Hinduism

Lassis in Varanasi

imageVaranasi is a lot of things.

First up, it’s considered the holiest Hindu city of all seven sacred Hindu cities. Nestled on the Ganges river, Varanasi receives millions of Hindu pilgrims every year who believe the river and city has holy power, which can cleanse them of sin after bathing in the Ganges – and, if one dies in Varanasi, absolve them of the larger cycle of samsara (death and rebirth).

It was also in Varanasi where Rose and I heard Indians using the word “auspicious”. A lot. The reason, we began to piece together, was that the Ganges are considered a holy site to scatter a family’s ashes, but not just willy-nilly, on any old day. Families consult babas (holy men) who interpret the Hindu calendar on their behalf to determine what day would be “auspicious” to deliver their dead loved one to one of the cremation pyres that sit on the edge of the Ganges.

We also learned that many families who couldn’t afford the particular kind of wood used for cremations at the Ganges, took matters into their own hands. After covering their dead in a ceremonial wrap, these families would then tie cinder blocks to it or something else of worthy weight and push it into the river. The hope was that the body would sink.

But what goes down, sometimes come up. Most recently two months ago. In January, 104 bodies surfaced after water had receded. Operation Dead Weight is not always a foolproof plan.

Considering Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, or as Mark Twain described it: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even then legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – the amount of human remains that have settled on its bottom and in its soil is unimaginable.

Yet, it’s all part of daily life. While cremated bodies and other bodies get dropped in at one end of the Ganges, people are busy doing laundry and bathing themselves at the other.

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Unfortunately, it’s not merely human remains being tossed into the Ganges here. 300 million litres of untreated sewage also gets tossed in every day. Every day!

Levels of fecal coliform – (which I don’t exactly know what that is, but can put together a decent guess) are off the charts. Apparently a safe level is 500 parts per 100mL. Water tests done near this area have found its 88,000 parts per 100mL.

This leads to the next thing about Varanasi: it’s dirty. Well beyond the reach of a feather duster or vacuum, Varanasi has vintages of grime. Not merely from all the cows, dogs, goats, and people freely roaming the streets and leaving behind souvenirs, but from layers of carbon tattooed into the surrounding stones of the cremation pyres, years of algae caked on steps down to the river, and years of garbage soaked into the streets.

It’s for this reason, backpackers have also referred to Varanasi as “Very Nasty”.

Reading Lonely Planet on our way there, the first words in its description felt ominous: BRACE YOURSELF.

Coming off the train, we did our best. After walking into a sea of rickshaw drivers we gave him the address where we wanted to stay, and off we went.

Little did we know that was as easy as things would get.

Rather than take us to the address we gave him, our rickshaw driver started off by taking us to another hotel, on the other side of town that, coincidence upon coincidence, his friend ran.

After a long explanation that we weren’t interested in his friend’s place, but the address we pointed out to him, he buckled down and tried again. This time taking us to a guesthouse run by his brother.

Eventually, after he got the point that we wanted to go to our guesthouse, he admitted that he didn’t know where it was. Luckily he had a phone on him and called the owner who came to meet us on his bike. Much like a tugboat, the owner led us through traffic on his bike back to his guesthouse.

Rose and I caught our breath, after the two false starts then set out in between one of many cows we’d pass on the street:

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In retrospect, the amazing thing was that we left Delhi, because of its crowds. While Varanasi had a population of only 1.5 million vs. Delhi’s 25 million, it didn’t seem to make a difference. Roads were mayhem:

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We made our way down to one of the main ghats – (stairs down to the Ganges. 84 in all along the riverbank), where we caught a glimpse of the Ganges for the first time and touts.

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A guy came up asking to look at my hand. After our rickshaw driver’s game of misdirection, I felt a bit duped, and was tired of cross-dealing. I wanted someone to be honest.

“No thanks.”, I said

“Come sir. Please. No charge. No cost.”, he insisted

“There’s always a cost”, I said. “No sir. Please give me your hand.”

