Varanasi. Wow. What a wonderful place to visit as my final stop in India after 3 months travelling the country. I feel emotional even typing that. I had heard so much about Varanasi before I got there, people saying they loved it and people saying they really didn’t like it, but both parties insisting I had to go; that it is something you simply have to experience. And I couldn’t agree more – it is so cultural and spiritual and chaotic, so “India” – but I also happened to love it. I was surprised by how peaceful I found Varanasi amongst the chaos, and it is easily one of my favourite places in India.
What wasn’t so enjoyable for me was the journey there, although that also falls into a classic Indian experience and one that was sort of apt for my last journey across the country. First I had booked a night train from Agra to Varanasi, in 3rd class, which is a way to travel across India that I really enjoy and have slept relatively well on. But the morning of it was cancelled, due to the severe smog sweeping across from Delhi, so I had to book a last minute night bus for 1,400 rupees (£17) that didn’t depart until midnight. It was a bumpy journey where I didn’t get much sleep and then, at around 8am, the bus suddenly brakes and swerves and we crash into the truck in front of us that we were attempting to overtake, destroying the front right of the bus and smashing the window along the side.
Needless to say we couldn’t continue on the bus, so we – being me, a French guy called Ben and 3 Spanish people – got off and waited in the heat on the side of the highway for a local bus to come past, paying 65 rupees (80p) to get to Allehebad. On the bus we met two Indians – a father and son – who also wanted to get to Varanasi so we group up with them to order a cab from Allehebad to Varanasi, wanting to get their as quickly and smoothly as possible. Unfortunately there wasn’t room for our luggage as well so we had to squish in with our bags on top of us, we had to wait for a while for the cab to arrive as there was traffic, and, following some confusion, we still weren’t dropped off at our hostel. So we paid around double the cost of a bus at 250 rupees each (£3.25) and didn’t get much more convenience, with the whole journey costing me £38 while I still didn’t have a refund for my train ticket.
But I was captivated by Varanasi as soon as we arrived. Walking along the market streets with Ben to our hostel, Stay Inn, near Assi Ghat, I fell into step easily amongst the familiar parts of a country I had spent so much time in; the uneven paving slabs, the smell of chai, the noise of street vendors, the colour of fruit stalls and saris and clothing shops, the lack of space, the heaving traffic. And it had character; something you can’t describe or define or seek to achieve, it just either does or it doesn’t.
Varanasi draws pilgrims from around the world to worship, meditate and bathe along the sacred river Ganges (Ganga). At dusk, poojas (pujas) – religious ceremonies – are performed at the numerous ghats, with the most popular being at Dasasvamedha Ghat (the main ghat)and at Mir Ghat, with a more peaceful one at Assi Ghat. So on my first evening in the city I took a walk at about 5pm from Assi Ghat near my hostel all the way to Dasavamedha Ghat, arriving just in time for the evening pooja.
Similar to the one I witnessed in Rishikesh, men dressed in robes perform a choreographed movement with a stacked plate that is alive with flames. With hundreds of people sat around the Ghat and hoards of boats filled with people lining the Ghat in the river, it was busy and energetic and colourful.
It is really nice just to walk along the ghats, crossing from one to the next alongside the river and watching the hive of activity that goes on at each Ghat as well as the boats out on the river. Depending on the time of day you visit, you catch locals bathing in the river, washing their clothes in the river, pouring tea and sitting to watch the river, boat touts hassling passers by to go on a boat trip, homeless people begging for money and/or rice, vendors selling drinks and snacks, and locals surrounding the funeral ceremony at the burning ghats.
This is one of the most famous things about Varanasi – Hindus come from all over to have a dead body cremated at the ghats, for the public to see, and for the body to then be put into the sacred River Ganga. My first experience of the burning ghats was my very first morning in Varanasi when I went on a sunrise boat trip along the river Ganges. Paying 300 rupees (£3.75) each for two hours, Ben and I went with Babu from our hostel on a rowing boat from Assi Ghat, all the way to Manikarni Ghat and back.
Starting while it was still dark, we saw the beginnings of the day and absorbed the stillness before all the activity began. The sun rise was slightly lost in the clouds but once it was up it was big and bright, and absolutely gorgeous as it reflected on the water. Watching other boats nearby and in the distance – with locals travelling to the island across the way and other travellers snapping photographs – was absolutely beautiful.
Many boats full of tourists passed us by, as well as smaller boats with vendors selling flowers and tea lights as part of pooja worship. Babu also let me have a go at rowing the boat, but it was harder than it looks and, even after getting in th swing of it a bit, we didn’t make it very far (or in the right direction) under my control.
Babu told us about the different ghats and temples as we passed and, once we approached Manikarni Ghat, we sat still in the boat, a little bit away from the Ghat, to watch the burning ghats. It’s strange that I found the whole experience of the burning ghats – and the hive of activity along the river – peaceful, but there is something so spiritual and spectacular about Varanasi and the river Ganges that I felt peaceful.
