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Monday, March 10, 2008

Varanasi (Benares) - Mystical Power Center of India - Part One

No one could have prepared us for arriving in Varanasi.  It is known as "Kashi", the abode of Lord Shiva, the most complex and venerated God of Hindu mystical thought.  Varanasi is said to be the place where the Three Worlds meet.  It is where the 1000s of tributaries including the rivers Varuna and Asi form the most sacred of Indian rivers, the Ganges.  It is a city teeming with the pulse of controlled chaos. 

We flew here from Mumbai and then were all greeted with beautiful flower garlands at the airport and put into 6 jeeps.  Here we are with Mark...



The air was thick with dust, smoke and pollution.  The roads were crowded and only became more congested as we got closer to town.  At one point the jeeps could go no further because cars weren't allowed past a certain checkpoint.  At this point we were put into two person rickshaws with luggage piled in front of us and behind us and a thin emaciated guy on a bike chewing betel nut leaves rode us into the heart of town.  Words can't describe this journey.  One of us looks more relaxed than the other.



Here's Joss with Paige behind with the virtually required lung saving - mouth covering for being in Varanasi...


Our friends Ann and Mary...



Crowded streets?  You betcha!!...






We came to the end of our rickshaw ride near the center of the town and we gathered together in a circle around our luggage waiting for everyone to arrive.  Beggars of all sorts descended on us like vultures on fresh roadkill.  In a matter of moments we were surrounded by pregnant women with drugged out infants begging for milk money, men with missing body parts and sickly dogs, while motorcycles honked and fully laden carts pulled by oxen squeezed by too.  It was a sensory overload of the biggest kind.  Filthy air, noisy honking and us surrounding our luggage like the covered wagons making a circle around the women and children were a curious sight in itself.  Finally we were all assembled and began the climb through the narrow alleys lugging our baggage and trying hard to avoid dragging it through the cow dung.



Another alley shot - Fernando makes friends with one of the many sacred cows...



It turns out there are 3 cities here: on the banks on the Ganges, in the streets of the city, and then the amazing maze and networks of alleys.  Many are as narrow as one person + 1 motorcycle wide (measured from personal experience!).  Once you know the alleys, you stay off the streets as much as you can.  The alleys are less congested and cooler, and very much more interesting.  And it's really easy to get lost in them so we never navigated them without a guide.

Here's one of a zillion little shops along one of the alleys.  It's the bangle bracelet shop and he's actually posing for this photo...



We finally reached our destination - the Alka Hotel, not accessible any other way than through the narrow alleys and up the down the steps.  It was a journey not for the faint of heart or less than hardy.

Our room overlooked the Ganges River.  We could see the boats going up and down and we knew that both to the right and left of us, there were bodies being burned - people having their life long dreams of dying and being burned on the banks of the Ganges - holiest of holy places to achieve instant enlightenment at the time of death and be released from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

The view from our Hotel window...



These monkeys were all over the hotel just waiting for some food left on the table or better yet, food that could be snatched from your hand when you weren't looking.  And they weren't that sweet of a monkey either!



Wood stacked for the burial pyres just down the road from us.  To the left is the gas crematorium used for the people who cannot afford to be burned by the river...



Another view of our neighborhood...



A cool painting on a nearby building...



Varanasi is one of the silk capitals of the world.  All made on hand looms, the silks are exquisite...



Look how young these weavers are...



Evelyn and her new best friend "Surya" who works in his Uncle Ramesh's silk shop...



See Part Two of Varanasi for more...