I gave him my hand, and in an acrobatic swoop that could rival a gymnastics floor routine, he turned to the side, put his hands on my shoulders and said:

“Massage. 30rupees”,

As I suspected. But now I felt more foolish that I’d trusted him after having initial doubts.

“Get lost”, I said, angry, storming off down to the next ghats, not wanting to talk with anyone.

Rose caught up and we meandered around for a while, me constantly wanting to stay on the move, because I was still pissed off and wanted to avoid being approached again by someone.

We’d read of a cafe that was in the Old City, which was a labyrinth of alleyways with stores scattered throughout. Up we climbed the stairs to an Old City entrance, where en route, a baba (holy man) sitting on the steps engaged me in conversation.

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“You’ve been to India before”, he looked at me.

“No, first time”, I said in a clipped tone – thinking: “Of course. This is his opening line to reel me in, suggesting he knows something about me and my life. Then if the hook catches it would be: “Come to my temple for a ceremony where donations are 10,000Rupees”.

Maybe because he saw I was still frazzled from my earlier encounter, or he got the sense I wasn’t interested in any of his mystical arts for the moment, he said:

“What were you expecting?”, he looked at me laughing.

“I really don’t know. I guess I’ll find out”, I replied.

“It’s India. It’s all here”, he said in return.

I carried on upstairs until five steps later another baba stopped Rose and I in conversation. We’d obviously walked deep into baba turf. He invited us to his temple to learn how to cook vegetarian food, which was not something either of us had in mind, so we cut it short, and headed for this cafe – which in my mind was now taking on more urgency as a place where we’d find calm.

We climbed up steps where we followed signs advertising the cafe, and came upon it. It looked pretty deserted, but the sign was there so we entered. Upstairs there were a few people scattered around but not much life. This cafe was also known to offer boat tours on the Ganges. Something we wanted to do.

Rose asked the manager how much for boat tour, and the guy mulled it over, ran back to consult with someone and came back with a price that seemed higher than was quoted in guidebooks. We agreed to look elsewhere and left the spot.

As we plotted our next move in the alleyway, I don’t know who saw it first, but there it was: a sign for the same cafe, on the right side of the street, which looked a lot more done up and of much higher quality than the one we just left.

We poked our heads in, and sure enough this was the REAL cafe tipped off by the guidebook which, had we read further down in the paragraph of its review, would have understood that another cafe had stolen the name and was doing its best to live off its glory across the street.

Nice. Well, we found it. And we ordered some food and looked out across the rooftops overlooking the Ganges. Kids were playing with kites, monkeys were hop scotching across roofs looking for food while other people were hanging laundry. In comparison to street level, it was serene.

After our meal I spoke with the organizer of the boat trips, who was a 10 year old kid – and we arranged for a sunset trip along the Ganges:

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Rose and I knew what we were getting into: water that could send us to hospital, and the off chance that we’d see a body part floating by. I say this cavalierly as if it was all fine and good, something I was prepared for – but truth be told, I wasn’t.

I flinched every time the oar came back with dribbles of water that flecked against my leg or head, and I kept my eyes ahead, in case someone floated up for air right next to me. While I had my eyes in the distance of the water, I noticed something that looked like a periscope coming towards us of our right.

A snake!

A python was swimming towards us right in time with our boat, and I thought might crawl up the side and crawl back over on its way to shore. As the crucial moment came, the python dipped its head underwater and chose to swim below rather than over us. A small victory.

Now the oarsmen moved us closer to one of the main cremation pyres, and our eyes started to sting from the smoke and oil in the air. As we approached, it was clear that this wasn’t a passing fancy or a hobby, but a full time, industrial cremation practice with fires alight 24 hours a day, which, I later learned, burned upwards of 32,000 corpses a year.

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After having seen a snake pass us by and a burning pyres ahead, I drew on my own mythology and began to feel like we were on the River Styx. Our oarsmen, slowly taking us across to the Underworld.

We didn’t stay at the cremation ghat long. I was fine looking at it from a distance, where I could see families preparing a body for the flames, while a cow meandered over a burnt pit, and another cremation worker shovelled embers and ashes into the Ganges.

We’d heard all kinds of stories from other travellers who had distinguished body parts in the mix, which really wasn’t something I was seeking.

