Tuesday 1st November 2016
Accommodation-Duration: Zostel-2 days
I do not know where to start….Varanasi has blown my mind. It is oddly the most challenging place I have ever visited but my favourite by far. Having now experienced one of the holiest places on earth, I feel like everything previous hasn’t been a true representation of India. It is the most blindingly chaotic, overly polluted, unapologetic, indiscreet, but spiritual places I have ever encountered. It is India on steroids; there is a stench like you wouldn’t believe and poverty like no other. Roaming the streets is like a game of dodgeball; cows, beggars, vegetable carts and careering tuk tuks. Varanasi is definitely not for the faint hearted; previously named Benaras, it is the world’s oldest inhabited city and also considered one of the holiest. Pilgrims from all over India are brought here to be cremated on the river Ganges, which is said to release them from the cycle of rebirth, also known as Moksha. I was told that up to 2,000 open air cremations take place on the Ghats of the river Ganges every single day. Get your head around that, or even better go and see it for yourself.
Having arrived in the evening after a very long day of driving, we were eager to find something to satisfy our hunger. Baati Chokha is a dish local to the region which I had never tried before, so we decided to visit the highly recommended Baati Chokha restaurant just outside of the town centre. The dish is served in small bowls on a huge leaf lined plate. Baati are brown flour dumplings stuffed with paneer, vegetables and spices. They were absolutely gorgeous! This is then served with rice, dahl (lentils) and the vegetable chokhi dish, which to be honest I wasn’t as keen on. All of this plus a pudding for only 160 rupees (£1.50). Deciding to retire for the night, our tuk tuk drive home gave us a taste of the craziness of Varanasi, but also sparked my first feeling of slight fear. At night this place felt a little dangerous, with an aggressive driver following us demanding more money, and a man choking in his own vomit on the roadside while everyone sauntered past. However, I realised the overwhelming nature of this place is something that makes it so incredibly magical and was undoubtedly something I was willing to persevere with. After all, Varanasi will undoubtedly live long and strong in my memoies of India.
Varanasi which is situated on the river Ganges, is made up of over 80 Ghats, which are steps down to the waters edge, allowing people to bathe. The river Ganges is just as you imagine, if not even more far-fetched; not only did people bathe naked in the sacred water to wash away their sins, but they also washed their clothes, brushed their teeth, disposed of their rubbish, bathed their water buffalo, urinated, and worst of all swept away the ashes of the thousands of people cremated every day. Despite wanting to say I have bathed in the sacred river Ganges, I decided my big toe (free of wounds) would suffice. Having meandered through the narrow and hectic ‘galis’ of the town, when we finally made it to the river front I could not believe how extremely different it became. There was an empowering sense of spirituality on the river banks, with the most captivating characters I have ever seen. The holy men wandering the ghats are like something you imagine in a story book. Wrapped in beautiful orange loin cloths, their faces are painted and draped in beautiful prayer beads. I have never seen anything like it, a feast for the eyes. Walking down onto the ghats for the first time, I was very wary of being hounded by these holy men who emotionally blackmail you into paying them large sums of money to give you “good karma”. Everything gives you “good karma” here, however money seemed to be top of that list, to us tourists at least. Fortunately we ended up being blessed by a genuine guru, who kindly took us step by step and chant by chant through the Hindu blessing. We were given a saffron dot on our forehead and asked to throw a marigold flower into the waters, after chanting with the guru.
Amongst the 80 ghats of Varanasi, are 3 burning ghats where the open cremations occur. I have never experienced anything so intense in my life, to say I felt sombre would be an understatement. Approaching the main burning ghat called Manikarnika, you could see the smoke burning high above the buildings, and I felt slightly strange breathing in the fumes of a city of cremations. You don’t expect to see the bare bodies burning on the wooden pyre’s, but you do. All over Varanasi, the exquisitely wrapped bodies are carried on bamboo stretchers through the small winding streets until they meet the ghat. The first time you see this it is definitely a shock. They are first doused in the water of the ganges, then set upon their wooden pyre. There are numerous levels of pyre, with the elitist location right at the waters edge. The families wealth and caste determines the level they are on, but also how much wood they can afford to use. Next to the huge wood stacks, there are large scales to weigh and value the cost of the most holiest cremation. Expensive and potent sandalwood powder is sometimes used by the very wealthy. On the other end of the spectrum, some families take burnt wood from old pyre’s to make up their own, such a saddening thought. It is said that every Hindu aspires to be cremated in this place in one of their lives. The six types of people that cannot be cremated, including pregnant women and under 10’s, are sunk in the river alternatively. Once the loved one is set up on their pyre, the family circle, setting it alight in 5 different spots and wait for the three hour cremation to commence. Strangely, I noticed there was not a single Indian woman in sight, I then found out that they are not allowed to attend because they are “weak of heart and will cry”, counteracting the purpose of the ceremony. One man also explained that the women try to throw themselves on the burning pyre of their husband like the old ritual of Sati, which is fortunately now illegal. In the days when Sati occurred, if the women did not volunteer themselves to the flames, they would be pushed. Once the cremation is over, a man’s chest bone and a woman’s hip bone are taken from the ashes and cast into the river. Horrifically, later that day I saw a dog chewing on one of those said bones. We also found out that the huge pile of ashes at the waters edge, is searched by scavengers for jewellery every day. People travel from all over India to cremate their loved ones, or as an alternative the dying live their last days in the elitist hospice of Varanasi.
