India: Varanasi

I have been trying to think of a word to describe Varanasi but I don’t think any word is worthy of association. Varanasi is a place beyond description. You need to see it to believe it, you need to smell it to believe it, you need to hear it to believe it. And I still don’t think I truly believe what I saw, smelt or heard. I don’t think I have ever been, or ever will be, to a place that has left me so dumbfounded that I have struggled to describe it. And, whatever I say in this post will not do it justice.

So Varanasi. Our last stop on a whistle stop 3 weeks in India. 3 weeks that will stay with me forever ended in a place with such spirituality that I will endeavor to encourage any visitor to India to ensure it is on their itinerary.

We pulled into our guest house in the early hours of the morning after a less-than-comfortable overnight train journey in comparison to our others. We were greeted by friendly faces and beaming smiles, which have us good vibes for the days ahead.

Before heading on an exploration we sat on the rooftop of our guesthouse and ate some breakfast with our obligatory Chai Masala. For the first time in India we were in the presence of rain. This fell relatively heavily around our feet as we sheltered ourselves and our omelettes under a tarpaulin roof.

Once the rain subsided we ventured out towards the famous ghats of Varanasi eager to get our first glimpse of the famous River Ganges. We walked to the southern most ghat (Assi) and saw our first glimpse of the Ganges beyond the haze of the drizzly rain. At that very moment the Ganges could have been any river in the world. But, having been taught at school, and eventually teaching others, about the significance of it made very presence of the water in front of me a very special experience. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt about being in the presence of such a holy river when it means so little to me and so much to millions of people who may never get to see it.

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As we strolled along the Ganges we saw very few people, who appeared to be put off by the rain. Instead our company, as it usually is in India, included many cows who roamed freely, clearly oblivious to the significance of the river in front of them.
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We passed a few ghats on our walk before coming to our first burning ghat. These are places where hindu people are burnt upon piles of wood and cremated by the side of the river. The idea is that their body will enter the river and their spirit will have a direct passage to Nirvana if they are burnt there. We watched, captivated, for a very long time as dead human bodies were carried into view under silk and flowers and were then were piled upon the logs of wood before being burned. They would burn until the human remains were unrecognisable. Family members would stand around the body whilst the cremator ensured the flames stayed alight and that all parts of the body remained part of the bonfire. It was an amazing sight that neither of us imagined to see. The smell of burning, the heat from the flames and the ash that fell about us were all an experience that I never thought I would be a part of (It is forbidden for photographs to be taken at the cremations, understandably).

As the rain began to beat down hard again we ran through a nearby ghat, weaving across narrow corners and nearly missing cow shit and the cows themselves. We eventually pulled into a cafe and waited for the rain to give us safe passage again.

We then entered the evening where we had arranged to meet my colleague, Simon, who was also coincidently in Varanasi. We were to see the city in a completely different light.

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As we entered our tuk tuk to meet him the street was dimly lit and relatively quiet but it was only a minute or so and a few streets later that we were hit with a wall of noise, traffic and people. My senses were overloaded. There was colour, music, shouting, honking, singing, begging and cows everywhere. Everywhere we looked something was happening, normally strange. We couldn’t believe that such a spiritual place could be so hectic. Having Nicki with me makes me a little more aware of the dangers around but I genuinely feel as though we had no need to be worried for our safety. It was neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it was just a different thing. Fortunately, we ate in a decent restaurant in a side street.

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We had the same experience on our way back. Except a wedding reception had found its way into the streets and we were stuck behind people with colourful lamps on their head in celebration. When we eventually did get back to our street we wanted to find a beer. We came across a shop but were asked to walk up a dark alley in order to get the beer. Along the alley we were met by a young boy who checked the stairs ahead and ushered us forward as if the coast was clear. At the top of the stairs everyone fell silent until we had got our beers and left. I don’t know what happened in that minute, but it was odd.

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The next day was when we got to see Varanasi in all of it’s true glory. The sun was back, and the ganges was more majestic than the previous day. We once again walked towards the ghats that met with the water and were now greeted with what makes Varanasi a truly holy place to Hindu people. There were Babas sitting at the side in meditation (and some just reading the paper), there were people bathing in the water, there were boys playing cricket, there were people drinking Chai, there were people washing their clothes, and their were others burning their loved ones on bonfires. Varanasi is an incredible place, and one that everyone should see in their lifetime.

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Later in the day we boarded a local boat containing lots of Hindus on a pilgrimage. We felt like hijackers once again as it was clear that floating on the ganges meant far more to these people than it ever would do to us. The captain of our boat decided to enthusiastically drink the water as we passed the burning ghat. The Ganges may be a spiritual water but it is so heavily polluted that I wouldn’t dare put it near my mouth. Not only does all waste end up there, but up to 100,000 bodies are cremated (or particularly cremated) before being thrown into the river each year. This is not something I want to be drinking. Still, he then got his hands wet and sprayed it on everyone, like he was egging us all on for a water fight.

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As the sun went down we stopped beside one of the main ghats where a congregation of boats surrounded us. Here there was an incredible performance of sound and lights at the side of the river. Men walked around selling chai as we watched in awe at the thousands of people who had gathered their for the happiest moments of their lives. It was amazing to be a part of it.

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Satisfied with out spiritual experiences on the Ganges we explored more of the city by tuk tuk the next day. We visited many temples, including one large one to Shiva and another temple with monkeys (I have seen so many monkeys recently) before seeing a scale model of India on the basement of one temple. We did get a little frustrated with people asking for money in the temples. One man even put a necklace on me before asking for 100 rupees for Shiva. I didn’t give him the money.

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Our time in Varanasi only came to a close once we had bought some spices and visited a silk factory (where we once again didn’t give in to buying anything).

As I said, I cannot express in words what Varanasi is like. And I hope that is enough to say that we had the most memorable time there.

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The train journey back to Kolkata before out train journey signalled the end of our journey. Fittingly there were vast piles of rubbish beside the railway tracks and countless slums leading out of the city to remind us that India has a long way to go. Yet, there was also one more sunset in the distance to remind us of its beauty and tranquility.
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It has been an amazing time. I have lived in Nicki’s back pocked for over 3 weeks and she has never once complained about my habits. She has been the perfect travel companion and India has been the perfect travel destination. It’s now time to return to work, but I feel like we are more than ready for the next trip already.

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