Night train to Varanasi

We were not sure what would happen with access once we boarded the train last night so I had taken the precaution of uploading and scheduling the blog post. It would go live at 11:00 pm regardless.

The train arrived a little late and there was a crush to board. The 64 berths in our sleeper car were arranged in 8 ‘compartments’ of 8 berths each. On one side of the aisle a top bunk lay lengthwise along the train fixing the width of a compartment as the length of a bed, about 1.8 m. Below that were two seats facing each other. The backs of those came down to form the lower bunk. Across the aisle were 6 more berths, three stacked each side of a narrow space. The top and bottom bunks were fixed. The bottom bunks served as seats for 6 people and the backs swung up and were fixed with hangers to make middle bunks on each side. There were pillows, 2 sheets in a paper bag, and blankets for each bunk. There was space for luggage under the bottom bunks.

Majella and I had been assigned numbers corresponding to the middle bunks in our compartment. There was someone already asleep on one top bunk and Julia, one of our group, was assigned to the other. She climbed up and found she seemed to have the blankets for most of the compartment so she passed some down. 

That left us to work things out with Indian family – man, woman, and two boys (aged 4 and 2 we found out this morning when we found they were boys and not girls as we first thought they might be) – already in the compartment. The older child was disturbed by our arrival and seemed frightened of us but that changed in the morning when he was prepared to play simple clapping games with us. 

One middle bunk was already up and once the other was up we climbed in and did the best we could to get comfortable. By the time we managed to get into bed the train was moving and beyond the station. Getting comfortable and to sleep was another matter. Arranging our small bags took some space and placing sheets while in the bed with insufficient headroom to sit up was a challenge. There was no need for blankets because it was more than warm enough. As the train gathered pace the air conditioning took effect and cooled things to a more comfortable temperature. By morning some may have thought it was too cool.

Majella seemed to go to sleep easily but she may have been pretending especially when the younger child began to cry loudly. That went on for some time despite his parents’ efforts to settle him but eventually he did go quiet. 

I tossed and turned for a bit checking periodically for data connectivity on my phone. A little before midnight I got a solid signal and checked that the blog post was published as scheduled and then posted the link to Facebook. 

Despite the cramped quarters and less than luxurious beds we managed to get some sleep. Sometime after 8:00 am we decided that sleep time was over, climbed down, folded our bunks, and prepared to sit it out. I managed to eat a muesli bar and drink some water but Majella was avoiding any inputs lest she have to contend with the onboard toilets.

Around 10:00 am we crossed the Yamuna River, the same we had seen in Agra, just short of where it enters the Ganges and stopped in the station at Prayagraj. We were there for a while before Ruby came round to tell us that our train was delayed about 2 hours and we would be late into Varanasi. The stop was long enough for people to be shopping on the platform and I picked up a Pepsi to supplement the water I was carrying. 

After 20 minutes or so our train left the station, crossed the Ganges, and headed for Varanasi. We reached there about 12:30 pm after a journey of almost 14 hours, boarded tuk tuks, and rode to the hotel. Our rooms were still being prepared so we ate lunch in the restaurant and then went up to shower and relax. By then I was feeling a bit strange though not in the same way as I had done a few days ago. Perhaps the sugary Pepsi had been too much for my system. 

At 3:30 pm the group left the hotel in tuk tuks headed for the river. The tuk tuks deposited us a short walk from the river bank near an area where bodies are cremated. We walked to the river, down the steps of the ghat, and watched the cremation process for a while. 

Cremation is conducted very openly on the mudflat or a platform in the ghat, depending on river level. The body is washed by immersion fully clothed in the river, Ganges water is placed in the mouth, and the body is then placed on a pyre of logs. It is sprinkled with incense and then the pyre is set alight. The burning may take a few hours to be completed.

After watching for a while we boarded a boat which took us a few hundred metres down river near to a larger cremation area where we observed some more of the process. We then went ashore for a while to look around on the ghat and enjoy some of the colourful characters before reboarding the boat to be in position for the 6:30 pm evening ceremony.

At 6:00 pm we were early enough to get a good position but were soon hemmed in all around by other boats. The boats were packed tightly enough that vendors of chai, souvenirs, and other items were able to walk freely from boat to boat hawking their wares. Bells were ringing loudly as people seemed to be working themselves up to the full ceremony. It involved 7 platforms for the priests. A little way up river we could see another equivalent arrangement where a ceremony was beginning.

The ceremony began with several priests at the central platform and then continued with a single priest on each of the 7 platforms. It was carefully choreographed with the priests moving items in large circular motions in front of them with their right hands while ringing bells in their left hands. The objects they moved looked heavy. They changed periodically and included metal frames with 20 or more small lamps burning and others with a single large flame. There would be substantial strength and endurance required to perform the motions at a steady speed while remaining in time with the others.

The ceremony concluded with small lamps being lit and floated on the river. Pilgrims and tourists in the boats joined in that part. We left at that point but the ceremonies seemed to be continuing. Our boat took us back to shore and we walked to where tuk tuks had been arranged to meet us.

The whole group went out for dinner at Annapurna restaurant. The menu was extensive with many offerings from different cuisines and most unfamiliar to us. Majella had dosa, a crisped fluffy pancake rolled with some potato filling and lassi. She enjoyed it but it was too large for her. I had lime soda and burnt garlic noodles because I was not sure I could handle the garlic chilli noodles. They were delicious.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and straight to bed because our sunrise cruise required a 5:30 am departure from the hotel. This post was delayed in favour of sleep.

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