Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in India if not the world, has been a city of cultural and religious importance for millennia. Befitting a city of such antiquity, it has acquired several nick-names throughout its long history- the ‘city of temples’, ‘the holy city of India’, ‘the religious capital of India’, ‘the city of lights’ and ‘city of learning’. Varanasi holds a special place in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu religions. For Jains, its esteem was cemented as three of their holy leaders were born here. Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples in a place close to Varanasi, meaning the Varanasi region is the area where Buddhism was founded. But given the pre-dominance of Hinduism, Varanasi is most famed for its connections to that religion. It remains one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities and an important place of pilgrimage.

Varanasi shares a special relationship with the Ganges.
Varanasi and the Ganges are irretrievably linked. The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus who believe that sin can be remitted by simply bathing in the Ganges (a type of fluid cleansing equivalent to Catholic confession). Dying in the city can release a person’s soul from the cycle of transmigrations. Here, as perhaps to the same extent as no-where else on Earth, the river is revered. In fact, the Ganges is worshipped as a goddess called Ganga. Unfortunately, even with its divine status, the well-being of the Ganges is threatened and ranks among the top five most polluted rivers in the world. 200 million litres of untreated sewage a day flow into the Ganges. People use the waters in many aspects of daily life. Women do their laundry here, washing saris which are then left to dry in a colourful arrangement along the banks of the river.
Array of colours drying by the river
Men and women bathe in the holy waters along her course, disregarding bacterial counts many times higher than WHO guidelines (fecal coliform counts downstream of Varanasi are one hundred times that of official Indian limits). They disregard health warnings to pay homage to their ancestors and to the gods by letting Ganga’s water flow over them, pouring contaminated yet holy water over their heads from cupped palms. Attempts to clean it up have been described as a “failure”, a “major failure”, a “colossal failure” and a “widely recognized failure”. FAIL then.
Hard-braving the Ganges
Much like people collect holy water from the Vatican, Hindus will carry water from the Ganges for use in rituals. The British carried large quantities in ships that housed Indian labourers, both for use in rituals and to try and appease those Hindus who felt that they would lose their caste if they traveled across the ocean. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of an independent India, described the Ganges as “The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."  

Small boats line the Ganges waiting for fares (preferably from a foreigner so they can charge higher prices)
People come to Varanasi to die and/or to be cremated here. Cremation occurs on the ghats, the series of steps that lead down to a river, with bodies burnt on pyres of wood. As all Hindus wish to be cremated here, large piles of different types of wood used to construct the funeral pyres of the faithful deceased lie in the back-alleys near the ghats. Each type of wood has different values with sandalwood being the most expensive. Families buy what they can afford. If the deceased family was poor and they couldn’t afford to buy wood, the body will not be cremated at all. Some families can only afford either a minimal amount of wood or poor quality wood, which often results in a half burned body. Cremation happens on the ghats with the relative position of the funeral pyre determined by the caste of the deceased. After cremation, the ashes and bones of the deceased are then thrown into the Ganges. Those who might have died far from the Ganges can have their ashes scattered there if their family can afford to get them there. To avoid epidemics that have been spread more quickly from bodies thrown into the Ganges, only ashes and bones are supposed to be scattered in the river. There are exceptions to the rule; the bodies of holy men, pregnant women, lepers, snake-bite victims, suicides, paupers and infants are not cremated but allowed to decompose in the river. Apparently, turtles have been trained to consume dead flesh and not to bother swimmers or bathers.
The piles of wood used for cremations
We somehow navigated our way through and around the maze-like arcades of Varanasi. The Ganges is the dominant presence, the heart of the city as it winds laboriously through the city of more than a million. Mud piles up around the ghats, evidence of the Ganges tendency to flood annually, its function as both a giver and a taker of life. Holy men are more evident here than they were in other cities and bhang, a combination of cannabis, milk, ghee and spices, is a common sight, being prepared on the steps of the ghats, a green paste made in mortar and pestle. Government shops also sell it and they do a brisk trade selling to holy men, locals and interested foreigners.
Trident traveller: Sadhu at rest.
The smell of sweat and cow dung used as fuel merges with the smell of wood. Mongooses dart between the feet of travelers and hide among the accumulated woodpiles. As you get closer to the Ganges, other smells can be detected, the smell of burning wood, the smell of death. Here, along the banks of the Ganges, the earthly remains of the faithful met their end, under the gaze of family members and foreigners. Gathered together in a second-floor window, a spot secured by a donation, supposedly given to poor families to buy wood (although I suspect it is just pocketed by the enterprising entrepreneur), we could look over one of the ghats, one of the most famous and prestigious in Varanasi. A stiff wind blew smoke and ash from burning bodies back into our faces, the wind and fire conspiring to remove the funerary cloth of the deceased, exposing limbs and torsos to all interested parties, glimpses into the last ritual of life.
The Ghats
Its as macabre as it sounds, a tourist attraction based on the local industry of death. Most tourists are respectful of the requests to not take photos of the funeral pyre. Others blatantly disregard it, taking snapshots of burning bodies, pictures that they can use to tell stories with back home. It would be little worse if they went and touched the bodies and I wonder if any of them had stopped to contemplate this situation in reverse, think about how they would feel if it was their dear mother sitting in a funeral parlour, touched, leered at and talked about by strangers, photos taken to illustrate a story. I would hope that if these tourists had taken a moment to think about it like this that they would have stopped. Unfortunately, India and its accompanying human travesties desensitize and dehumanize the long-term traveller who grow accustomed to the extreme poverty, the desperation and body mutilations commonly seen around India. Given this, I guess this final indignity, the act of recording so sensitive a ceremony for personal gratification, can be explained if not justified.
Boating along the Ganges on the look-out for bodies
At dusk, we took a boat-ride along the Ganges, the light from the pyres standing out in the gloom, as the last of the stored energy potential in the bodies is converted to heat and light. Unlike many travellers, we didn’t see any bodies floating past, just the bloated body of a dog. We stopped midstream, where a puja was being performed by seven Brahmin priests who prayed and made offerings for Shiva, Ganga and world peace on behalf of the pious. They were watched by a multitude of the merely curious, who watched on from a myriad of boats anchored together in the middle of the Ganges. Amid drumming and chants, we released candles that floated like so many spirits back towards the mouth of the Ganges before heading back to our hotel. Life is frantic here and dirty but there is also a spiritual side that is commendable. It’s just a pity that the visitors who deem it acceptable to photograph burning bodies of somebody’s loved one can’t find the spirit to avoid doing such a tasteless act. Just like a glass of Ganges water, this behaviour left a dirty and lingering bad taste in your mouth, behaviour not befitting a city with such a proud history.