So much so that I returned to Manikarni Ghat the following day to absorb more of this Hindu ceremony. I sat and watched for about an hour, during which I had two local men approach me to tell me more about the ceremony I was witnessing. Apparently approximately 150 bodies PER DAY are burned at the ghats of Varanasi, their bodies being cremated before being put into the river Ganges as then their souls will go straight to heaven. The exceptions for cremation are pregnant women, children under 10, cows, death by small pox and death by leprosy. Only men were present – apparently women are not allowed as they cry, or in the past they have thrown themselves onto the burning body or into the river, all of which means their souls won’t be pure.
The bodies arrive tied onto a “bed” made of wood and covered in an array of colourful silk, apparently given by members of the family. I watched as around 8 bodies were brought over to the Ghat by boat and then carried up the steps by a group of men to be burnt. The burning is done using sacred fire from inside the temple and takes around 3 hours, before the bodies are then put into the sacred river Ganga. I was told that only the pelvis of the woman – sacred due to child bearing – and the torso of the men – sacred because of his strength and labour – are thrown into the river. Hindus come to Varanasi from afar to have a dead body be cremated and “buried” in the river in this way.
It is forbidden to take photography of the burning ghats and if you do you can receive a fine. Apparently that morning a Korean had taken a photo to the have the family lunge at him and smash his camera. I don’t know if that’s true or not but, knowing how seriously Hindus take their religious processes and ceremonies, I wouldn’t be surprised. On my boat trip I had taken a photo from afar before getting closer and being informed by Babu that it was forbidden; I would never want to offend or disrespect a religion, yet it’s hard to convey the beauty I saw while witnessing this ceremony.
The colour, the smoke, the organised chaos, the people involved, the brown stone temples behind, the river running parallel. I understand why people find it morbid, but that’s a very British or western perspective; that death is morbid and should be covered up, for no one to see. We almost pretend death doesn’t exist and do not wish to therefore witness the details or the process. And it did very much feel like a process, but a spiritual and fascinating one. I was captivated.
Aside from the ghats I also, of course, spent my time eating. This time more than ever, knowing it was my final couple of days in India and that I therefore had to eat EVERYTHING before I left. During these days I ate idly with coconut chutney from a stall, an idly fry (broken up pieces of idly cooked on a griddle with mushed paneer, peas, onion and tomato) at a hole-in-the-wall joint, paneer spring roll (amazing) and Gobi Manchurian (one of my all time faves) at Rijit’s rooftop, sev puri and aloo tikka at a street stall, sweet curd from a small shop and Veg Shahi Kurma (with extra spice) at Shiva Cafe & German Bakery.
I also consumed a ridiculous number of cups of chai at the best chai stall I have ever been to after 3 months in India. Amazing. He also did a very decent cup of coffee, foam-topped and everything
I also spent quite a bit of time wandering around the narrow, winding and insanely busy streets of the city, which are especially busy the closer you get to the Golden Temple. Imagine one of the narrowest streets that you can, filled with shops and outlets and vendors, with cyclists, motorists (motorbikes), locals, tourists and vendors all trying to navigate and occupy the space in between. Every 5 seconds I would go from being “this is so chaotically colourful, I love India” to “for goodness sakes can you get out of my way or move a bit faster, I hate India”. Negotiating the number of vendors trying to draw you into their shop is another fun game, one even chasing me down the street, as though I had dropped something, to then beckon me into his silk shop.
As with a lot of places in India, the poverty is heartbreaking to witness, and I felt it stronger than ever in Varanasi. I’m unsure if the situation is worse here than other parts of India or if I just noticed it more, but it wasn’t just in the backed streets or a few areas; it was EVERYWHERE. Beggars and homeless people were in the back streets, the main streets, the market streets, the ghats, the temples and the shop fronts. I noticed a line of poor, elderly Indians sat on the floor by the side of the market with tin plates in front of them that wealthier Indians were pouring grains of rice into. So I found a nearby shop outlet and purchased 2.5kg of rice, spread into separate plastic bags, and distributed it as best as I could amongst the poor. It wasn’t much – nor nearly as much as I could have given – and you never want it to become more about your giving than their receiving, but I found the whole thing very emotional.
I spent my last evening sat at Assi Ghat from 4pm onwards, when the temperature cools and locals emerge and it feels like complete, total, unapologetic India; there are chai men, bel puri vendors, cows, boat touts, boats, locals, beggars, and so much colour and life.
I have absolutely loved Varanasi and feel sad to be leaving, and I feel emotional about leaving India itself after 3 crazy, overwhelming and wonderful months, but I also feel ready to explore another country. Nepal, here we come…