Varanasi, the holy city has been pretty eye opening. Andrew says he had his biggest high (sunrise on the Ganges) and his biggest low so far on this trip (the sensory overload of it all). The heat, combined with our three-week weary bodies and minds, and the constant barrage of people selling us things has left us a little tired and cynical, but with few regrets about visiting.
Our beautiful guest house
Airbnb has been great when booking places to sleep on this trip. It’s becoming obvious to us that some guest houses are using it as just another sales channel, like Expedia or TripAdvisor, which suits us just fine. Our guest house here in Varanasi is close to everything we want to see and is just gorgeous. Similar to our villa in Anjuna it is spacious, airy and full of plants and art. Better yet, it’s run by some grannies and their families, which makes for a fun, homely kind of space to hang out in.
Getting around Varanasi
From the second we got off the train we were surrounded by people offering us services on their rickshaws. We were dubious about getting us and our bags into one of those things, but without a taxi in sight and nothing showing on Ola, we had to just get on and do it. Our taxi driver haggled a hard bargain but Andrew managed to ‘win’ this one. We got to our Airbnb all in one piece, even if the driver stopped twice to buy tobacco at local stalls!
The river was not far away from us, but the walk could be frustrating. Traffic comprised of mostly bikes, motorbikes, cows (and their “landmines”), tuktuks, and rickshaws with the occasional car thrown in for good measure, and is non-stop. Unlike Mumbai or Kolkata, we found the drivers were less likely to stop for us when crossing. We’ve had a couple instances of almost getting hit but have come out the other side unscathed.
Add to the traffic, the huge number of rickshaw and tuktuk drivers trying to get us to pay for rides “Sir, sir, where are you going? I take you to ‘golden temple’…” and as you’re declining their offer another starts “Madam, hello!”. If there isn’t a driver offering you a ride, there is a man walking alongside you asking where you come from, and inviting you to his shop. As you get closer to the ghats, the rickshaw offers are replaced with offers for boat rides. On top of all of that, you’re also negotiating the many cows, dogs, small children, and beggars. It’s only two and a half blocks, but it’s hard work.
Once you’re on the river there are motorboats and rowboats of varying size, and there is always someone willing to take you out. Just walk along the ghats and the offers come flooding in.
Gorgeous. Flat. Calm. Quite the thing to see and just as beautiful from above as on the water itself. Hindus believe that they have 3 mothers; the mother who gave birth to them, Mother India and Mother Gange. The river is believed to be cleansing, not just of the body, (it’s pretty polluted, so I wouldn’t guarantee that) but of the soul. The river washes away your sins and a visit is a must for the devout. In fact, people come here on pilgrimage. We saw some of the oldest people you’ll meet climbing the stairs of the ghats and the old city on their trip.
On the banks of the river are hundreds of small bays, with steps leading from clifftop houses, palaces and businesses down to the waters. There are over 80 ghats, and many have a specific purpose. You visit one ghat to do laundry, another to bathe, another to cremate a body. One ghat is meant to be good for those suffering leprosy. Each ghat on its own is pretty simple and bland, but the total of all the sums makes for an impressive skyline
The ghats hold the life that happens on the Ganges. People do yoga, people sit and meditate, others play cricket, other still sell their goods and services. If you want a massage in the sun there are about 100 men who will be happy to help you out….
Dying in Varanasi
There is a belief that Varanasi is an auspicious place to die – dying and being cremated here offers freedom from the constant cycle of rebirth. The rituals of cleansing and cremation take place in full view on the riverbank. Four types of person can not be cremated, as they are believed to be especially holy: children, pregnant women, priests (holy men) or anyone bitten by a snake. They are sunk in the river instead in a similar way a sailor is buried at sea.
Cremations are completed by members of the untouchable caste (the caste system is now illegal but some stigmas still apply…) who have to manage the corpse, the wood that they are sandwiched between and the flames. Cremation is only attended by males, who must bathe in the Ganges when it is completed before they return home. Females are not allowed in case they cry. If they do, the soul of the dead is unable to leave this world. Cremation happens 24/7 at two sites, even during the monsoon. Based on your status, you are either cremated right at the water’s edge or higher up on the ghat but in the end, all the ashes are gathered up each day and pushed into the river.
Before cremation, the body is walked through the city to reach the river. Four members of the family or close friends carry the body, wrapped in colourful cloth, on a stretcher, down to the water. Sometimes they sing, or chant, other time they are silent. We sat in the old city one afternoon and saw three of these small parades go past and no-one blinked an eye.
Celebration Ghat (Dashashwhamehd Ghat)
Aarti celebrations for those finishing their pilgrimages of the 12 temples ( you must bathe in the Ganges and visit 12 specific temples to complete the process) happen once a day every day. There are two sets of priests who offer this celebration, just next door to each other. One group is a set of five holy men, the other (not to be outdone) has seven. There is lots of music and drumming and dancing and fire. It’s very beautiful to watch by boat or on land and the whole ceremony is done in Sanskrit.