Monday, 14 November 2011


Part 4 of 4 of our travels in Uzbekistan

Arriving is always the worst part about travelling. You get off the plane or train, not aware of your surroundings, not sure how far away your hotel is or what a fair price is to get there. You are at the whims of the locals as to how much they rip you off, because unless there is reliable and frequent public transport and usually there isn’t, you will get ripped off. The only question is just by how much. It was the same when arriving at the train station in Tashkent. We fought through the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers (these guys are without doubt the most likely to try and rip you off) and found ourselves a taxi near the main street. In Uzbekistan, as I’ve said before, a taxi driver is anyone who has a car and the desire- a student wanting to practice their English, a helpful passerby or an opportunistic free lancer who sees the opportunity to make some cash. They have no special skill in linguistics or in spatial awareness, their driving is usually poor but the price they ask is fair (if you don’t mind the haggle) and it’s easier than walking. The taxi we took, (a Russian made car with a driver who looked more Russian than most) was a free-lancer, out for the night cruising Tashkent with his wife (or girlfriend). As usual, he said he knew our hotel but didn’t and of course ended up getting lost. I took pity and paid him above the agreed cost in recompense for his time but then got angry when he had his hand out for more.

Private car taxi
The hotel was the same one we had stayed at the first night in Uzbekistan-not particularly aesthetically pleasing but cheap and clean and relatively central. The first night they had ripped me off on my money transfer but I was wiser to the ways of the dollar black market now. Uzbekistan has two currency rates, the official rate which equals 1700 Som to the dollar and the more lucrative black market where the exchange rate can range from 2100 (the exchange rate I got on the first night here) to 2500 Som to the dollar that we got subsequently. The largest note you can get is 1000 Som, so if you transfer 200 dollars, you receive at least 500 notes in return, a thick wad to carry (or hide).

$200 US gets you a big pile of cash

Tashkent, the hub of Central Asia, the so-called eastern capital of Tsarist Russia, is a sprawling cosmos. Its been russified to a large extent with Soviet style apartment buildings and imperial looking public buildings but with a smattering of traditional design that give it a Central Asian vibe. Despite its nickname, it reminded me less of Moscow and more of a landlocked equivalent of an Italian city like Naples, lived in and looked after. Tashkent was practically destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1966 that left 300,000 homeless and rebuilt in the 1960s with help from all the Soviet republics. Tashkent lacks the architectural hubris of a Samarkand or Bukhara but has its own, less obvious, charms. There seemed to be more people here of Russian descent, more peroxided women and rough-looking men. Fewer people wore traditional dress around downtown (although at the market, most of the woman vendors were still wearing their bright and garish garments).

