worse the further east we would go. As we had been through Delhi, we thought that was no longer a problem... we were wrong! This relatively small town, compared to Delhi anyway, is far worse. The aggression, the sheer volume of traffic and the silliness was at an unimaginable level. We've learned to stand our ground and use the size of the bikes as a good deterrent. We have to too. Car drivers have learned the hard way that Holan panniers get through all this without a scratch... unlike their car! In India car drivers feel they have priority as I'm only on a bike... But then again bike riders can be just as bad. One very persistent kid, persistent in trying his utmost best to kill himself and take Vince down too (who was riding in front of us) learned to keep his distance when I grabbed him by the arm and asked him to show some respect to other riders... he did from then on! Another one was sure he could wedge himself between me and the central concrete barrier on the roundabout... even though there was no room at all... when he realised it didn't work, he tried to push me over... even though there was no room for me to move anywhere... not a smart move on his part as he ended up hitting the concrete barrier...

The laundry is done in the river too...
Along the way we had already seen some horrific accidents, between trucks and buses which did not end well for either. Completely mangled cars found along the road are not unusual but unfortunately as common as cows on the road... I know a lot of people vow not to drive in India and travel by bus instead, but having seen how the bus drivers drive.... and the results of it... I'm not even thinking about it!

Cattle receiving a good scrub down...
Talking of cows. We had wondered for a long time how they survive here... I'm mean it's madness and yet they simply sleep on the road. This morning we found one munching away, while being half asleep on the middle of a roundabout. Seemingly totally unfazed about all the honking traffic narrowly missing it. But then we found a couple who must have been hit by trucks. Dead as a dodo and mangled to bits... Not a pretty sight and not a pretty smell either...

The hotel turned out to be a beauty. They had secure parking too... under the building! They meant well but the access was made for little 125s. Getting our bikes down there was somewhat tricky, getting them back up is something we worried about later :-) For the moment they seem secure parked, complete with a security guard and locked at night.

In the afternoon we went to the Ganges and visited some of the Ghats along the river. For most of us the word Ghat is probably something you haven't heard of, and it's often used to pretend it's something holy, while strictly speaking it is just a word used in south Asia for a series of steps leading to a river. In Varanasi all these steps have a name, which is handy as there are quite a few of them. They are the spots where the Hindus come to wash themselves in the holy Ganges river... and where people wash their pots and pans in which they had made Lassi too.. as we saw while we were there. The Lassi was floating in the water less than a metre away from where another man was washing himself... As strange as this may seem, westerner pay extra for a milk bath... here it's free :-)

As difficult to understand what sort of cleaning powers that Lassi contaminated water would still have, nothing could quite prepare us for what we found at the Manikarnika Ghat. As soon as we saw it, our brains were not quite able to translate what our eyes were registering. At Manikarnika Ghat corpses wrapped in silk or cotton are immersed in the Ganges for one last cleaning and then cremated out in the open on wood fires... I wasn't real sure what to make of that but then learned that the remains are subsequently scattered in the Ganges river... upstream from where they go in the water for cleaning... As many as 30,000 people are cremated this way at Manikarnika Ghat alone every year, in a process which continues 24/7. The cremations cannot be photographed out of respect for the families, although plenty of photos can be found on the net... We were allowed to watch though, could even look at the proceedings from up close if we wanted to, but gave it a miss. We found it too gruesome to look at even from a distance... and had the distinct impression there was some sort of scam going on here too (more on which later).

Boat being fixed in a makeshift 'shed'
For us this just didn't make any sense. Cremations are done world wide and result in a jar of ashes. Here, because it is done on wood fires which aren't hot enough and out in the open, some bones don't fully burn... Others hardly get properly cremated at all when the family can't afford enough wood for a full cremation... Regardless of the end result though, the remains are simply thrown into the river... even when only partly burned...(!) As if that wasn't hard enough to comprehend, holy men, pregnant women, children under the age of five, people bitten by snakes and lepers will not be cremated at all. They are simply weighted down with stones and pushed out into the river... Within 24 hours their bodies rise to the surface again and end up on the banks of the river. Usually the boat men have to push them away from the shores again.

This is the Ganges too... this stray dog is eating the garbage, garbage thrown in the river by the same people who proclaim this is a sacred river...
We looked at the Manikarnika Ghat in disbelief for several reasons. First of all the surrounding buildings were incredibly dirty, which did not quite give it a holy atmosphere. It resembled somewhat of the inside of a chimney if you like, which considering the amount of burning going on, is hardly surprising I guess. The other thing we just couldn't understand is the amount of pollution created in that poor Ganges river. Just metres away from the cremation site we found this dog eating from the rubbish floating in the same Ganges river... How can anyone simply dump their rubbish in a river considered holy? Apart from that, the Ganges river flows through Bangladesh too... those poor people get the remains of 30,000 partly burned Indian corpses flowing across their border... plus not to mention the household rubbish thrown in it by the millions of Indians living along the Ganges... and as we were to find out later quite a lot of untreated sewage too.

