Keep Calm and Carry Ohm

18/11/08 Day 5 - Varanasi

Hamish was already waiting for us in the foyer. It was 5:45am and Julie and I were right on time; so he must have been early. Then again Rob and Carol were also early so perhaps we were late! That cheap travel alarm clock from Boots was probably unreliable.

Anyway, we were all gathered together at this ridiculous hour to get to the famous Ghats of Varanasi. Steps along side the river bank that led down to the Ganges. We wanted to get there before dawn broke to fully appreciate the "moment".

Our driver was doing a very good job of getting us their before sunrise by hurtling down the middle of the road towards oncoming traffic. One manoeuvre in particular had us gripping the edge of our seats. Traffic had come to a gridlock so he suddenly pulled across a gap in the central reservation and drove at the wrong way down the road. We all held our breath, expecting a lorry or a cow drawn cart to appear and embarrass our cunning driver but the gods were smiling on him today as we tucked ourselves safely back into the queue several hundred yards nearer our goal. It was very busy. Obviously everyone was on their way to the highlight of a trip to Varanasi.

We eventually came to a standstill so we got out of the van and continued the journey on foot. It was busy, noisy, and crowded as we funnelled down the street towards the river. The excitement was building up as we gradually made our way nearer the Ghats.

Soon the confines of the street gave way, the crowd began to disperse and we found ourselves on the steps of Dasashvamedha Ghat looking down at the sacred Ganges.

It was such an uplifting moment. An overwhelming sense of being somewhere special, some place spiritual.

Hindus believe the Ganges to be a holy river, that it was a heavenly river brought down to earth through a lock of hair from Shiva. It's even referred to as Mother Ganga, a goddess in its own right.

It didn't matter that Julie nor I believed in the legend, its importance to millions was evident. Julie welled up with emotion.

Ghats, Varanasi

I couldn't stop taking photographs, desperate to capture the aura through the lens.

The Ganges had travelled from its source high in the Himalayas across Northern India to here, considered the most auspicious section because the path it takes is unique across its entire length.

Instead of running eastwards, in Varanasi there's a bend in the river that send it flowing north, the direction of heaven. Or at least that's what Harish told us as he led us down to the river bank where he had arranged a small rowing boat for our ride.

We stepped cautiously onboard (some more cautiously than others!) and sat on wooden benches that had crisp white cotton cloth laid out for our honoured bums. Harish positioned himself on a plastic chair and prepared himself for his running commentary.

Sat behind him was our little rower. He was only small but he must have been as strong as an ox to row a boat filled with five people.

Off we set in a flotilla of rowing boats, some smaller than ours but some were much larger with about a dozen people in them yet still just the one rower. That must take immense strength.

It wasn't long before we were graphically reminded that the river Ganges, Mother Ganga, is the most sacred place for Hindus to be brought to when they die.

A body floated past, bobbing along rather undignified with its arse skywards, counterbalanced by its grey lifeless legs.

The practice of disposing of a corpse directly into the river is now discouraged but certain bodies would not traditionally be cremated.

Young children and pregnant females, holy men and smallpox or leprosy victims would be placed straight into the water.

Our sombre mood was soon lifted in unexpected fashion when we floated past the Varanasi Laughing Club.

It was such a peculiar scene. Six seated men, looking out over the Ganges from their vantage point at the end of Darbhanga Ghat, bellowing deep belly laughs.

Despite obviously forcing out their ha-ha-has we couldn't help but catch their infectious merriment.

The Laughing Club of India was established in 1994 by a pathologist, Dr. Mukund Mehta, based on the ethos that laughter is the best medicine. It's a simple universal idea taken a step further by developing it into a laughing yoga.

A little further on, sat peacefully on a platform near Digpatiya Ghat was Alec Guinness!! Reports of his death in 2000 must have been greatly exaggerated! Of course it wasn't him but the resemblance was uncanny!!

