What a day! Firstly we got up at the hideous time of 3.30am to catch the plane to Varanasi. Jet Airways have folded, meaning the flights we'd been booked on had to be transferred to other providers, and we've been fitted into their schedules as best they could. At least there was little traffic on the way to the airport at that hour of the morning.
The recent escalation of tension in Kashmir has put security services on alert at the airports. Young boys in uniform wander around with powerful looking guns, and I got thoroughly done over by security when we checked in. They made me empty all my hand luggage and went it through it item by item. They even checked my USB, cables and camera equipment.
Varanasi used to be called Benares, a name I'm far more familiar with. It's been called the "Learning and Burning capital" of India. The first refers to the large and eminent university founded in 1917. The "burning" of course refers to the burning ghats where bodies are cremated.
We started our tour with a visit to the temple on the site of Buddha's enlightenment. Close by stands the Bodhi tree ( or a descendant) under which he meditated. There were also the remains of a monastery near by, which still had an intact Stupa. The first worshippers of Buddha used these structures as the focus for their religion, the worship of statues of the Buddha not having started for another 200 years or so.
We had a couple of hours rest before our evening activity which was a visit to the ghats (the steps which line parts of the banks of the Ganges).
It was an amazing experience. First of all we transferred by motor rickshaw from the hotel to close to the ghats. If we thought the cycle rickshaw ride in Delhi was exciting, this topped it. Our driver wove and manoeuvred his vehicle through a hundred different, heart stopping, obstacles - the dense traffic, the cows, the crowds, all heading to the same destination. Once we were within a kilometre of the river we had to get down and walk the rest of the way. I'd thought myself fairly used to crowds, traffic and kamikaze drivers from our earlier trips to China and South East Asia, but this was something else! The trick is just to keep on quietly walking in the desired direction and let the traffic work round you - but there were some nerve wracking moments.
The Aarti, or prayer ceremony of thanks to Mother Ganges takes place every single morning and evening throughout the year. The current statue in the temple by the river is from the seventeenth century, but it replaced earlier statues that had stood in the site for thousands of years.
I've rarely had a more impressive and powerful experience. The chanting, the crush of people - some like us there for the spectacle, but many more attending as part of their religious responsibilities.
This is a fire ceremony, and as night fell we went out in a boat onto the river where we could get the best view of the priests as they conducted the ritual.
Unnervingly, for a period of some twenty minutes, we mislaid a woman from our group. She'd lost sight of us as she followed us down to the water through the dense crowd. So dense in fact that it was impossible to see her. It was a very concerning situation, and we could see just how tense our guide was until we were reunited. I imagine losing a client must be a guide's worst nightmare.
The ghats 3
Cavan’s offering launched and floating away
The ghats 2
Out on the water
Coming back to dock