The Lonely Planet Guide Book says Varanasi takes no prisoners, and boy is it true. We arrived at the modern but small Varanasi airport late in the afternoon. I nervously waited at the bag carousel but luckily our luggage made it. We were greeted by our travel representative and stepped out into the hot, muggy Varanasi air. The scenery started off quite rural with buffaloes grazing in fields but quickly changed to busy, congested city. After the relatively peace and quiet of the small towns of Orchha and Khajuraho, we were back into the chaos and cacophony of a big city.
Our driver stopped along a busy street. We would have to make the rest of the journey to our hotel on foot. It’s situated right on the banks of the Ganga through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that make up the old city. Our hotel sent two very nice young guys who helped us with our bags and guided us through a myriad of obstacles dodging cow patties, dodgy stagnant water and litter. We stayed in Chowki Ghat and you had to walk through a food stall to get to Kedareswar Guesthouse’s entrance. We were led up a very narrow and incredibly steep stairway to the top of the building where our room was. We immediately switched the air-conditioner on but it seemed to struggle a bit in the humidity. Outside our room huge terrace provided us with beautiful views over the river and ghats.
At dinner time we strolled down to the ghats and had dinner at a nearby restaurant. The area close to the river is considered an alcohol free zone but we were more than happy with our ice cold Pepsi’s. We listened to the evening Aarti nearby while watching people place little floating candles in the river from the banks and boats. After dinner we headed back to the mosquito free and cool interiors of our room. I then converted our large en-suite bathroom to a laundry but the humidity wasn’t really helping anything dry.
We woke up really early and met our guide who was taking us on a sunrise boat ride on the Ganga. The river was a hive of activity with flower sellers, pilgrims and priests getting ready for morning puja.
We made our way through the crowds to one of the many boats and hopped into the rickety boat. I tried to ignore the slushing sound of water in the bottom of the boat (underneath the foot rest). The boatman then slowly started rowing us downstream. Pilgrims and families taking a morning dip in the Ganga and priests performing the morning Aarti slowly drifted by.
Along the way we passed beautiful buildings and old palaces. Our guide told us that Varanasi was originally called Kashi in the Rigveda. It was then renamed Banaras by the Mughals and then renamed Varanasi by the ‘Britishers’ (still love that word!) Our guide seemed to think the name Varanasi comes from two rivers that flow into the Ganga in Varanasi, the Varuna and Assi Rivers.
It was already incredibly humid as the sun started to peak out through the clouds. A few people were out swimming and squirting water from their mouths. Others were drinking it. The Ganga is one of the most sacred rivers in India and is the embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. Her decent to Earth from Heaven is cushioned by the God Shiva, whose matted hair breaks her fall. Varanasi is also a sacred city for Shiva and all along the winding alleyways you’ll find Shiva lingams. The Ganga is believed to pure and has purifying powers. Bathing in the Ganga’s waters will wipe away the sins of a lifetime. It is also considered a vehicle of ascent from Earth to Heaven and it’s believed that those who die in Varanasi are cremated here and immersed in the river obtain moksha or salvation.
Unfortunately the river is also incredibly polluted. The city of Varanasi pumps 200 million litres of raw, untreated sewage into the river each day. For water to be safe for bathing there should be 500 faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Before the ghats in Varanasi the level is 120 times that and after the city it’s 60,000 to 1.5 million per 100ml.
As we got closer to Harish Chandra Ghat, the oldest cremation ghat in Varanasi, I noticed something white drifting in the water. I suddenly realised it was a body! Not sure if Hubby saw it, I didn’t want to point it out as I felt that might be a bit disrespectful. Hubby later told me he also noticed the body but didn’t want to say anything in case I didn’t see it.
At Harish Chandra people were attending to the cremation fires. A man was standing on one of the boats with a small, white wrapped bundle in his hands. He tied it to a big rock and threw it in the river. Our guide told us that the bundle would have been the body of a baby. There are certain instances when a person can’t be cremated. These include if you’re a child under the age of 8 years, a pregnant woman, if you were bitten by a Cobra or if you had leprosy. People who are too poor to afford cremation also sometimes place bodies in the river.
We turned around and made our way back up the river to Manikarnika Ghat, which is the main cremation ghat. Piles of different types of wood are stacked up in the alleyways near the ghat.
I made my way out of the boat back onto firm land and began exploring the labyrinths that make up the old city. Varanasi is also known as the city of temples and I can see why. There are shrines and temples dotted all over the place. We decided not to visit the Vishwanath temple. It’s a site that is somewhat controversial as a mosque used to be on the site. Hindus argue a temple used to stand there before the mosque. Security around the temple is incredible with armed Indian Army guards everywhere. Foreigners aren’t allowed inside the temple and we had to leave our cameras with one of the shopkeepers outside the complex if we wanted to see the outside. I felt it wasn’t worth the risk and effort as there’s so much else to see in Varanasi.
