Before arriving, we were told by two different people that this is the ‘city of death’ and the ‘cradle of all life in India’. Both are true and go a little way to explaining the madness of the place. The city is famed for being one of the most ‘spiritual’ in India. We quickly realised that this far from the Zen garden spiritual of Kyoto temples. There are many memories we won’t forget, though some we wish we could.
Stepping off the train we stepped into a plague of locusts. Ok, they were crickets. But still, a thick carpet of crickets all the way from train to taxi. Sorry flip flops, back in the bag; walking boots were essential from this point on.
Varanasi sits on one side of the Ganges (or ‘Ganga’), the main artery through the pulsating heart of the city, which supports the lives of around 10% of the world’s population living in it’s river basin. The city is visceral. Unapologetic. Though not at all exhibitionist – people gather at the ghats (cascading steps down to the water’s edge) for all forms of rituals without paying any attention to the gawping tourists.
The best times to see the rituals unfold are at dawn and dusk. We took a sunrise boat trip, which was a great way to see all of the ghats. From the boat, within just a 100m stretch, we passed funeral ceremonies, a dead body caught against a mooring rope (children, priests, and pregnant women are among those who can’t be cremated), sewage pipes, as well as people bathing, cleaning their teeth, and washing their clothes. Meannwhile, holy men sit under umbrellas by the bank to advise pilgrims in their worship. Would you believe it if we said it was actually one of the more peaceful parts of our time here?
Until we stepped off the boat and into the middle of a rabid dog fight. Brilliant.
The holy river plays a role from the start of life to the very end: we saw a couple bathing at the step-well in holy Ganges water to improve chances of conceiving, and the body of a 100 year old woman being cremated on the muddy banks of the river. Many people come here to die, as death here offers ‘moksha’, which breaks the cycle of reincarnation. Cremation ghats are open round the clock, with multiple pyres on the go at any point.
Death is considered a part of life. The cremations are not at all private; they happen in the midst of daily life which carries on regardless. We sat for an hour or so at one cremation ghat watching one family’s lively negotiations over the price of the wood to burn their relative’s body (waiting, covered in its ceremonial wraps, at their feet), children running around the funeral pyres, splashing amongst the ashes scattered in the river, and a dog scampering away from one pyre with a smouldering piece of ‘meat’ in its mouth.
With the overpowering smells of litter, cow and dog poo (not to mention burning human flesh), it would have been easy for the swarms of flies, filthy lanes and powerful pong to be our lasting impression, but the city also has a side that’s full of life and colour. Get yourself lost in the old town, and between the ghats you can stumble across exuberant bargaining in the colourful flower market, a traditional Indian outdoor gym and wrestling ring (complete with Hanuman shrine), as well as centuries-old arts and crafts.
We sat down with an Odishan artist who showed us his intricate palm leaf etchings, some of which had taken over half a year to complete. Around the corner was the less tranquil experience of seeing paneer being made from scratch. It was only a quick look; we were warned to walk past quickly without making direct eye contact as the head cheesemaker was known locally to be insane and prone to pounce on snap-happy tourists (ahem, Rebecca).
Back at the river we watched the nightly puja (worship) ceremony, Ganga Aarti. After sunset, crowds of people line the banks of the river and crowd onto moored boats to watch seven priests perform the vibrant ceremony with incense and fire.
Varanasi was the perfect place to experience our first Indian homestay. Whilst there are many good guesthouses and backpacker options down by the Ghats (we got our rooftop panorama fix at the Dolphin Restaurant), there are also practical reasons for not staying in the narrow laneways. Given taxis and auto rickshaws aren’t allowed in the old town, navigating the stray-dog-strewn alleyways, squeezing between cows and mopeds with suitcase or backpack in tow, didn’t look much fun. Most of all though, staying with a local family meant we had local advice on hand, and came back to delicious home cooking with someone to help us understand the many things we’d seen during the day. It was an escape from the madness, without feeling at all removed from real life in Varanasi.
Despite the onslaught to the senses, Varanasi is a place unlike any other and we’re really glad we had the chance to visit. Though once is probably enough.