“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.” – Lonely Planet
After a short flight from New Delhi we arrived in Varanasi. It was dark when we landed but you could sense the heavy layer of smoke hanging over the city. The airport is not that far out of town, but the traffic was horrendous so it took us nearly one and a half hours to get to the centre of town.
We’d organized a driver who was in communication with our guesthouse. We were dropped off at the edge of one of the through routes, and we were very grateful to see our host emerge from between the alleyway amidst a few cows. A very brisk walk took us through the winding back alleys to Marigold Guest House.
After booking in and taking a quick trip to the rooftop terrace for our first view of the Ganges, we realized we were starving! We headed off to find something to eat. We found a tiny little place that looked clean and one could see the food being freshly prepared. No English though, so you have to write your order on a serviette!
Not only is Varanasi an ancient city dating back to the 11th century BC, it is also the spiritual capital of India. In the words of Mark Twain: “It’s older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Varanasi definitely has an energy like no other place we’ve been to. We’ve never been this close to death before. It’s around every corner, all day long, but you never feel sad or subdued. There is so much happening, that it’s actually hard to take it all in. It kind of leaves imprints on your memory and every now and again you are reminded of something you saw or experienced.
After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go out and explore. The river bank and main ghats were literally a 2 minute walk from Marigold Guest House. The Ganges is the most sacred of rivers to those who follow the Hindu faith. It is also a lifeline to the millions who live along it. It is believed that a single dip in the holy waters of the Ganges can wash away a lifetime of sins.
There is so much activity along the water’s edge. Countless pilgrims taking a holy dip in the waters, others, meditating in solitude. Almost at every Ghat there are rituals and ceremonies being performed. It’s also a cleansing spot, so many can be seen lathering away or doing washing – even people bathing their animals! It was absolutely fascinating just wandering along and taking it all in.
The stone steps (ghats) lining the Ganges , descending from the city, down the riverbank emphasize the city’s focus on the sacred river. There are nearly 100 individual ghats in total lining the river’s edge. These steps make access to the river possible. They stretch for around 7km in total. It was great walking the full length and taking in all of the sights, sounds (and smells!)
Each Ghat has its own meaning and use. Some are reserved solely for doing laundry, others for bathing, some for worshiping, and two cremation or “burning ghats.”
We came across a few interesting characters on our wanderings. Varanasi is home to many of India’s sadhus, or holy men. They are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods and sometimes worshiped as gods themselves. They follow a rigorous spiritual practice with a strict prayer regime and self-imposed physic al hardships. They aspire to be free of all human attachment and common luxuries.
We took an early evening boat ride.
We got to ponder for a while at the burning Ghat. It’s every Hindu’s wish to be cleansed with the holy waters, cremated using the eternal fire (rumour has it that it’s been burning for thousands of years already), and then have their ashes tossed into the sacred waters of the Ganges. This allows the soul to proceed directly to heaven, without having to deal with karma and reincarnations.
Up to 200 bodies are burned daily in cremation ceremonies.
The next day we were able to sit beside the burning ghat and watch happenings. The heat from the fires was intense. We did not speak, merely observed. Strangely enough it was beautiful and not sad. Images that will be imprinted in my mind forever. For obvious reasons, photography is not allowed. I had been worried about smells, but oddly, and much to our relief the only smell is that of burning wood.
The process is both humbling and fascinating.
Before cremation, the body is wrapped and washed. It is adorned with jewelry and sacred objects and wrapped in a plain sheet. A red cloth is used for holy people. Married women are buried in their wedding dress and an orange shroud. Men and widows have a white shroud. After the body has been prepared it is carried by male relatives on a flower-draped bamboo stretcher to the cremation ghats. It’s not uncommon to be walking down and alleyway and have to side step a procession as a body brushes by you.
A typical pyre is made of 300 kilograms or so of wood. Mantras are recited to purify the cremation grounds and scare away ghosts. Offerings are made to Agni, the fire god, at an altar. The body is doused in ghee and a family member, usually a son, lights a torch with a fire from a black earthen pot and walks around the pyre seven times. Afterwards the pot is smashed, symbolizing the break with earth. A brief ceremony is then lead by a priest.
It takes about three or four hours for a body to burn. The fire is left to burn itself out after which the ashes are thrown in the Ganges.
It certainly was a humbling experience being brought face to face with death. Before getting into our wooden rowing boat we each bought a floating votive oil candle or diya. We weren’t quite sure what an appropriate time would be to set it off. On the return journey we lit our diyas and let them go. A strangely emotional experience after what we had just witnessed. We watched them twinkling until they were out of site.
The most magical event in Varanasi occurs each evening, when groups of priests line the Ganges to perform their nightly Aarti ceremony.
It’s an intense experience with the drumming, chanting, singing, fire and strong incense as well as the huge crowds of people who have traveled from all over to witness the holy ceremony.
We were up really early the next morning. We met our host in the foyer and he walked us down to the Ganges for our morning sunrise boat trip. Back home we start the day with a good cup of coffee, but in India, all good days start with marsala chai in a little earthenware cup. Totally delish!
We got aboard our wooden rowing boat. The sky was only just starting to turn pink. There was a certain kind of calm not easily put into words. The only sounds that of the wooden oar striking the water and that of ceremonial bells tinkling on the shore. It was one of those moments you wish time could just stand still.
We disembarked close to the beautiful Tibetan Temple with its inricate wood carvings.
It was time for breakfast! Started off with some more chai and the famous Varanasi lassi. While many modern lassis are now whizzed up in a blender, a few of the places in Varansi still crushe and macerate the fruit by hand with a big wooden stick in a steel bowl. They then add home made yoghurt, a little sugar and finally, the creme de la creme – literally the heavenly ‘malai’ cream which forms as a thick layer on the top of the yoghurt and topped by bits of chopped goodies. It was SERIOUSLY good!
In the back streets heading away from the river, the alleys are a hive of activity. From intricate temples and shrines, to markets and street food. People lovingly tending to their ‘holy cows’ and others just going about their daily activities.
Varanasi was honestly one of the highlights of our trip and should definitely be included in anyone’s itinerary traveling to India!