On our tour back we witnessed other ghats in light, which were an interesting site.

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And nearby, we noticed others being set up for a nightly Hindu ritual. We popped out and had a closer look:

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Crowds began to form and we watched for a few minutes:

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before setting off into the dark to find our way back to our guesthouse for a proper sleep. But not before coming upon some street food.

I’m not sure what it was, but it was good – and more importantly didn’t put up any protest later on that night.

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We also found another dish, which after speaking with a local who was eating it explained that it was a seasonal dish, specific to Varanasi called Malaiyo.

Basically heated milk with slivers of pistachio on top. Like the street food it also proved to be an ally for our digestion.

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After some anxious moments walking completely dark streets looking for our guesthouse, it turned up and we turned in for the night.

Day 2 

After a good breakfast, Rose and I set out, determined to get the most out the Old City, which we’d felt fairly overwhelmed by the day before. This time our aim was a lassi shop that Michaela and Shari from our Nepal trek had recommended we try: a place they’d been three months earlier.

We wound our way back into the street maze, wandering into all kinds of places we’d never seen before, an electronics quarter followed by a food quarter and eventually, after a good hour of wandering aimlessly we spotted it, Blue Lassi.

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It’s a well known stop for travellers, and as we waited we chatted with other people who had found their way. Waiting for our lassis, we heard a drum beat getting closer and closer. Then we saw a group passing with a body wrapped in its ceremonial dress on its way down through the alleway, headed for a funeral pyre. Western cafes might have TVs as a distraction while you enjoy your coffee, Varanasi has bodies filtering by as you eat.

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Before we left, we also found this:

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Michaela and Shari’s sign off for their time here. And, I agree with them, it was a good lassi. But Rose and I weren’t satisfied yet, as we saw another lassi shop across the street, which for the sake of comparison, we’d be foolish not to try.

We made our way over, split another lassi and I thought for the price it was probably better. This time around, rather than bodies passing as our backdrop, there was a cow. An injured cow. It had obviously stumbled somewhere and it’s hoof was bleeding, and undoubtedly because of the pain, was limping into an intersection of one of the alleyways. Since motorbikes, bicycles, bodies carried on stretchers, people carrying retail supplies on their heads all pass through here, we witnessed a massive bottleneck as this cow held up Varanasi’s flow:

imageOnce the coast was clear, and we’d finished our lassi, we decided to head out to catch our train. Rose also admitted she was feeling claustrophobic between all the alleyways and got that sudden suffocating feeling of wanting to get out. We meandered, once again, muddling our way through trying to find the right alley that would take us down to the ghats from which we knew how to find our way.

Now guess where we popped out?

a) The main ghat near our guesthouse
b) where the hell is this?
c) the cremation ghat
d) a cow pen

If you said c), you’re the big winner.

We came right out on top of huge slabs of wood, now within 50 feet of the big flames burning up the bodies below. Rather than linger and absorb the scene as I noticed other backpackers were doing, we bolted, and chose to hear the wild stories from others instead of seeing things first hand.

After zinging back to our guesthouse with the help of a rickshaw driver who actually knew the address, we grabbed our gear and set off on to the train station to catch another overnight train.

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This time to Agra: home of the Taj Mahal and other big things – and we did it in style, on 2nd AC class which came with sheets, temperature control, and to round out the trifecta, a flatulent bunkmate.

Overall, a winning percentage.

Talk soon

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Hindunesia + au revoir

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After we spent a couple days in the sun with the biggest Buddhist structure in the world, we moved across town to see what Hinduism had in store.

Missing Borobudur’s mighty claim to world domination, Prambanan is given the lesser, but still impressive title of the biggest Hindu structure in Southeast Asia (India is home to the biggest). Regardless that it’s considered Hindu Jr, its temples still appear pretty grown up:

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Interestingly, like Borobudur these structures were also built in the 9th Century. Some historians say they came to be because Java’s Hindu dynasty at the time, after seeing Borobudur said: “Anything you can do, I can do better”.