'Comparing notes' about what we found along the Ganges and what we had expected to find, we both missed any holiness, while Varanasi has all the 'ingredients' to be something really special. I guess we had expected to find something more serene and spiritual. After all Mark Twain described Varanasi as 'older than time itself' and 'a centre of Indian music and spirituality'. But unfortunately that was then. Today it's a ghetto with broken roads and bad traffic, where the beautiful flavours of Indian food and spices have been replaced by the stench of rotting garbage and the scruffiest stray dogs we have ever seen roaming the streets. It's also the first place in India where we decided not to have any street food as it is prepared right next to open sewers, swamped with flies by people who have no hygiene standards whatsoever. Walking through it we had to keep our eyes to the ground to avoid sliding in the garbage, decaying food scraps or stepping in shit.

This photo captures everything in one shot, the sunrise, the Ganges, the smog and the garbage...
Woman doing her laundry in the Ganges, the pollution clearly
visible in the background
But there is another side to Varanasi too. We couldn't walk half a metre before another annoying person was trying to get us in a boat, a tuktuk, a restaurant or pretending to be our best friend who would take us to all the sites. It's a behaviour which happens a lot in india, and is tiring at the best of times, but here in Varanasi it is absolutely terrible. We found our path several times completely blocked by persistent tuktuk drivers who simply would not take no for an answer. We also had the privilege of having a cobra pushed into our face and then money being demanded for the privilege...

Tourist enjoying a very popular boat ride in the morning... 
Only just recovered we were attacked again by boat people, ricksha owners, tuk tuk drivers and the like. It's a continuous 'Hello sir! You want boat sir? Very good boat! My boat is very cheap sir, hello? Hello?... Hello sir, tuktuk sir? Very good tuktuk! Where do you want to go? hello? Hello?... Hello sir, do you want to see the holy temples sir? I can take you there sir! hello? Hello?... Hello my friend! hello! Hello! One of those so called friends was at the Manikarnika Ghat. This one claimed to be working for the government and not wanting any money... yeah right and pigs fly I presume? 'But I only want to help you visitors understand the ritual, Im working for the government, you do not have to pay me...' He continued. I wasn't interested, unfortunately friends of ours were... He offered to take them 'behind the scenes' and before they knew it they found themselves confronted with families who couldn't afford the wood for a cremation and were asked for a donation... Later-on they found it was a well known scam where non of that money ended up with those families (unless they are part of the scam of course)...

Sheets laid out to dry
Mike found that answering 'no' in English resulted in more attempts, as some of them just won't give up. They just kept pestering us no matter how many times we had said no. They were pulling our shirts, blocking our way, and shoving whatever it is they want to flog in our face. No matter how many times we had said 'no' they just kept doing it. However, answering in Russian had them stumped as they don't speak Russian :-) Mike took over the replies from then on with a clear 'nyet' It worked really well, we were still being approached by an unbelievable number of 'salesmen'... but at least only once.

Wondering if we had perhaps missed the point or just misunderstood what we saw, we looked for verifiable data on the pollution levels, after all what we see can be subjective but data doesn't lie. I found an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which named it 'The holy river from hell' dated August 6, 2014. It reads: What is dumped in the river Ganges? Raw sewage, plastic bags and bottles, industrial effluents, human waste, chemicals from tanneries, cow dung, partially cremated corpses, garlands of flowers, human remains, animal carcasses, butcher’s offal, chemical dyes from sari factories and construction waste. It only takes a few hours of being in the ancient holy city of Varanasi – the most sacred place in the world for Hindus – to realise that the question needs to be reworded as “what is not dumped in the Ganges?”

This warm and friendly man caught my eye. He's feeding
the goats roaming around the many ghats of Varanasi. 
Over the years several attempts have been made to clean up the Ganges but so far all of them failed. It is apparently now filthier than ever. Pleads have been made to do something about it as ''Tourists come here because of its name but once they see the filth, they curse us and never return.”  Just one month ago The Times of India wrote that the Ganges river is so badly polluted that it is unsafe to swim in... To give an idea about the levels of pollution, only the untreated sewage from townships entering the river daily is unbelievable. In 1985 this was already a staggering 1,300 million litres a day, in 2015 that already incomprehensible amount has almost tripled to 3,600 million litres every day. Of all the towns along the Ganges, Varanasi is the number 3 polluter (only Kolkata and Kanpur produce even more).

As we have seen ourselves, the pollution of the Ganges is only part of the story though. In general, the pollution in India is unbelievable unless you have seen it for yourself. I'm sure many Indians don't like what they read when I say India is the dirtiest country we have been to, but it is unfortunately the truth. It's also not just our opinion but backed up by data. The reason I'm writing about it is first of all because we write about what we find, but also because we hope that something will be done about it! As I've written before India is this great country of unbelievable contrasts. We have met a lot of very friendly and helpful people and I'm sure it is a minority which ruins it for the rest. At the same time there is no denying that there are a lot of serious problems here. Problems which have gone way out of hand and have resulted in the mess we see today. In Varanasi all the madness of India seems to come together, the good and the bad. What you think of the driving here is up to you, as that is open for interpretation if you like, but there is no interpretation possible on the garbage and pollution. Just look at the photos, it is floating in the river, on the banks, on the roads and well, everywhere. We have seen people dumping household garbage in the rivers many times, we've seen the open sewers, the floating bodies in the Ganges, the throwing out of garbage from cars and buses and the dead decaying animals simply left on the road. It's not a pretty picture but, we feel, one which should be told. At the same time Varanasi has all the ingredients to be something really special, perhaps even more special than Mark Twain had found it all those years ago.


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