The most baffling thing of all is that amongst this intense ceremony, everyone goes about their daily business as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. To them there is nothing shocking about it; there is a young boy jet washing all of the ceremonial debris into the ganges, while groups of young guys saunter past as if walking through the town streets. They have a real acceptance of life and death. Ironically, we ended up being emotionally blackmailed (well, nearly) by a man claiming to be a member of the most prestigious and highly regarded families that keep the holy flame burning. These families have passed down this honour for 4,500 years, keeping the same holy flame alight. They are said to be untouchable. Having sussed out that this man was definitely not part of one of these families, and grilling him with questions, he proceeded to attempt to emotionally blackmail us out of thousands of rupees. When we refused, he changed from a spiritual man, to a man aggressively shooing us away and shouting “bad karma” at us. You live and learn!
To lighten our mood, we came across a heard of water buffalo all bathing further down the river. They are strangely the sweetest animals, and we found so much pleasure in seeing them love the cool water so much. Being an animal they can farm for meat, leather and dairy produce, they are incredibly well kept, unlike the cows of the streets which are supposed to be “sacred”. We then located the famous ‘Blue Lassi’ shop, hidden down the small galis. I had the most scrumptious lassi yet; pomegranate and apple. Even while sat drinking my lassi, a dead body is paraded past. You cannot escape it. When we returned to the hostel, much to our surprise and excitement there were so many things going on for Diwali. I had deliberately planned my trip so I would end up spending the largest and holiest Hindu festival in the holiest of places. We spent the afternoon drinking chai, decorating ourselves in mendhi and mastering the art of died powder floor art! As I gazed out of the back window of my room, I could see hundreds of kites pacing the sky from the rooftops. It strangely gave me an overwhelming feeling, reminding me of the amazing book ‘The Kite Runner’ set in Kabul. It’s moments like these that I remember how so incredibly lucky I am to be experiencing this magical country. I feel like I may have left part of me in Varanasi.
That evening we decided to spend the Diwali celebrations in the best location possible, on the river Ganges itself. In Varanasi there must be hundreds of small wooden boats that take you on a tour of the ghats, at either sunrise or sunset. Running down the ghat steps to our boat before the sun finally set, there was an electric atmosphere beginning to emerge on the streets. It felt like christmas, everyone was so happy; children shouted ‘Happy Diwali’ to us as we rushed past. Before we were whisked off onto the river, we were blessed and given these small round candle and flower Diwali gifts to cast off into the water. You can imagine the beauty seeing hundreds of these candles floating down the river. We were actually the only non-Indians on our boat, so obviously that meant we spent about half an hour having photo-shoot’s with every single local there. The beautiful Indian ladies we met were so lovely and fascinated by us. The family on the boat next to us were kind enough to send over a small boy who was doing special blessings, after they noticed me watching them. It made my experience of Diwali even more fantastical. Every night at the main Assi ghat, there is the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony, where there are ceremonious dancers with flames, bells and swinging smoking pots. It was absolutely fascinating to watch the hundreds of people on shore, as we sat in our boat rafted up with about 20 others. Amongst us were families all celebrating Diwali together, and men clambering across the rocking boats with hot coal Chai pots. Only in India! Sitting there on the Ganges surrounded by wonderful people who had such strong faith really made me realise how powerful faith is; it keeps people going, communities tight knit and beauty of places like this, alive.
After dinner we returned to our hostel to find everyone was on the rooftop, which was in fact just the bare rooftop with no barricades. That was a moment I will never ever forget. The whole city came to life for hours and hours of fireworks and light shows. Children danced around their rooftops with sparklers, jumping the sparks of catherine-wheels, and rockets shot off at every angle. Yes it was a health and safety nightmare, but it was spectacular, and will definitely go down in one of my cherished memories of my India trip. Varanasi has trumped everywhere I have been so far, however it was polar opposite to the beauty and what I now realise was comfort of Rajasthan.