It is said in Hindu scriptures that to bathe in the water from the Ganges will cleanse your soul. It's such as shame that it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

The pollution didn't seem to be putting people off taking an early morning dip. The Ghat here was popular with devotees taking their daily ritual. They stood upright, waist deep in the murky water, hands together in prayer to Mother Ganga and then they plunged themselves into the holy water.

There were other rituals taking place along the ghats that didn't involve submerging yourself into the contaminated river. The most spectacular of which was a sadhu or holy man performing yogic movements with a flaming oil lamp.

Lali Ghat, Varanasi

His ghostly figure, grey with ash, stood on Lali Ghat swinging the oil lamp, swooping down and spinning around in a devotional dance to the river.

Varanasi has over ninety ghats over a four mile stretch and whilst many of those we saw were busy with pilgrims taking their purifying wash there were a few others being used for more mundane purposes.
ghats, Varanasi

One ghat in particular, Babua Pandey Ghat, was completely taken over by a rainbow of sari cloths waiting for the drying sun to rise.

It served also as a laundrette with several washers scrubbing their dirty clothes in the holy water then slapping it hard again slabs of stone.

I imagined the clothes coming out dirtier than when they went in but the filthy river must have some detergent qualities or something because they wouldn't waste their time otherwise.

It looked like a lot of hard work to get your whites whiter than white!

Another ghat, Kshameshwar Ghat, seemed to be nothing more than a boat yard but of course there was more to it than that.

yoga class, Vijayanagaram Ghat, Varanasi

Kshameshwar Ghat, Varanasi

The spiritual theme returned when we reached Vijayanagaram Ghat where a yoga class from the Swami Karapatri Ashram was underway.

We reached the end of our first leg as we came to the cremation ghat of Harishchandra Ghat.

For Hindus, dying in Varanasi brings salvation, liberation from the cycle of birth and death, moksha as they say.

As there are only two cremation ghats in this sought after final resting place the demand keeps the funeral pyres burning almost 24 hours a day.

They've even resorted to an electric crematorium here at Harishchandra Ghat.

Harishchandra Ghat, Varanasi
Ghats, Varanasi

We turned our boat around and began our return journey. It was at this point we noticed our Radisson's Much Preferred Guests a boat or two behind us.

Their more privilege status continued to separate us with a boat draped with marigold garlands, lined with white linen and comfy plump cushions provided for their royal posteriors. I say royal because they actually looked like members of some European royal family. A distant cousin of Prince Charles perhaps.

Whilst they were privileged I took small comfort that our boat was in the lead!

Our return leg was done in the outside lane, so to speak, which afforded us a better view of the ghats themselves. It was fascinating to see how each one had its own distinct style and character.
Kedar Ghat, Varanasi
Digpatyia Ghat, Varanasi
Kedar Ghat was like a Billy Lal Circus tent with its garish spectacle of red and white stripes, whilst Digpatyia Ghat was almost palatial.
Ahilyabai Ghat, Varanasi
Sitala Ghat, Varanasi

Ahilyabai Ghat and Sitala Ghat were a lovely hue of browns and orange and the sight of a monkey on the steps was a cause for mild excitement.

Ghats, Varanasi

We arrived back where we started at Dasashvamedha Ghat but our hard working rower couldn't hang up his oars quite yet as we still had more to see.

The ghats were coming thick and fast now.

They could almost be considered as one large riverfront but each section had a its own name, an individual tale to tell.

This section was by far the most popular, the steps were heaving with pilgrims and tourists alike.

Immediately north of our starting point were Prayag Ghat and then Rajendra Prasasa Ghat.
Prayag Ghat, Varanasi
Rajendra Prasasa Ghat, Varanasi
These were certainly the most colourful ghats we had seen this morning. Flags, parasols, and brightly painted images of Shiva and another goddes on a canvas of vivid pinks and orange.

We continued downstream where Harish pointed out a well-kept freshly painted building called the Palace of the Dom Raja.

The Doms are a caste who have exclusive rights over the cremation ghats. Their wealth has accumulated over centuries of funeral fees and also from the monopoly they hold over the wood that fuels the cremation fires. Everyone must exclusively buy their logs from the Dom stores.

