Our flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi was from 14:05 to 14:55, but it delayed for at least 1 hour. In India, there were a few things I found different/strange at the airport:
- All the carry on bags need to have a tag. Once the bag passes security, then an officer will stamp on the tag. At the gate, before you board the airplane, an officer will check the tag on your bag. If your bag does not have a tag or the tag does not have a stamp, then you will be sent back to security…
- Even though there are signs at the security to indicate liquid is not allowed in the carry on bags, but I was able to pass security with bottled water at all the airports.
- There are separate lines for men and women at security. Women are called into a private booth one by one, and a female officer will pat you down.
- All the security guards at the airport have guns.
We arrived at the Varanasi airport just before 5pm. The local guide told us it is 1 hour drive from the airport to the Ganges River if there is no traffic, and the evening “Aarti” ceremony starts at 6pm, so we would have no time to stop at the hotel. That was a terrible news for me. I didn’t know that the Varanasi airport was so far away from the city, and I had heard that the washroom at the Ganges River was very dirty, so I really wanted to stop at the hotel to use a clean washroom and change to some thicker clothes. Khajuraho’s day was warm, but the night in Varanasi could be cold, especially when we would spend 2 to 3 hours outside in a small boat on the Ganges River tonight. The photo below is a postcard photo for the Ganges River in Varanasi during day time.
Our hotel is on the way between the airport and the Ganges River, I negotiated with guide to stop at the hotel for 5 minutes. Beside using the washroom and changing to ticker clothes, we also unloaded our luggage at the hotel for safety reasons. My luggage was on top of the car and we drove for at least 45 minutes from airport to hotel. The heavy air pollution made my luggage so dirty that I wanted to throw it away… From the hotel to the Ganges River, there was still 15 minutes drive, but it was really busy traffic that our car was barely moving. When we stuck in the traffic, a few Indian kids came to our window and begged for food. I thought they could die any minute once the cars start to move, but they didn’t. They got some candies from our driver and happily moved to another car…
When the street becomes narrower, our guide asked us to get off the van and started walking. He said the street is too narrow to drive. We formed a single line behind the guide, and walked after him on the left side of the street. India is left-hand traffic. The guide walked really fast, I guessed this was because we were late for the 6pm ceremony. The traffic was very busy at this time, since everyone was heading to the river to see the ceremony. There were small cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and people on the same street. Walking on this street was a NIGHTMARE! A car could hit me. A motorcycle could run over my foot. A cow could shit on me. I could lose track of the guide. This is the most dangerous time in my India trip. I could either die, injured, or lost… Above is a photo from internet to indicate how busy and disorganized the traffic is at Varanasi. I thought New Delhi was dirty and disorganized, then I noticed that Agra was worse, now I realized Varanasi was the worst.
Finally we arrived at the Ganges river and got on our private boat. While we were heading to the ceremony place, we saw an Indian couple taking weeding photos on a boat. The Ganges, also known as Ganga, is one of the most sacred rivers to Hindus, even though it is highly polluted. The levels of fecal coliform from human waste in the waters of the river near Varanasi are more than 100 times the Indian government's official limit. Before I left for my trip, my Indian friend told me to tap the Ganga water to my forehead 3 times should wash off all my sins. She knew the water was polluted, so she didn’t suggest me to take a bath in the river like most Hindus would do. However, after seeing how dirty the Varanasi street is, I decided not to touch the water.
There are 2 evening “Aarti” ceremonies, the one on the left hand side with colorful umbrellas started at 6pm (picture above), and the one on the right hand side with red umbrellas started at 6:10pm (picture below). The ceremony is a worship to Mother Ganges. India people have 4 mothers, their biological mothers who give them life, the land mother which provides cereals and vegetables, the Ganges river mother which provides water and fish, and the cow mother which provides milk and its dry dung are used as fuel.
The “Aarti” ceremony can be witnessed on the shore or on a boat. The advantage of seeing it on boat is you can avoid the crowds, but the disadvantage is it is too far. The ceremony is just half dozen guys rise different objects and turn around to show people, it was quite boring to me because I did not understand the meaning of their actions and it lasted 45 minutes… Wing told me a story that she read on-line: a girl came to see the “Aarti” ceremony everyday because the priests preforming the ceremonies are super handsome. Wing was not happy that she could not see them clearly from the boat, but later on she realized that they were not “super” good looking anyways.
After the ceremony, the boatman took us to see the cremation on the shore of the river. It was about 5 minutes boat away from the ceremony place. The guide said the place burns body 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Why Hindu people burn the dead body and push the ashes to their holy river? I found a good explanation on-line, if you are interested, read below:
“Hindus believe in the soul being indestructible; and that death symbolizes end of the existence of a person's physical being, but the start of a new journey for the soul. This soul then reincarnates in some other life form, and passes through the same cycle of taking birth, growing and eventually meeting death- only to begin the cycle afresh.
Cremation of a person's dead body is therefore, supposed to rid the departed soul of any attachments to the body it previously resided in.
Also, a traditional belief among Hindus says that a person's body is composed of 5 elements- earth, fire, water, air and sky. The cremation ceremonies of Hindus are directed towards returning the body to these elements. The body is progressively returned to earth, air, sky and fire by burning it under skies; and the ashes are respectfully collected and poured in a river.
It is said that excessive mourning over a deceased prevents the soul from being completely detached from its loved ones, and keeps it from undertaking its new journey- that of taking up a new life. Cremation (and subsequent ceremonies in mourning) help to remove most of those things that can act as a reminder for the person's existence, and thereby also assist the family in getting over the loss.”
Our original plan was boat along the Ganges river before witness the ceremony and cremation. However, since our flight was late we were doing these 2 things in the opposite order. After witnessed the ceremony and cremation, our guide asked the boatman to boat us along the Ganges river for at least another hour until we felt it is enough. It was a dark and quit night, there were few boats left on the river, most people already left after the ceremony. In the picture below, the tall building beside the river was a royal palace but now became a 5 star hotel. We didn’t stay long on the river, since it got cold very soon. After we got off the boat, we had to walk another 15 minutes in the busy street before we could get back to the car. I felt like every single cell in my body was yeilling that: “I do not want to stay any one more minute in Varanasi any more.”