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August 15, 2005

Banaras from Ganges


After recovering from diarrhea, I decided to have some positive experiences in Varanasi (aka Banaras). If I didn't do that I would be reluctant to come back and visit the yogi who lives here. I had lunch at the Taj Ganges, which is a five star hotel. You can pay about five pounds to have lunch there, with no risk of getting sick. I met a really nice lady there who is spending a couple of years travelling around the world after separating from her partner of ten years. She was doing the same as me, staying in budget accommodation but paying more for safe food.

We went on an evening boat ride on the Ganges with a group of other people and released floating candles and prayers onto river. The gentle arc of the mile-wide Ganges is lined with pink sandstone steps and temples. On returning to Dashaswamedh Ghat, five priests were performing an arati, a type of worship with candles and incense. Crowds of people, perhaps three hundred, sat and watched while drums were played and sanskit was sung over the public address system.

Because I slept so much when I was ill, I could not sleep that night. I read until 3AM and awoke at 4:30AM. I met with two medical students and we went on a dawn boat ride on the Ganges. It was the same ghat and the same route as the previous evening. Sunset and sunrise are said to be the best times to see the city from the river, so I experienced both. They row the boats up the eddies, carrying a dozen or so people, and then float back down in the strong current of the Ganges. We watched people washing clothes, bathing themselves, brushing their teeth and worshiping God in various forms. On leaving the ghat, a dead body floated by, wrapped in cloth. The cloth had torn and where the flesh was exposed, there was a squirming hill of maggots. One of the Indian oarsmen brought a hankerchief to his mouth, digusted. I was surprised as it did not have this effect on me. While floating back on the current, the body of a naked sadhu (holy man) drifted past the life on the shore, face down in the water. The body was inflated with gasses, seeming to float on the surface. Legs apart, head sunk and groin enlarged, it brushed past boats and bathers. Slightly green and yellow skin peeled from the corpse. Indians payed little attention though they were aware of the presence. Meanwhile the tourists took pictures.

The medical students I met told me that although doctors are very professional and experienced in India, often more so than in the west, the practices here are sometimes a little unusual. One man came in and told the doctors that he had diabetes. He had found out when on returning to the place where he had urinated previously, there were many ants. The doctor ordered a test to confirm the diagnosis.

After the morning boat ride, I took a trip to Sarnath. This is the location of the Deer Park where Guatama Buddha preached his first sermon and acquired his first five disciples. Those five were the ones who had forsaken him earlier for choosing moderation over asceticism. There is a massive stupa at Sarnath, at the supposed location of the sermon. A subsequent great ruler in India known as Ashoka became a buddhist and created a large monastic community there. The ruins of this monastary were recently discovered and the deer park is now filled with low lying brick structures which show the boundaries of rooms and corridors. The symbol of the Ashokan empire was four lions standing back-to-back and facing in four directions. This has now become the coat of arms of the Republic of India. The museum at Sarnath contains a beautiful five foot high carving of these lions which came from the top of a column that was found in the excavations.

At Sarnath, I also visited a really nice Jain temple and a Burmese Buddhist temple.

I finished the day at the Clarks Varanasi Hotel. After having lunch there, I paid 200 rupees to swim in their pool. I spent a few hours there and swam one hundred lengths.


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