Having made their fortune it would have been rude not to spend it and spend it they did on buying a pair of ceramic tigers. Every palace should have some!

The Palace of the Dom was between Man Mandir and Tripura Bhairavi Ghats as we continued our journey, rowing past a further seven ghats in quick succession. I say "we rowed" but you know what I mean.

There was a lot less activity this side of the ghats but still plenty of sights. The best was when was a sadhu, complete with extravagantly painted forehead, meditating in an alcove overlooking the Ganges.

Aah, if only our lives were that simple.

When we reached Manikarnika Ghat they were preparing for a cremation. We pulled up our boat as close as we could get for our front row view. We weren't the only boatful of tourist vying for the best place to weigh anchor.

The fires were burning as we stood up and watched a body, wrapped in white cotton, draped in a shimmering golden cloth and a heap of marigolds, carried down by the mourners for her last soak in the sacred Ganges water.

It was quite emotional witnessing the rite of passage being carried out. They exposed the face, opened her mouth and poured in the sanctifying water. The soul liberated.

We felt part of the ceremony, almost members of the congregation, honorary mourners. Although whilst feeling humbled and privileged to be present at the cremation we did feel a bit invasive.

Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi
Scindha Ghat, Varanasi

Harish pointed out that all the mourners were male. He explained that there was once an awful tradition where the wife was thrown alive onto the fire with her deceased husband. It was her destiny to join him in the next life.

Thankfully that misguided practice has died out. It's now only considered bad luck to have women present, their uncontrollable weeping disrupting a clean moksha.

We moved on to Scindia Ghat where we said goodbye to our oarsman and stepped off the boat onto the steps. These ghats had been prone to landslides in the past so it was now more of a collection of large concrete platforms rather than the traditional steps leading down to the river.

It was still a popular ghat.

On one platform an elder sat beneath a parasol watching the world go by whilst on the next one a man stood with a cloth wrapped around his waist giving himself a thorough cleaning.

Let's just say he was giving far too much attention to his balls for it to be considered sacred!

We stood around the ghat briefly taking it all in for the last time before leaving. It was strange but I hadn't really looked at the river itself. The last hour had been spent focusing on the ghats. Only now did I turn my attention to the Ganges, Mother Ganga herself.

Scindha Ghat, Varanasi
sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi

I was amazed how wide the river was. It had travelled a thousand miles to get here and still had hundreds more to go before reaching the sea at Kolkata.

From here the Ganges looked beautiful, glistening with the first rays of the sun.

I could easily have pulled up a reed mat and sat down to gaze at it all day.

Harish gave us enough time to savour the moment before suggesting we should move on.
Although, before actually leaving Scindia ghat, a small temple on its steps caught my attention, or at least its guardian outside with the most elaborate of forehead designs made me reach for my camera yet again.

The truth was everywhere I turned made camera shutter flutter!

It was such an incredible experience and I wanted to capture every sight to keep the memories alive.

Harish decided it really was time to leave and walked off up a narrow alleyway that ran behind the cremation ghats.
Logs were piled high, ready to be weighed and sold to the grieving families. The "timber yard" smell of cut wood was sweetened by the burning of incense but also spiked by smoke rising from the funeral pyres. It was quite powerful combination.

I was bracing myself for the smell death.

From experience the stench of burning flesh is disgusting. (Just in case you're wondering I only know this from the burning of dead lambs, not human flesh!)

Fortunately, apart from the steaming fresh cow pats there wasn't any other bad odours to contend with.
This short passageway was so absorbing, utterly unforgettable. On one side of the street a mourner was having his head shaved, a tradition at a cremation for the closest relative.
Sadhu, Varanasi

Then on the other side this cheerful sadhu asked for his modelling fees due after I took his photograph.

I apologised and shamefully pleaded poverty. "Sorry, no money"

backstreets, Varanasi "OK, free photograph" he chuckled to himself and waved me on. The street became narrower as we followed our guide Harish deeper into Varanasi's back alleys.
Despite being completely dilapidated and filthy the buildings held an incredible aura.

