We arrived in Varanasi (Benares) on Sunday the 17t of December. By this time, we had organized a private tour for the rest of our travels in India at the strong advice of my nephew in Mumbai.
Varanasi is a very old city (some people say 5000 years old). It is the confluence of 3 rivers Varna, Assi and the Ganges. In this region Ganges flows south to north for about 40 kms and this is considered very auspicious. We were met by a fine guide at the airport and driven to the hotel on the banks of the Ganges called Palace of the Ganges. It was a very nice hotel, but Jeannie continued to be sick. So the next morning (Mon Dec 18), I went on a boat ride on the Ganges to view the sun rise and see the Ghats. Ghats are basically small regions of steps (typically 20-60 steps) fom the street level to the water surface. A lot of people come to bathe on these Ghats -it is said that all your sins are forgiven if you bathe in the waters of the Ganga in Varanasi). We went on the boat for 30 minutes, saw a lot of palaces built by Maharajas from Rajasthan, each outbuilding the other. On two of these Ghats they allow cremation. They said about 30-40 people are cremated daily.
Later in the morning, I went to Saranath – a very important place for Buddhists as this is the first place where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon. I saw a lot of pilgrims from Viet Nam, Cambodia, laos, China, Japan and Korea. The area has been dug up by the Archeology department of of the Government of India and is indeed preserved very well. It is said at all the major places of worship, there is some personal item of Buddha (a piece of hair, a tooth etc).
The place was very busy as the Dalai Lama was in town and making a presentation that evening.
From Benares, we took the train to a city called Bhubaneshwar about800 kms away. This was a very difficulty journey as the there had some mishaps and we were on the waiting list without a confirmed seat. We had some interesting adventures traveling on this train. It had been overbooksd and every seat was taken. I will describe it to anyone who wants to hear about it individually as this was not the best experience of our travel. We arrived in Bhubaneshwar the next morning at 5 AM.