In other words, it was their entry in a cross-town religious build-off. This may be the case. However, there’s also evidence that in the 9th Century, Indonesian religious groups weren’t necessarily rivals. Apparently Hindus and Buddhists socialized with each other, often mixing ideas, and showed tolerance for the other. This may explain why Bali’s version of Hinduism is unique, incorporating Buddhist elements, and other native Indonesian ideas.

Plus, on a larger scale, religious tolerance in Indonesia can also explain why both Borobudur and Prambanan weren’t torn down after Islam became the dominant religion starting in the 16th century. I was curious about this, knowing structures in other countries had been stripped down, as an attempt to make a country’s dominant religion shine brightest.

I learned in Indonesia, however, there’s an element in the culture that values its heritage, accepting it as being part of the story of the country. Of course, there are exceptions – a fundamentalist Islamist took it upon himself to try to rewrite history by bombing parts of Borobudur in the 80s.

Nevertheless, the majority of the population, as I understood it from speaking to locals and reading up on it, value these sites as part of their cultural history and so are beacons for domestic travel. And yes, as I’m sure you’ve wondered – Prambanan too is under UNESCO’s protective umbrella, giving it more cover from deterioration.

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We strolled around here for a day, melting once again in the heat. It wasn’t enough to deter Rose, however, who after seeing a brightly coloured, fashionably dressed family, tried to pose with them by running up to their heels:

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Thankfully they didn’t turn around mid-camera click.

After we got back to Yogyakarta, the city where we were staying, we hailed one of these things:

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then hopped off to tour a huge outdoor/indoor market. We arrived to a mass of people, who were busy shopping for food as it was nearing the final day of Ramadan – Eid-al Fitr – on which there would be a huge celebration. In search of spices, we walked into a maze of market tunnels and soon got lost. A merchant, undoubtedly seeing the creases of concern on our foreheads, approached us speaking English and asked us if he could help.

Immediately our defences went up, convinced he had a scam in the air, otherwise why would someone actually be nice to us? (We, the cynics!) After he agreed to show us where the spice market was, we carried our cynicism the entire way, waiting for him to share his punchline: “Okay. That’s $15 please” or “Now you buy something from me”.

While bracing for it, we did find the spices:

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A lot of them, in these huge covered market stalls, that looked like the top of a parking structure that went on and on and on. The spices had names we’d never heard of which our tour guide had now taken upon himself to give us samples to taste:

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The shoe eventually dropped. After tasting a unique pepper-like spice, we decided to buy 100grams. He quoted the price back to us, and we both thought it was a bit high, though not obnoxious, so wrote it off as the cost of his tour and bought a share to bring with us.

As far as shakedowns go, I thought it was a light fleece.

On the way home, there were a series of surprises. First, we saw this couple who looked surprised:

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Met another lady, who seemed surprised to have her picture taken with Rose:

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And later that night, learned that the underdog candidate surprised the Indonesian establishment by winning the Presidency:

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That brought an end to our two-month Indonesian odyssey: from Bali to dragons to Buddha to beaches. Now we were looking ahead to our next stop where we’d be living with a bear-sized German shepherd, two horses, two peacocks, 12 chickens and 1 rooster all together on a small 8-kilometer long island off a not so little continent called Australia.

Talk soon

Angkor Tenant

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This is it.

The reason 3 million tourists, (and growing) come to the otherwise, unassuming city of Siem Reap every year.

Angkor Wat: the biggest religious structure in the world, which archaeologists also now believe was part of the world’s biggest preindustrial city, even beating out the Mayan civilization who normally come up in spades for claims to grandeur.

Ok. Quick history blurb (just skip to the next photo if you’re already fighting a yawn).

In the 12th Century, Angkor was the name of the Khmer Empire’s city, and “Wat” translates as temple. So, if you’ve watched any Sesame Street, you know how to do the rest.

Built by a Khmer king in the 12th Century, Angkor Wat (“City Temple”, but you already got that) started life as a Hindu temple, but did it in its own unique way. Traditionally, at that time, way back in the 1100s, Hindu temples were built in honour of the god Shiva, but this King decided instead to build it for Vishnu.

