We had little time in Varanasi, two nights in total and a crucial 20hr long train journey from Amritsar. If this train journey from Amritsar was delayed, and from my previous experience Indian trains are often delayed, then it could have cut down our time in Varanasi dramatically. Fortunately this train was on time, in fact it was early which was a real bonus. When we arrived we jumped in an auto rickshaw and set off for a guesthouse we’d picked from the lonely planet. A tout accompanied the driver on our journey. He seemed ok, and suggested a much cheaper guest house in a better location. From his description it had everything that we required, a rooftop restaurant, internet, and a hot shower. Like Amritsar and Delhi, Varanasi was cold and a hot shower wasn’t so much a luxury, but more a necessity. We took his advice and he led us to Mishra Guesthouse. It turned out to be a great find. The hot shower was the piece de resistance, after having cold showers for the last few days the powerful roasting hot shower we had in our room was an absolute joy. I think I had three showers on our first day.
I love Varanasi, it’s probably my favourite city in India, and one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s just so Indian, steeped in Hindu culture, and it’s so totally different to any other place I’ve ever been to. The city has a medieval feel, with narrow streets, animals walking around everywhere, with hundreds of cows, and of course the river Ganga (also known as the Gangies) on its doorstep and the rituals, bathing and the burning ghats that go along with it.
A lot of Hindus go to Varanasi to die, from what I can gather they have a firm belief that after cremation, if their ashes are scattered in the holy river Ganga they have a better chance of reaching Nirvana. There are hospices for people waiting to die, morgues close to the river and multiple burning ghats. I think at this point a bit of explanation is needed. A ghat is basically a stepped access point to the Ganga where people can go down to bathe in the holy water. And a burning ghat is where the dead are burnt on funeral pyres. Our guesthouse was right next to the main burning ghat, with as many as ten corpses being burnt at the same time. It’s a very different experience to what a western cremation ceremony is like. Only men are allowed to attend and it’s very public. It’s bizarrely not a solemn affair with not one tear shed and the occasional sound of laughter. I guess the Hindus in Varanasi are so certain of their beliefs that death isn’t the end, just another stage of the circle of life.
As you can imagine the cremations can be rather graphic. The amount of wood to burn a corpse is carefully calculated and weighed out on big scales near the main burning ghat. When the pyre gets smaller the extremities of the dead bodies are exposed and have to be brought back into the hottest part of the fire in order for them to be fully cremated. This is done by literally snapping the bones of the arms and legs and bending them back into the flames. It is a fairly gruesome sight, and if I was watching this being done to a close relative I would have nightmares for the rest of my life. But as I said before, death for a Hindu appears to be a transitional process and is not the end. Once the person is dead there seems to be no attachment to the corpse.
There was only one occasion where I could visibly see a great deal of grief. Before the cremation the dead bodies are bathed and washed in the holy waters. We witnessed a small bundle being brought down to the river wrapped in a sari. It was obviously the body of a small child being carried down to the Ganga by his father. It was a heartbreaking sight, and as soon as they took the boys shawl off and started washing his body I had to walk away.
For some special cases cremation is not allowed, and the body of the person is weighed down with stones and sunk into the river. This applies to children under the age of ten, pregnant women, Sadhus (Hindu holy men), and people who have died from snake bites, small pox, or leprosy. According to the lonely planet and Wikipedia, the Indian government have introduced snapping turtles into the river to try and combat the problem with the abundance of dead bodies. This does sound unbelievable but after doing a bit of research online appears to be true.
As you can imagine the Ganga is heavily polluted, but it doesn’t stop thousands of people from taking a dip every day. I’ve even seen people drink the water. Myself and Nev took a boat trip up and down the river for sun rise one morning. It was bitterly cold and I was more than impressed with the turnout of people willing to take a dip in the freezing water.
With its narrow streets Varanasi can really be like a maze at times. We only managed to get lost when we needed to get somewhere in a hurry, like when we were going to the train station. When we tried to get lost to become submerged in Old Varanasi it appeared to be impossible. I loved wandering around the old town, occasionally we would come face to face with a cow which blocked off the narrow street and we’d have to turn back the way we came. Motorbikes became a nuisance though and we’d often have to literally jump out of the way of the speeding vehicles.
Every night there is a religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganga called a Pooja. Last time I was in Varanasi I really enjoyed the occasions. On our first night I took Nev down to have a look. The Pooja involves three to four performers on raised platforms. They have symbolic fire lamps and incense and they kind of dance about while moving the burning lamps and scattering petals around. The performance is accompanied with music, chanting and lots of bell ringing form the nearby Hindu temples. We went back on our second night after a delicious special lassi. It was a cool experience and a good way to spend our last night in Varanasi.
We had a walking tour of the old town and Hindu temples on the morning of our last day. Our guide was an old man and had been doing the tour for over forty years. We had loads of questions to ask, and he had great answers. It was an insightful tour and very worthwhile. Afterwards we had some food and went to the train station to catch our separate trains.
As I mentioned previously, when you try to get lost in the maze of narrow streets of Varanasi you can’t, but when I needed to catch a train I got hopelessly lost. I was getting a bit stressed being lost whilst squeezing past cows, groups of school children and countless motorbikes with a heavy rucksack. We eventually found the main road, but no Auto-rickshaws. We finally tracked one down and made it to the train station 20 minute before the time my train was meant to arrive to find out my train was delayed by 4 hours.
I was departing for Bhodgaya, the city where Buddha found enlightenment, while Nev was off to Delhi to meet his girlfriend Danielle who was joining us on holiday for a couple of weeks. His train was also delayed, so we decided to go and try and find somewhere to have a beer. After a couple of bevies I went back to get my train.