Part 5: Varanasi

Travel Journal, Page 62, Nov. 24 203 am, waiting for our flight out at the airport. 

We finally arrived to Varanasi around noon on 11/21. Our driver was an older gentleman with sparse English vocabulary. He was very courteous, nonetheless. He suggested that we check out Sarnath that afternoon.

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An ancient pagoda under reconstruction: a simple pulley system was constructed to help bringing water up the platform.

Sarnath is not that far from Varanasi. It is one of the four sacred sites of Buddhism because it’s where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining nirvana.

[Note: Sarnath is particularly interesting to me because of its historical significance to Buddhism in China. Sarnath, home to over 15,000 monks at one time, was visited by a Chinese traveling monk called XuanZang around 600 AD. XuanZang traveled through many sacred Buddhist sites in India on his journey and studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and Buddhist scriptures. He brought back to China translated Buddhist texts which lead to a blossoming era of Buddhism in China during Tang dynasty. XuanZang was also one of the main characters in a popular fiction called Journey to the West, in which XuanZang acquired the monkey king as one of his three disciples to help him reaching the West. This novel was further popularized when it was made into a TV series in the 80s. Obviously, I, as well as millions of Chinese of my generation, had many fantastic thoughts of being the powerful monkey king as a child.]

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A beautiful buddhist temple in Sarnath.

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Pedestrians walking pass a roadside shop in a haste.

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New candles were lit on the platform on a pagoda in Sarnath. Their predecessors left their marks of wax trailing down the platform from years of weeping.

We spent a couple hours in Sarnath before heading back to Varanasi for a night of celebration on the ghats. Much like everywhere else in north India, roads in and around Varanasi were narrow and bumpy. The development of their road system lagged far behind the speed of their population growth and their rapidly increasing number of private cars. The result was significant traffic jam everywhere in the city. It was made worse by loose animal control rules. Cars, bicycles, tricycles, cows, goats, boars, sheep, monkeys, dogs and humans were all part of this epic transportation chaos. Every inch of the roads seemed to be used, constantly.

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A relaxing evening chat between two friends on a river side bench on a ghat in Varanasi. Life’s wonderful moments.

We arrived at the ghat later that evening and witnessed a loud and crowded ceremony that honored the holy river and various deities. It was a complicated and well choreographed ceremony. I was told that they perform this ceremony every night rain or shine.

Mark Twain described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi is indeed old, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. It’s located on Ganges river and known as one of the holiest cities in India. If you have never heard of Varanasi, it is literally a destination people travel to die in hope of escaping the cycles of reincarnation.

People come to participate in many spiritual rituals and to cleanse their sins by bathing in its purifying water. Well, except there is nothing about this water that is physically pure. For centuries people died on the banks of the Ganges, body burned on the ghats and remnant pushed into the river to feed the fish. Garbage scattered all along the river banks rotting alongside human and various animal excrements. I remember reading a study on the fecal content of the Ganges river water collected from Varanasi. This water people bath in, drink and brush their teeth with everyday has an average of 1,500,000 fecal coliform bacteria (i.e. poop) per liter!! That’s literally a river of shit. But again, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

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Our young captain rowed the boat up Ganges along the river bank in the morning. Lights were still lit along the river bank at this hour. People were preparing for the sunrise, the holy hour.

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The guy in the middle gathered up the family and friends for a group picture in the holy river.

In the morning of 11/22, we woke up at 5am to watch the sunrise on the Ganges. We hired a small boat and joined many fellow travelers on many other boats rowing up and down the Ganges River. I had the honor to witness people performing Puja at sunrise. I was told that people traveled thousands to miles to be able to bath in the river at sunrise. They also brought water containers of various size to bring home some holy water.

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Ghats are busy in the morning. The sun is fully above the horizon and my stomach was requesting a meal.

After sunrise, our little boat captain rowed up by the burning ghat where people are burned 24/7. We got on the shore and walked around the premises of the burning ghat. As a physician, I’ve seen much illness and death in my lifetime, but watching a body consumed by flames in open air and the remnant shoved into a river was a uniquely challenging experience.

We then spent the rest of the day strolling along the river bank visiting various ghats. People live here and appear to thrive along the river. I had the opportunity to photograph children flying kites and playing various games along the river and women washing clothes in the river. Sheets and clothes of various color and sizes dried on clotheslines in the wind on this sunny day.

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People performing their morning ritual in bone chilling river of Ganges as the sun rise above the horizon. Tourists around the world came to capture their perfect moment on their cameras sitting on a little rowboat. Jugs of Ganges water were collected and ready to be taken home to their families who couldn’t make it on the pilgrimage.

We woke up early again the next morning to photograph people during sunrise. It continued to amaze me watching people bathing in the fecal water of Ganges and praying to the Sun that struggled climb out of a smog filled horizon. Life appeared strangely peaceful and harmonious. Yet as I slowly strolled down the Ganges river bank stepping carefully between various piles of feces and urine splashes, it felt both tranquilizing and deeply disturbing.

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Sunrise on the Ganges.

This post concludes my series of journal recounting my trip in India. I am trying to figure out if it’s better to post more pictures with descriptions or include my journal entries that I jot down during my journey. I feel like the post is fuller with the journal. What do you think? Leave me comment below.

I am starting a new series on our trip to Patagonia in Chile in 2016. My first post is on our plans and logistics of the trip. Patagonia required more planning than most of my international trips as we packed in camping gear and navigated the trek on our own. You can read it here

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