Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest cities in the world, one of the most sacred to Hindus and one of the most colourful and fascinating cities on Earth. That’s some intro. But it is also one of the noisiest places on Earth. Once out of the train station I was assailed by an army of autorickshaw drivers and soon one of them was weaving me and the rickshaw in and out of some of the most crazy traffic in the world. But then I got to my hotel – The Shri Ganesh Palace, an oasis of calm in the cacophony that is Varanasi.
However, refreshed with a cold drink I was soon out again to see what all the fuss was about and headed to the place for which Varanasi is most famous – the Ganges. Millions of Hindus come here every year believing that a wash in the holy waters will not only cleanse them of the sins of this life but all their previous lives as well. The embankment of the river is lined with over 100 ghats. These are simply stairs which you descend in order to reach the river. Although always busy, it is actually fairly quiet and peaceful and a great place for people watching. There are the bathers of course, but also kids playing cricket, holy men meditating, people washing their clothes, men fixing their boats and offering to take you across the river and and many people like me just hanging out.
Manikarnika Ghat is one of the most famous as it’s the biggest one used for cremations. For someone not used to watching bodies being burnt it is a little strange but perhaps more so because it all seems so humdrum. No wailing or gnashing of teeth but simply people, cows and dogs going about their business against a backdrop of huge piles of logs ready for the next funeral pyre of which there are many. In fact all day and night there are bodies in various states of cremation; some being prepared, some already alight and others just a few glowing embers and the remains of others being dumped into the river.
There are quite a few tourists about but when I was there everyone was quite reverential as close-up photography is forbidden and this is policed by some very dodgy characters who seem to be driven by less than holy motives. However, anyone is allowed to view the proceedings up close. Certainly an interesting place. There are many temples lining the ghats, the Ratneshwar Temple being one of the most famous as it has actually fallen partially into the river and become quite a magnet for photographers.
That evening I returned to the main ghat, Dashashwameth, to attend the Ganga Aarti or fire ceremony. Making offerings to the river has been going on for centuries but the present ceremony is apparently a fairly recent phenomenon mainly for the benefit of tourists but it certainly appears spiritual and is an impressive show.
The ceremony commences with the priests (pandits) blowing conch shells, and continues with the waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns and circling of large flaming lamps that create a bright hue against the darkened sky. The movement of the lamps, held in the pandits’ hands, is tightly synchronized to the rhythmic chants of hymns and clangs of cymbals.
The lamps are lit and circled around by the pandits in a clockwise manner, accompanied by chanting or songs in praise of Mother Ganga. The idea is that the lamps acquire the power of the deity. The heady scent of sandalwood thickly permeates the air. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess’s purification and blessing.
Away from the ghats you enter the old parts of the city which consist of a warren of tiny lanes called galis. At first they can be fairly intimidating and you are guaranteed to get lost but that is part of the fun.
Like a lot of tourists I paid for a guide to show me the highlights and it was well worth it as I would have seen some places 10 or more times and others not at all as I went round and round in circles. Although there are literally thousands of temples in Varanasi, the most famous of the lot is the Vishwanath Temple. You won’t see many photos of this place, not because they aren’t allowed, it simply is because it is right in the middle of the maelstrom of alleys and so you can’t fit it into a photo! It is also surrounded by police and soldiers as there was a terrorist bomb here a few years ago and as you can imaging in the tight alleys carnage would be very likely.
One of the stranger highlights for me was the Blue Lassi. This is just a hole in the wall yoghurt shop where an old guy mixes lassis and the customers huddle together on a couple of old wooden benches. I tried the apple and banana and after a hot day wandering the streets, it was divine!
Just round the corner was the government bhang (marajuana) shop. I decided not to get anything here – I was high enough after the lassi! Another interesting place I found was a dairy. Just off a narrow lane there were cows being milked. A bit odd in the middle of town but maybe not so much given how much milk is actually used in India – in lassis, curd, various sweets and just drunk as milk. I saw many blokes on bicycles carrying old fashioned milk churns.
I can’t wrap up a page on my site without a picture of my hotel room and some food (yet another thali) so here they are below. The next stage of my journey was also by train. This time an overnight trip south into Madyha Pradesh. When I got to the station, I was half expecting the main building to be full of people asleep on the floor but I wasn’t expecting a cow to come strolling by. He walked straight past me and onto the platform!
Some more interesting photos here and some history and background to Varanasi