Dadu Aur Madak

Having left Pokhara early we were able to make it to the border by lunch time. We had planned to stay on the Nepal side and then do a  long day too Varanasi in the morning. After weighing the benefits of waiting we decided to push on. Our thinking in staying in Nepal was that we might be able to avoid spending a night in Gorakhpur, but since we could find no hotels listed in the guidebook between Gorakhpur and Varanasi we decided not to risk it. We were able to breeze through customs in under a half-hour and cruised into Gorakhpur before 3:00. We had read about one more option in town that sounded like it might be tolerable. It was supposed to be across from the Bank of India, but after asking six different people and having been directed around in a four kilometer circle we decided to stick with the devil we knew. In the morning we were up at first light and out of there. As it turns out, it was a wise decision to tick off those miles in the afternoon because the ride to Varanasi was grueling. Not that it was such a great distance, we had certainly traveled longer distances in a day, but Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state, and they all seemed to be walking or bicycling to Varanasi. While oncoming traffic, especially trucks and buses can pose significant health risks, it is amplified exponentially by the presence of pedestrians. Frequently bicyclists and pedestrians will walk/ride three abreast on each side of a two-lane blacktop. While they will move for a truck or bus coming towards them, it sometimes seems like no amount of honking will get them to move for something coming from behind. You can compound this with the fact that although the map had less than a dozen named towns, one hundred kilometer stretch had more than thirty of them. As is typical, a perfectly adequate road can deteriorate into something unrecognizable as a roadway within town limits.

We had heard a great deal about Varanasi from other travellers. The reports ran the gamut from awe to disgust, but one thing they agreed on was that it had to be experienced.

Hordes of Hindu pilgrims are drawn to Varanasi to worship at the great Ganges river. For Hindus this is one of the holiest cities in India. It is a great honor to be cremated here, an even greater one to die here. The river, which is considered the giver of life, attracts a daily procession of people who come to bathe, fish, do laundry, or what have you. Although the banks are lined with scores of ghats, one of the most famous and most popular is Dasaswamehd in the heart of the old city.

The streets of the old city are hardly more than a drunken spiderweb of tiny alleyways like the one at left. It is difficult if not impossible to find your way to a specific ghat without someone to guide you. The most popular time to visit the ghats is at sunrise and sunset. At sunset (top right) the air is alive with sounds of music and prayer (it's alive with smells as well) as people come for ganga arti (river worship). Motorized traffic is not allowed in the area in the hours before and after sunset, so the only alternative for retreat in the evening is on foot or bicycle rickshaw. The scene at lower right is repeated nightly.

At sunrise the river is bathed in warm light, and the crowds return for their morning ritual. The best way to view things is to hire a boat for a few rupees, and watch the scene unfold on the shore.

For Hindus the river sustains life and is a place to cleanse both body and soul. For many it takes life back  in the end at any of a number of "burning ghats". Following cremation the ashes are given back to the river. The Ganges where it passes Varanasi is probably on of the most polluted waterways on earth, but this does not deter believers.

In stark contrast to the congested city center a few kilometers away, Benares Hindu University's wide tree lined boulevards are a nice respite from the hustle and madness of the city. It is home to some 15,000 students and is one of the largest Universties in Asia. It has a remarkable art museum--the Bharat Kala Bhavan-- that is home to some incredible works both ancient and contemporary (below)