We were making our way to join Viswanath Gali a narrow lane busy with shops and cafes that lead to the most important Hindu temple in Varanasi, Kashi Viswanath temple. There was a highly visible security presence along this street with groups of military policemen sitting around drinking tea, keeping one eye on everyone who walked past.

Harish explained the original Viswanath Temple was demolished by the Muslim invaders and Gyanvapi mosque was built its place. In 1776 the Hindu temple was rebuilt on an adjacent site.

All this history increases the risk of terrorism and they weren't taking any chances.

Due to the heightened security level we had to hand over our bags, including our cameras with a nearby shopkeeper for safe keeping. I was a little hesitant at first but Harish assured us that he was completely trustworthy.

Carol mustn't have heard the "leave the camera" clause and was merrily on her way towards the security guards with their machine guns and metal detectors when Harish spotted it.

"Oh, no, no! No camera" he yelped, laughing his head off nervously. "We would have got into trouble!"

Disarmed we made our way to Checkpoint Ghandi and stepped down into an even narrower lane. It lead down alongside the temple's perimeter wall.

At 5ft 2in Julie is often at a disadvantage if it involves peering over walls but even 6ft 4in Rob couldn't see over to catch a glimpse of the splendour that lay inside.

The temple is also known as the Golden Temple because of a spectacular golden spire.

We stood to one side as Harish explained that the Kashi Vishwanath temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva and enshrined a lingam; a small bollard-like piece, similar to a miniature version of a stupa (like the one at Sarnath). They are also often considered phallic symbols.

Sadly foreigners were not allowed to enter the temple so we were left with standing on tip-toes on the steps of a shop to try to sneak a peek of the golden tower.

I had to search the internet to see what we missed and what a beautiful sight. source: http://varanasi.nic.in/temple/KASHI.html

I suggested we should try going "piggy-back" because despite our best efforts we didn't really see much. (When I got home I had to search the internet to see what we missed and oh, what a beautiful sight it was.)

We returned back to Viswanath Gali and back to where we deposited our possessions. To our relief (but to be honest I totally trusted the arrangement) our bags and cameras were safely returned to us.

As we were in the shop it would have been rude not to have had at least a quick look around what the shopkeeper had on offer.

It didn't take long before Julie spotted just the top for me, a bright yellow shirt with red prints of Krishna. It was definitely one of those shirt you'll only ever wear on holiday! We asked "How much?" and he started with a price of 500 rupees. We really couldn't be bothered with bartering so we just paid over the money. I was happy to pay £8.75 and he was more than happy to receive 500R.

Whilst we were shopping Harish popped out for a cup of tea from a chai seller across the street. "Would you like some tea?" he asked. "It is safe, it will have been boiled five times" he explained.

Rob and Carol politely declined his offer. In contrast I was inexplicably thrilled at the idea of drinking a cup of Ganges tea and to my astonishment Julie joined in the tea break.

It was a tiny establishment, hardly bigger than a broom cupboard. In the front a large tin kettle all bashed and stained sat on top of a gas fire. It looked like it was two hundred years old. It wasn't particularly the cleanest of establishments either and I could see Julie having second thoughts. Harish brought to us small clay pots filled with hot deliciously sweet milky chai. I tried not to think about holy water and floating bodies as I took my first sip. I enjoyed mine so much I slurped it all down and despite her reservations Julie did have quite a few sips.

Once finished Harish told us to throw the empty clay pots onto the floor to break them. "They'll brush them up and re-use them later" he said. We both looked at each other with a look that said "I hope we're not going to pay for this later!"

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India
 
We left Vishwanath Gali behind and after the relative peace of the narrow alleyways it was quite a shock to stumble out onto a moped infested Godowlia Road that led back down to where our van and driver was waiting for us.

As we drove out of downtown Varanasi Harish offered us two options for our next destination.

"We can go to a temple that's just like any Hindu temple you'll see across all of India, dedicated to Lord Rama, or we can go to a very unique place, a temple that is only found here in Varanasi."