If you’re still with me, you now probably want to know: why did el Jefe make the switch?

A few theories: He was pissed off with his parents and wanted to stick it to them a bit? Or, there was something so undeniably incredible about Vishnu that illuminated his mind more than Shiva, that, in the words of a former God (of Rock): “He just couldn’t fight that feeling anymore.”

In other words, I have NO IDEA. I didn’t find anything, but to be honest, I also didn’t spend hours on research, like I might if I was getting graded. Or paid. Unless a cheque rolls in, I’m going to keep this pretty breezy, and the content, really not much deeper than a puddle.

Besides, I’ve got to get our readership up to at least 17 by end of summer. And laying out the intricacies between Hindu gods, while it might appeal to some, I fear may lose our other 17 who are more interested in Rose’s love affair with orange robed monks.

And, learning the very important news that she took her admiration from afar to a-near:

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These were Thai monks, visiting Angkor Wat, who were, obviously far from ascetic, and quiet, and were happy to pose, while also taking their own photos.

Now, some of you may wonder: What are Buddhist monks doing here at a Hindu temple? While others are probably wondering: “Are those monks entirely naked under their wraps?”

To the first wonder: After the death of the Vishnu loving King, a new prince came to town, who was even more pissed off with his parents, and decided to shunt Hinduism aside altogether, choosing instead to honour Buddha as THE GUY – and built two temples in honour of his parents in a more Buddhist fashion: one of which I’ll get to in a later post. So, as part of this shift in allegiance, Angkor Wat, then also switched teams to Buddhism too.

And, for the second wonder: from what I researched online (I decided against a quick lift and peek in person) Not naked, but wearing an under-robe.

Okay, enough background. Now the experience. In short, it was amazing. Not least of which were the designs, sculpted all over the walls, including Apsara dancers (King’s dancers):

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Seeing, ancient language carved into pillars holding up a section of roof:

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Plus, not so ancient language, from the 30ish years ago when the Khmer Rouge took up residence here, and some ingenious soldier, like a dog peeing on a hydrant, decided to say “I WAS HERE” (sorry no photo).

But, at least they didn’t tear down the place like they tried with the rest of the country (More to come on them in a later post).

Also, there were tons of hallways, and doors we walked through, which, reminded me of a certain archaeologist searching for a gold idol (I warned you he’d be back again):

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Then coming on to passageways with an entire sculpted wall, illustrating what life was like in 12th Century Angkor:

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All of this was amazing, as I said. But, what stood above all of it was this:

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We could walk through the entire place. Tourists were allowed to walk through the pillars, duck under the doorways, and enter dark corridors to stare up at a peak of light coming above.

A reality, which I can’t imagine can last, since as much as it was great (and it was) – there’s still a feeling of impact, that shit, I’m not entirely helping the conservation of this place by walking through, even though I paid my entrance fee which goes towards conservation.

Like Chichen Itza in Mexico where people could once climb up its sides, I can only think that the same has to happen here, if they want to preserve it. But, of course, there’s huge forces against it, namely: Cambodia is a poor country. And, one of the concerns by some Cambodians, is that by limiting traffic, you might limit tourists, which might limit money.

Obviously not a great plan for the long-term health of the place. But, looking at it from the point of view of a Cambodian whose struggling everyday just to get by, understandably, he or she is interested in how they can make money to feed their kids, and pay for their school this month, not what’s happening 10 years, 20 years from now. So, it’ll be interesting how the country manages things.

On our exit from Angkor Wat we ran into more orange robed monks – (I make it sound like it was happenstance, when, in reality, Rose made a beeline) this time younger guys:

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Interestingly, we spoke to our guide who said that it’s tradition that, as part of growing up, male Cambodians spend time living in a monastery, as a monk – whether, he goes on to stay there is up to him, but the idea is that he gains exposure to Buddhism.

Anyhow, Angkor Wat is only one of three temples we visited, each one had its own uniqueness, which I’ll blab about in some other posts, including a cameo from Cambodian’s own, Angelina Jolie (she was given citizenship in 2005).

Until then, au revoir from Cambodge:

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