There is lots of music and drumming and dancing and fire. It’s very beautiful to watch by boat or on land and the whole ceremony is done in Sanskrit.
We’ve enjoyed two rides which were kindly organised by our host, one in the evening to see the burning ghat and the aarti celebration and another at dawn to see the sunrise. The peace and quiet on the water is so relaxing and the view is pretty incredible. Other boats, people floating flowers or candles on the water to send out their blessings, people going about life on the banks, and those further up on the ghats, there is always something to look at.
One of our hosts (not a granny) invited us on a walking tour, for a reasonable fee and we took up his offer. He took us through the old part of the city (5000 years old, and home to over 1 million people) where each house has a special door, to show your wealth (the prettier the more wealthy) and a private temple. “Varanasi is not only the holy city” he said, “ it’s also the city of temples, city of music and the city of silk…”. Here you can pay to see hand woven silk be made, and you can get a silk sari made if you so fancy.
In the old city we walked through a maze of narrow lanes (galis). Just when you think you’re away from the traffic a cow, or a motorbike, or both, come hurtling at you.
Wandering around the galis we spotted all sorts: shops selling silk, crafts, food, shrines in varying states of repair and candlelit deities in alcoves, men playing cards and even the men who have devoted themselves to godliness and now sit and meditate and practice yoga on the banks of the river. Like anywhere in India, turning a corner can either assault or delight your sense. Cow pat can turn into incense in a matter of meters and you are never far from someone who can sell you something.
We have slowly worked out a good route around the galis to get where we want to go, although sometimes we still get a little lost. It’s important to never be in a rush, as that’s when you’ll miss a vital turn.
Blue Lassi Shop
Deep within the galis is the famous blue lassi shop, and our daily dose of yum fresh fruit lassis. Don’t fret, the shop is blue, not the lassi! These guys are a pretty popular tourist spot and they have covered their walls in passport photos, donated by their international patrons, and sweet messages from happy customers.
We’ve been to visit four times and every flavour we’ve tried (they have 80 on offer) has been delicious. Its especially cool to watch the lassi be made right in front of you. The man who makes the lassi doesn’t speak much English, but he will offer a hearty “Namaste!” if you give him one first.
Varanasi is said to have been built by lord Shiva and most temples here are for him. Occasionally you’ll see a temple with a bull (Shivas mode of transport) or Ghanesha, Shivas son who can both offer blessings too. Traditionally non-hindus can’t visit the majority of the temples here, but there are some that can be visited, including the nepalese temple which has a bunch of kama sutra carvings on the walls. As per tradition, Andrew whispered his wishes to the Bull, so they could be taken to Shiva and granted. He wouldn’t tell me what he wished for, so I’ll just assume it was for a beautiful wife (#nailedit).
As per tradition, Andrew whispered his wishes to the Bull, so they could be taken to Shiva and granted. He wouldn’t tell me what he wished for, so I’ll just assume it was for a beautiful wife (#nailedit).
Just north of Varanasi is a district called Saranth, a place of importance to Buddhists, as it marks the place where Buddha gave his first sermon.
There are about 7 or 8 places of interest which are all located nice and close to one another within a beautiful set of gardens and walkways. It was so quiet, calm and peaceful, we could have stayed there for hours! We only had a driver booked for 4 hours, so after a rejuvenating wander around the gardens and the sites we ventured back into the city.
Hot, hot, hot.
We are getting used to the temperature, but our time in Varanasi has been punctuated with a few hours of 40 degree + heat. It’s less humid than Goa, but its still not pleasant to venture out in and it makes me feel for all those people who work out there in it. We spotted a few men wearing scarves on their heads to keep the sun off them while they’re out and about, the first time we’ve really noticed this on our trip.
The night of the wedding
Down the street from us was a fairly inconspicuous looking building, which has turned out to be a wedding hall. On Sunday evening, as we were getting ready for bed, we heard what sounded like a party, but didn’t think much of it. Later in the night, we were awoken by the sound of 100 fireworks, a brass band, and a horse. We had to get up and see what was going on. Lucky for us, right outside the front door was the wedding party, performing a ceremony where the males lead the groom to the bride’s family home on horseback. The journey includes a lot of singing and dancing on-route.
I was lucky enough to sneak out and take a couple photos and enjoy the experience, but when a man came and invited me to dance (I’m wearing my PJs at this stage) I had to turn him down.
Such a cool thing to see and hear, even though it woke us up!
Something else that woke me up, was a short but fairly gnarly dose of TD (thats travelers diarrhea for those who haven’t hung out at The Travel Doctors). A chunky 500mg antibiotic, lots of water, some dry toast and a banana lassi later and I was pretty much back to normal and ready for our next 12 hour train trip to Agra.
Thats all, folks!
What a week! Its almost been a whole month since we left New Zealand. Some days its feels like that was just yesterday, others it feels like 100 years ago. Come back soon and check out our thoughts on…who knows what, or where!