"It's up to you. Where would you like to go?"

The answer was obvious but we hesitated as if we were concerned it was a trick question or something?

After his blatant preference for the "only one of its kind" it would have been stupid to ignore his advice so we all agreed to visit the Bharat Mata Temple.

What made it distinctive was that unlike all other temples in India it is not dedicated to one of the plethora of gods or deities but instead is a temple devoted to the unified motherland of India.

Known also as Mother India Temple it was built to help unify the country and holds a place in the history of the India's Independence.

It was even inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936.

As any other temple we took our shoes off out of respect and entered the building. Its style was very British Memorial Hall but it's entire floor was a huge three dimensional map of India carved from marble.

It was quite incredible especially the detail of the Himalayas. I'm not sure how accurate the relief was but it made me realise what a spectacular barrier the mountains were to the North.

I wanted to walk up to the first floor for a better view of the whole map but unfortunately it was out of bounds.
Harish gave us a whistle stop tour of the highlights of India pointing to the locations on the map with a laser pen. It clearly illustrated the vastness of India.

Before we left we bought a postcard from the temple's curator.

He was very appreciative of our business.

"Thank you very very much" he gently spoke.

Then, as I was about to take a photo of the personification of Mother India, a painting of a flag bearing lion taming female, he appeared in the shot and took Julie's hand to pose for a photograph. He was a lovely man. It was almost as if Gandhi himself was in the room.

Sitting in the minibus on our way back we realised what time it was. We couldn't believe that we had seen so many memorable and astonishing sights and it was only 8:30am!!

We arrived at the hotel still in time for breakfast!

I had certainly worked up an appetite. Fortunately the buffet on offer was plentiful. I had a bowl of Dahl Sambar with some Upma and a small onion Bhaji and returned for a second helping of Dahl, some delicious Paratha bread and a clay pot of natural yogurt.

Julie enjoyed her smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Even though our flight this morning to Khajuraho was scheduled for 11:40am we were told we didn't have to be ready for our pick up until at least 11:00am. "The flight is always delayed" reassured the Kuoni rep.

So we sat in the lounge, drinking tea and watching the news on the flat-screen TV on the wall. Today the Indian Navy sank a pirate boat off the coast of Somalia to end a hostage situation of an Indian cargo ship.

Also last week India launched their first rocket, Chandrayaan-1, into a lunar orbit. By 2015 the Indian Space Programme are planning an unmanned mission to Mars and a manned mission to space.

Our man in Varanasi, a young lad by the name of Ranjit, arrived on time with the news that we wont be leaving for a quite while longer. Not only was the flight delayed, the plane hadn't even left Delhi yet!

We decided to order another pot of tea and a Paneer Kathi roll for lunch.

Finally at 12:45pm we were given the green light, "We need to go now, the plane has left Delhi" said Ranjit.

Within half an hour we arrived at the airport where Ranjit arranged for our luggage to be wheeled the short distance from the car park to the check-in desks.

It bothered me slightly that the porters insisted on dragging our cases. I tried to say that I was perfectly capable of wheeling my own luggage thank you very much but they were obviously desperate for the resulting tip. It bothered me even more when they turned up their noses at the 40 rupees I gave them. One refused to leave, even when we turned our backs to him. He just stood there indiscreetly rubbing his thumb and index finger together. He didn't get anymore.

We had arrived in plenty of time as the scheduled departure time had been put back to 2:40pm.

After queuing through the security check and almost causing an international scene when I inadvertently shoved a gaggle of Spanish ladies out the way suffering the wrath of their wagging fingers and lashing tongues, we sat through in a small departure lounge.

Julie began her diazepam routine as we watched a Kingfisher plane take off. It was peculiar to see an aeroplane painted with a beer logo. I later learnt that the owner of the airline is also the owner of the brewery. We had a good chuckle imagining a black GuinnessAir plane or a gold Carslsberg Superstrength, probably the best airline in the world.