Timur on his gilded horse
The centre of the city is formed by Amir Timur Square, graced by a large, statue of the irresistible Amir Timur who rides on a curiously gelded horse (it’s unknown who was responsible for the emasculation of the statue). From here, the wide, tree-lined main streets radiate out across Tashkent, traditional plov restaurants intermingling with designer stores. Nearby lie a number of imposing buildings, many built by the dictator Karimov including the large Dom Forum, used for overseas dignitaries. Timur has a prominent museum here and a Romanov palace, built for Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, a cousin of the tsar who was exiled to Tashkent due to some dodgy dealings involving the Russian crown jewels is a 10 minute walk from here. Across the road from the palace lies the senate and Independence Square, apparently the largest city Square in the USSR, that once had the complimentary tallest statue of Lenin in the Soviet Union. Now, a globe stands in Lenin’s spot. Nearby is Karimov’s senate building, where he and his lackeys plot how to best use Uzbekistan’s riches and also how to best feather their own pocket. This area also seats the original Crying Mother’s memorial, which is almost identical to the one we saw in Samarkand, commemorating the almost 300,000 Uzbekis who died in World War 2.

Crying Mothers Memorial

Central Asia’s first subway was built here and like in Moscow, some of the architecture in the subway stations was remarkable. Like Moscow, the police in the metros can be a bit over-zealous. We had to show our passports several times but no infractions were found, no palms needed greasing. A train comes along every 5 minutes or so (a timer tells you how long it’s been since the last train departed), old but efficient. Foreigners are still a novelty in the capital so several people took the opportunity to practice their English with us.

Guarded subway.
We took the subway from Independence Square to Chorsu Bazaar, a large market under a huge green dome. The sellers try all of the tricks; flirting, grabbing, trying to initiate conversation and when all else fails begging for a sale. All types of produce are here; fresh, dried, pickled and fermented. 

Hive of activity: Chorsu Bazaar.

Kimchi, Korea’s national dish, is well represented, made by descendents of the Koreans deported from Manchuria/Siberia to Central Asia during Stalin’s rule. The old Korean women here were the grumpiest vendors in the entire market. Not for them the jovial guessing at which country we come from. No, they weren’t interested in that. The only thing they were interested in was selling the doff. An annyong haseyo made them sullen, perhaps because many of the Uzbek Koreans speak only Russian; food their only tie to their ancestoral homeland.

Grumpy Kimchi seller.

The biggest concentration of beggars anywhere in the country seemed to be at the market; mothers with puppy eyes carrying children with puppy eyes, a monkey see-monkey do cycle of hardship, hands outstretched in a true intergenerational cycle of dependence. Throughout the country though, begging seems to be uncommon and frowned upon. In Tashkent, we were approached a couple of times by people on the street asking for money, often quite brazenly. One well-dressed guy said I’m Russian, can you give me some cash. We didn’t and he walked away disappointed.

That night, after unsuccessfully trying to find the country’s largest supermarket and after a couple of vodkas, we headed to watch Madame Butterfly. I’m not much of an opera fan and my knowledge of Madame Butterfly is limited to what Weezer said about it. But at about $6 a ticket, it’s a good excuse to do something cultural, especially as it stops my wife complaining the next time I want to go to a rugby game that I never do anything cultural with her.

Madame Butterfly
We spent our last day here, tying up a few loose ends; buying vodka for friends (it took us an hour to find somewhere that sold spirits), a bit of last minute shopping at an old converted medressa, watching women going for walks and young couples enjoying a little bit of freedom in Navoi Park. We tried to find a couple of old medressas but didn’t succeed. Instead, I almost got arrested for taking a photo of the secret service sign on the side of a building. I have never been so concerned as I was at this moment; having survived an initial approach from a soldier armed with an assault rifle, I was questioned by four men, two uniformed and more disturbingly, two plain clothed agents. They demanded to look at my camera and I managed to convince them that I hadn’t taken a photo of their logo, that I hadn’t breached some unwritten and unknown law of national security. My heart was still bounding vigorously a few minutes later when I caught up with Mary and Evelyn.

Uzbeki secret service sign (not so secret)

We caught a car-taxi back for dinner (Italian) and left Tashkent that night, feeling like true travelers who had been somewhere where relatively few people have ventured. If arriving is fraught with potential danger, departure leaves a taste of bittersweet (happy to get back to your home, sad to be finishing your vacation) mixed with a shot of ego. Part of the enjoyment of travel is saying that you have been to these exotic parts, countries visited displayed like battle scars. I would like to think Uzbekistan deserved one of those battle scars.