Well it was up for breakfast and time to discuss a plan of action, the decision, have a wander, do some shopping and boat trip at night, so like lambs to the slaughter we headed out into the streets. Our first stop was in a local shop full of beautiful clothes and bedspreads. The shop was connected to a school for local children with 10% of the prices charged were donated. Many of the cotton dresses and skirts where made by local women who were paid a fair wage for their work, so of course we had to buy a few things, the result our next task was find an ATM.
The galis weave and meander through the city and are home to lots of little tea shops, clothes shops, chai stands and temples. Cows wander and munch on food that is dropped, some just laze around as do the goats and monkeys. People are wandering through just living life, children play and run around – the galis could never really be explained, they are a place you need to see to believe. As we walked we bumped into Raol, who kindly walked us to the ATM, explaining certain land marks as we went, we finally ended up in the main street. The main street was lined with local traders selling their vegetables and fruits, stalls with scarfs and nik naks. In India you are never alone, but in Varanasi it is taken to a whole new level, not only are you never alone, there is always some young man who wants to guide you and walks with you even when you have told them that you are fine.
After Raol had left us we were joined by Babu, he was a lovely young man and guided us back into the maze of galis so that we had our bearings, the cost was the promise to visit his uncles shop. We stopped at the Brown Bread Bakery for lunch, again like many of the places around it seems supports a local social program, theirs being about empowering women. The local women make the jams and chutney’s, it’s a quirky little place that serves a good range of food. Babu stayed around to wait for us and for a while he sat with us and explained that he worked for his uncle and his uncle paid for his schooling. His father works long days and earns 600 rupees a month, that’s $12 folks! He explained that his father was not able to look after him since his mother died some 9 years ago, fortunately his uncle had had a lottery win and was fairly wealthy so he cared for the whole family, apparently there are 22 people living on the family home. Babu explained that his uncle, 20 years ago used to earn only 2 rupees a month and now the family had very good karma and was fortunate to have many businesses.
We kept our promise and visited Babu’s uncles shop, we were ushered into a back room where we removed our shoes and sat on the floor, the next minute silk scarfs were laid out in front of us, we explained we did not want silk so we were taken into the next room filled with cotton apparel, but alas when we asked the price, uncle Pappu wanted some 600% more than things cost elsewhere, so of course we said no, within minutes prices were slashed but we explained that the fact he had been so dishonest to begin with breaks trust and we left. That all said Babu was very helpful and very polite, he never asked for anything and when we offered lunch and chai he declined politely.
It is so hard to explain the experience, so much goes on just as you walk down the street, the throngs of people going about their daily business and gathering at the temple to worship Shiva, each with an offering, devout holy men sang down the streets blessing people as they passed, their insence filling the galis with the smell of sandalwood (a very welcome thing I need to say!) the constant chatter of Hindi between shop workers and customers, police sitting back on street corners with their guns resting against the wall – activity and life in this place is unrelenting, yet if you can see past it, this is the most peaceful place, it has a sense of vibrancy and life I have experienced nowhere else in the world, there are places to retreat for just 5 minutes to catch your breath and regain control of the senses.
6pm was boat time, of course Raol had been able to organize us a boat for only 50 rupees each, the guys in the next room paid 250! We set off at 6:30 and headed down the mother Ganga to watch the ceremony of lights, the ceremony celebrates seven lives and each section represents one of the main Hindu deities, the first was sandalwood which represented Ganesh, next was a tray of fire representing Lakshmi, followed by fire representing Shiva and then I forget the remaining. We each lit a tealight and sent it down the Ganges before heading to the main burning Ghat to witness the cremations.
The boat was silent as we watched, the pyres burning brightly in the night and the cloud of smoke rising above the city. It was possible to make out the bodies in the pyres, but it was not horror that set in, rather it left a sense of surrealism. We just sat on the boat and looked on, taking in everything that was going on. We could hear the chants of the people carrying another pyre down to the ghats, wrapped in silk the body was submerged into the Ganges before being laid down on the path, waiting for the next pyre, meanwhile another pyre had been set alight, while others where almost complete. Life had ended and cremation at the Ganges for these people means that the cycle of re-birth and re-incarnation was now ended, their souls free to move on. The Indian people are not afraid of death, as Sanjay said, it is inevitable, no-one knows what even the next half hour will bring so it is important to live life, to not let time get in the way, to stop and sit with someone to talk, that at way we learn something new from one another.
It was then the slow ride back to the guest house, very little was said, but each of us took with us our questions and thoughts about what we had just seen.