Anyway, at 3pm we boarded the plane. Julie and I had booked premier seats on this flight also (because we had to) and we sat down to browse the lunchtime menu sipping a glass of sweet lime juice. I was disappointed with the cheese and onion subway on offer. It just wasn't Indian enough!!

Twenty minutes went by and we were still waiting on the tarmac. The pilot spoke over the intercom to tell us there was going to be a further delay due to fog at Khajuraho. They offered us another subway roll and a cup of tea.

A further thirty minutes came and went without any indication of us preparing for take-off.

Then at about 4pm came the announcement "I am sorry to inform you that this flight has been cancelled due to no visibility at Khajuraho".

After a brief moment of thinking "Shit, what do we do now?" we got our heads together and found all the contact numbers we had been given. We tried phoning the Varanasi office but it just wouldn't connect. We then tried Sanchiv our tour manager in Delhi but the same result, a "number barred" message. Rob and Carol were sat towards the back of the plane and were having exactly the same problem. We just couldn't get to speak to anyone. This horrible stranded feeling came over us.

"I wonder if I can phone home?" thought Julie, for ever the one born with common sense, so she tried Hannah and got through! That simply didn't make any sense whatsoever. She could phone our daughter thousands of miles away but we couldn't get through to Ranjit who was just down the road.

The cabin crew were politely asking everyone to leave the plane but a tour manager for quite a large group was leading a sit-in protest. He was telling his clients to stay in their seats until he could guarantee alternative travel arrangements.

Rob and Carol were caught up in the middle of them and came to join us up front as it was getting quite heated in the back, both the temperature was rising because they had shut down the air conditioning and tempers were rising as the tour manager was getting increasingly agitated.

All the premier class passengers had by now left the plane but the 30 plus tour group were still not for moving. We eventually came to the decision that we should probaby leave so Julie and I got our hand luggage from the overhead lockers and made our way off the plane as Rob and Carol went back to their seats to get their hand luggage.

We had reached the airport terminal but there was no sign of Rob and Carol. "They must have persuaded them to stay on the plane, perhaps we should stick together" said Julie. So we actually walked back across the tarmac and back onto the plane. The dismayed cabin crew tried to stop us. "I'm sorry sir but you must leave the plane". They couldn't physically stop us so we boarded and joined in the protest.

The situation only resolved itself when we explained to the airport security staff (who were on their way to physically throw us off!) that our mobile phones weren't working. He kindly offered the use of his phone and we finally got through to Sanchiv in Delhi who assured us that he had spoken to Ranjit and he was waiting for us inside the airport terminal.

It was good to finally get off the plane and such a relief to see Ranjit darting about trying to find us. He was almost overcome with relief to see us!

5pm had long gone by now but our ordeal was not over however.

We sat in the small terminal for a further couple of hours whilst Ranjit and other tour representatives squeezed into the Jet Airways office trying to sort out the mess. It was like a stock market inside their office with everyone ranting and waving pieces of paper, holding simultaneous conversations on mobile phones.

Ranjit came over and handed his phone to me. It was Sanchiv on the other end offering us two options.

His first suggestion was to drive overnight to Khajuraho but the prospect of a twelve hour drive was unanimously rejected. The other option was to stay overnight in Varanasi and try again tomorrow.

That was the clearly the best option; although we were concerned that we should have in place a plan B in the event of another cancellation.

We ended up agreeing on a direct train to Agra tomorrow if the flights were cancelled again.

It was almost another hour before we left as Ranjit had to arrange our overnight accomodation, make sure we had tickets for the 11:40am (my arse) flight tomorrow, and also tickets for a train to Agra just in case.

We were taken from the airport by Ranjit in a large 52 seater bus. He explained that we were going to stay in a very nice hotel called Clarks and that we would have the evening meal with the compliments of Jet Airways.

He also confirmed that he had booked the train tickets to Agra for our backup plan.

"Are they private compartments?" we asked. He smiled and shook his head in that ambiguous way.

"Is it air conditioned?" another question with the same vague reply. He couldn't answer us properly he just smiled and wobbled his head in that charming yes/no way. By process of elimination it quickly dawned on us that it was booked for third class. We asked him outright. He had no option but to nod his head in the affirmative way.

