Walking among the ghats at sunrise in a city as old as time is a magnificent feeling. The heat, the smell, the sights. All your senses work on overdrive when you are in the ancient city of Varanasi.
VARANASI DAY 1
We arrived by a sleeper train at 11am in Varanasi. After hiring a tuk tuk and taking what should have been a 20 min. ride, we finally found our guesthouse an hour later. It was impressive how many times our tuk tuk driver asked random strangers for directions, yet when we asked if he knew where he was going "yeah, yeah, sure" was his answer. Finally he admitted his defeat and said he was still learning. We eventually arrived.
We settled into our home for the night, laid down our bags, and began our walk around Varanasi. We weaved in and out of the thin slices of alleyways to find our way around. Looking up every once in a while to see where we might be and if there was a way out of the long tunnel of mazes we had gotten ourselves into. Bobbing and dodging the random motorcycle, people, carts full of stuff, buffalo, and enormous piles of poop that lay just in the right spots. The uncountable and nearly unbearable number of flies that flew to any tiny bit of moisture they could find would swarm when you stepped near.
Our mission was to get to Kerala Cafe for lunch (recommended by our guesthouse owner). We were going to be eating some South Indian food for lunch. I was the most excited about this I think, I have so many memories of different food items from when I went to university in Tamil Nadu. South Indian food is not the typical type of dish that you find in America like tikka masala and tandoori chicken. It consists of dosa and idilly, sambar and coconut chuttany. Utapam and chenna bhatura. Ohh I couldn't wait to have those foods once again. We just had to find the place, which proved much more difficult than we had hoped.
After lunch we wandered about one more time in search for the ghats. We instead found ourselves in another maze of markets that was nearly impossible to get out and flooded with Hindus dressed in orange bringing water from the Ganges to the temple for the God Shiva.
After making it to the water we ventured down to the Ganges to get a better look at all the people and the boats. We were bombarded with people asking if we wanted a boat ride on the Ganges. We decided to wait for Kelly (back at the hotel taking a nap) before doing the boat ride. Luckily and unluckily we avoided any more boat people by getting stuck under an awning in the monsoon storm. If you have never experienced a Monsoon storm it is quite an amazing thing, it is buckets of rain that fall from the sky and will absolutely soak everything in its way. We knew it was coming because of how fast people reacted to the drizzle that came only moments before the pour. It only lasted about 20 min but it felt long standing there squashed against so many bodies and nearly stepping on the handicapped man that I did not see and who could not stand but was behind me. A remarkable feeling of being just another person, not a tourist but a human trapped in the rain like all others. The rain finally ceased and we went to dry off and get Kelly.
The night ended with a walk to what is called the burning ghat. Never in my life did I think that I would witness what I saw today. As we approached the burning ghat, smoke filled the air and there was a quiet stillness to this little part of Varanasi. We earlier in the day watched as they paraded a bamboo ladder with elaborate layers of silk and fabric through the street with a body wrapped tightly beneath. They were chanting as they rushed down the busy and almost impassable streets. But people quickly and respectfully moved to the side to let them immediately pass as the bells jingled from the structures that held the body. Now that body, or one similar, was being unwrapped layer by beautiful layer until it was only a white cloth that cloaked the corpse. They built up the piles of wood and carefully the unwrapped body was laid upon the bed of sticks. Covering the body with more blankets of wood we watched as the fire began to burn and a few new silk wrapped bodies came to be prepared. Within the time we were there (about 30 min.) we saw at least 8 bodies being burned or preparing to have a ceremonial burning. The burnings go on throughout the night and into the day, they never stop.
Later that night we took a boat ride along the Ganges and watched from the boat more of the burning ghat. This time 12 bodies were there. We watched silently and respectfully as the male family members gathered near the fire, women were not allowed. It is the lower caste whose job it is to prepare and clean the ceremonial burning sites but the family needs to stay for 3 hours until the cremation is completed. After it is finished they simply clean off the site and sweep the ashes into the Ganges and prepare for the next. People who are about to die will come to Varanasi to spend their last few days with their families here just so they can be burned at the burning ghat. It is incredible to see these things first hand. Not read them in a book or hear them from a story. It is something that has a feeling to it that cannot be copied or replicated. It is a punch in the gut type of feeling that leaves you saying "holy shit is this really happening!"
THE MONSOON RAIN
EVENING BOAT RIDE
VARANASI DAY 2
Before the morning sun had come we were off again to visit the river. We had heard the sunrise over the Ganges was something not to miss. We left our guest house at 4:30 and ventured to find a boat to take us on the river. We hopped on the boat and took off as we watched life of everyday Varanasi. Masses of people, men women and children bathed in the river, babies were getting their first haircut near the river, buffalo were playing in the river. We watched as crowds of orange and white dressed Hindus came with great excitement chanting and collecting the water from the Ganges to bring to the Golden Temple. We went past the burning ghats and they were still bringing in more bodies to be burned. The sun rose over the river and from the boat it seemed so peaceful from a distance.