The presence of the army and the early morning foot traffic (cars can’t fit in the narrow lanes, but unfortunately motorbikes can) seemed to spook a rather large buffalo. Hubby was walking in front of me and all of a sudden stepped back (onto my exposed toes!) and the buffalo came charging past. One of its horns managed to bruise my shoulder. Who needs the running of the bulls in Pamplona when you can experience that and so much more in Varanasi?
After a very yummy breakfast on the terrace and some delicious chai at our hotel, we decided to head out to Sarnath where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. Our guide originally wanted to take us to the University first with Sarnath later in the afternoon, but it was so hot and humid already I didn’t like the idea of walking around in the sun in the heat of the day.
We arrived at Sarnath and visited the Buddhist temple. It’s a relatively new temple as most of the original monastery was raised to the ground by the mughals. The temple has beautifully painted murals depicting the life of the Buddha. After visiting the temple we headed for the monastery ruins. Unfortunately all the buildings have been raised to the ground but from the foundations it gives you an idea of how big the Buddhist community must have been back then.
We visited the archaeological museum which houses some spectacular finds including beautifully carved Buddha statues, Hindu statues, amazing stonework and implements from ancient history which people would have used. It was also wonderful to be out of the hot sun.
We then made our way back to Varanasi where we stopped at some weavers. Varanasi is very popular for many reasons, but one of them is for the beautiful Banarasi silk sarees. Many women dream of owning one, especially for their wedding day. They are beautifully decorated with zari (metal thread which were originally gold). Many of the old sarees no longer exist as they were burnt to retrieve the gold.
Besides weaving sarees, they also do scarves and wall hangings. These days they don’t weave the intricate sarees anymore which is quite sad. There are only a few weavers left who can weave these and the younger generation aren’t interested to learn the skill. You can still buy silk sarees but they’re no longer done in the old styles. They’re done with more simple designs and on more modern machines. The intricate patterns are weaved on an old wooden frame and looks incredibly complicated.
After lunch I was exhausted. It has been a long, hot muggy day, so we headed back through the labyrinth to our air-conditioned room. The air-conditioner was seriously struggling in the heat but I only needed to step into the bathroom to realise just how hot and muggy it was without it!
Our guide was meeting us later that night to take us to the evening Ganga Aarti. Hubby had a nice nap and I wrote down a few observations in my travel diary when we got interrupted by what sounded like one huge party. I thought it was probably some western kids having a big party in one of the hostels a few buildings down. Hubby decided to get up and investigate and quickly called me to come have a look.
It wasn’t a party but a wedding procession, Varanasi style. The bride and her family were cruising down the river in one of the big boats while a smaller one next to it had some serious speakers and a generator to run the sound system.
Things didn’t cool down as we made our way to the evening Ganga Aarti held at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Our guide suggested sitting with the other foreigners on one of the nearby hotel terraces but even though their entry fee was incredibly cheap, we decided to sit with the locals. I wanted to really experience the Aarti and be part of it, not just be an observer.
We arrived early and squeezed into a spot quite close to the front. I sat next to two very lovely aunties who complimented me on wearing my salwar kameez. Behind us sat a group of women with recently shaved heads. They shaved their heads as they were on pilgrimage in Varanasi. They still looked beautiful with their glistening gold nose studs, colourful sarees and bangles.
The Aarti starts with some devotional songs played over loud speakers and everyone singing and clapping along. Next the priests perform the Aarti involving several movements and then repeating them with different items (e.g. incense, fire and smoke). I found myself strangely moved by the mass of people who each night comes to participate in this ritual and it was one of my highlights.
As we walked towards the restaurant (we haven’t had supper yet and by this time my stomach was growling) our guide explained to us the meaning behind each of the movements. He then went to collect some Ganga water to pour over his head when a woman stepping out of one of the boats slipped and fell into the river, handbag and all. I don’t know if she was more upset about having fallen into the river or having gotten her handbag soaked.
We got back to our room only to find out that some people in a building next to us were celebrating a harvest festival. Funnily enough I recognised a few of the Bollywood songs. It wasn’t long though until we had a power failure (they’re regular, it’s strange when you don’t have one). Sad for us because that meant we only had a fan powered by the generator and no air-conditioning. The party was halted for all of 5 minutes and then the generator kicked in.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I’ve been to a seriously big party. I hoped it was just fatigue and rolled over to get more sleep.
We had a nice breakfast on the terrace with chai and lemon sugar pancakes overlooking the Ganga. We were saying goodbye to Ma Ganga and the pilgrims and heading up north to Amritsar and the Pakistani border.
By the time we reached the airport and settled down to wait for our flight I realised something was wrong. I was not feeling my bright eyed and bushy-tailed self. My happy tummy was replaced by a gnawing monster eating away at my insides. I did manage to buy myself a book on the more popular Hindu myths at the bookshop before we boarded the plane.