Both Julie and Carol were not impress by this and we told him there and then that under no circumstances would we even consider travelling in third class. That's when we quickly came up with Plan C where we would have to miss out Khajuraho and fly to Delhi instead then drive to Agra from there. Poor Ranjit, I felt sorry for him. He was having a bad day!

It was dark when we arrived at Clarks hotel.

Our guide book listed it one of Varanasi's oldest hotels. We hoped this meant old fashion charm but sadly it meant that it was just plain old.

Our room was very out-dated. It smelt musty as if it hadn't been slept in since the seventies! To make it worse not only was it a twin bed room but the sheets were damp.

Then in the corner of the room was this huge humming contraption. It was an ancient air conditioning unit disguised as a piece of vibrating teak furniture.

I just had to switch it off. Julie and I looked at each other and immediately thought "Legionnaires Disease"!

My final moan about the room was that the connecting door had a ridiculously large gap. We could have passed our suitcases through to Rob and Carol if we wanted. OK, a slight exaggeration perhaps but nevertheless the door was cut over an inch short.

We made our way down to the hotel bar where we had arranged to meet up with Rob and Carol.

It was a rather cosy room with a short bar along one side. We sat down in the corner and enjoyed a bottle of Royal Challenge beer which rather interestingly had on it's label "Only to be Sold in Uttar Pradesh".

Whilst slurping the hoppy brew we heard a commotion going on outside and our curiosity got the better of us as we decided to go and have a look.

It noise was the exuberant beat of a wedding procession.

It was all very exciting to witness. Drums were beaten, trumpets were blown, people were dancing in the streets.

The whole traditional wedding can take several days and tonight (apparently) the groom was being symbolically drawn to a party held by the bride's family.
wedding party, Varanasi

In no time a group of joyful boys surrounded me, pointing to the camera.

After only three days in India I had become shockingly cynical of their motives and answered "Sorry, but I don't have any money"

Thankfully I don't think they understood a word I said and they continued to try and persuade me to photograph them. I took one photo and showed them their image on the display.

They rolled about with laughter when they saw themselves!

This experience really made me glad that we had our flight cancelled today. We would have missed all this entertainment. It was quite exhilarating.

We returned to the beigue bar for a while until Rob arrived. "Aaah, there you are! We forgot you'd be in the bar"

We followed him to the restaurant and join him and Carol at their table.

It was a buffet and I'm not a big fan of the buffet but it was complimentary, so it softened the blow.

I have to hold my hand up however and admit that I really over-indulged myself on the great choice available to me.

Palak Tamatar, Aloo Diliwalhi, Paneer Masala, Aloo Masala Tikki, Dhal Hirawaliya and Bhindi Bhaji. I was in curry nirvana!

In the corner a trio of musicians were beating out a wonderful tune that added to the growing feeling that all wasn't so bad.

Julie had followed my lead with small samplers of everything I had but being a ferocious potato lover she had one extra dish that I had avoided. The name "Potato Opera" had set off alarm bells ringing in my ears. I was the lucky one as she left most of it on her plate.

Sadly the same culinary insight deserted me when for dessert I tried a Lassi that tasted like baby vomit. It was probably the salted variety not the familiar sweet Lassi but that doesn't explain why it was lumpy!!

I rather undignified had to spit it all back out into the glass. What must Rob and Carol have thought of me!

We left the restaurant shortly after 9pm. Having been up since 5am it had been a very long day. Last to bed was a nincompoop.

On our way through the foyer I noticed a swastika on the wall. It was such a strange sight for a westerner more familiar with the Nazi use of the infamous symbol.

It is a very ancient symbol that often appears in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious art and it's still used in modern day India as a symbol of wealth and good luck.

It was the first time I'd seen the swastika in India other than painted loosely on car bonnets. Seeing it in a more official setting at the hotel was certainly a little strange. I couldn't shake off its Nazi shadow.

Before I knew it, it was 10pm and I was the last to bed. Quite the nincompoop.

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