After an amazing lunch we said goodbye to Anne, Justin, and Kelly as they headed back to Delhi. Darja and I wanted to stay one more day in Varanasi. We arrived at the evening ceremony an hour early so that we could get a spot so we could see everything clearly. Last night we tried to watch the ceremony from the boat but it was hard to see with as many people as there was and how late we arrived. It was equivalent to watching the 4th of July fireworks if only one city in each state had fireworks and everyone wanted to see them. Except this happens every night as they play with fire and chant all together to pray to Shiva and the Ganges. Every night there are thousands of Indian people from Varanasi or around that come to the river and enjoy the ceremony. The ceremony is called Ganga Aarti, it is preformed every night at one of three cities in India. It is the offering to the Goddess Ganga, the Goddess of the most holy river in India. It takes places on the rivers edge as lamps are lit and circled around by the pandits (Hindu priests).
As we sat waiting for the ceremony to begin we attracted a lot of attention. As a white person sitting among a sea of Indian faces it is impossible not to stick out. Especially when the mass majority of the white people pay to sit close all with each other and have a spot on the close boats. We opted for the more local route. We positioned ourselves among a group of locals from a village nearby. They all seemed to know each other and many of the women had their heads shaven as this is a belief that women pilgrims should have a shaven head when entering the holy city.
As we sat we were asked time and time again to take selfies with the locals, "one photo" here and "just one photo" there. It is something that you tend to get so frustrated by in the beginning but once you realize you are doing the same thing to other people you began to change your perspective. We took an uncountable number of selfies with both their cameras and ours. But as soon as the festivities and singing began they were very much entranced with the ceremony. It began with the elaborately dressed priests taking water from the Ganges and then blowing into a shell for a very long time. As this was happening the chants began, the cell phones were out with people live chatting family and friends, and the people sat. They then had a series of props and other important items including fire and flowers that were used throughout the hour long ceremony. It was amazing to watch as the storm and lightning surrounded the ceremony. We were ready at any moment for the skies to open up and dump. Thank goodness they didn't because with thousands of people around there would be nowhere to go and I was honestly afraid we would be trampled.
We left the ceremony (our legs very numb from sitting on the cement cross legged for 2.5 hours) and made our way back to our guest house to sleep. Morning on the Ganges would come early again tomorrow for another sunrise water.
PEOPLE AROUND VARANASI
VARANASI DAY 3
Waking up early is easy when you know that there is something to it. When you wake up and you see the world unfold in front of you like you have never seen before. We woke at 5am this morning to watch again as people crowded the Ganges, bathed, and strolled along the Ghats. We meet some locals, took some photos, and embedded Varanasi into our minds as deeply as we could. We were ready for another day of this amazing city. Its funny how a day can make a place change the way you feel. The first day was rough because of the new area, the filth of the streets, and the heat of the city. The second day was so much better as we got used to the selfies, the heat, the people asking for boat rides. And the whole third day was a blessing. It was like Varanasi changed and became our friend. People remembered us and we had more smiles and so much more conversations with locals. In the evening it was so nice to sit back on the bank of the Meer Ghat and just chat with a local for an hour about his life in Varanasi. He introduced us to a Saddhu ( a person that has renounced the worldly life and is seen as very holy) and shared secrets of his home. It was great.
After an hour stroll along the Ghats in the morning we decided to do some yoga. We went to a yoga meditation center and joined a 2 hour class with a few other people studying yoga at the center. It was a wonderful yoga session that included face stretches and other relaxation techniques that I have never done before. One of these asanas included breathing in deeply while chanting "ha ha ha ha ha ha ha" with our hands in the air above our heads and then explode with laughter on the exhale. We did this over and over again and it would have been impossible not to laugh as we continued to watch our happy and rather large yoga teacher explode with a laughter that shook Varanasi. His laugh was so impressive, it was a true and sincere laughter like he absolutely loved his life and bringing yoga to others.
After a nap and a good book reading session we wandered out a bit more to find what was considered the best lassi in Varanasi. We had gone to the Blue Lassi the day before and it was so delicious we decided to venture back for seconds. The guy at the shop even remembered us and asked where our three friends were. When you think about some of the "best" places of a city, the places that come highly recommended, one does not usually think of a small hole in the wall joint that will only fit 10 people. But this is exactly what it was. As you entered you were greeted by hundreds of faces around the walls. Faces of some of the people that had been there before. You are also greeted by a very friendly face of the many that makes your lassi. It wasn't a normal lassi, it was a lassi with pomegranate seeds and apple, or coconut and chocolate. It was incredible. We left full and happy. (We would even come back once more just before we left 🙂
We decided we would walk through the temple as well. It was something we had been putting off before cause it really was a different experience. We were unsure if we could enter because we were not Hindu but we asked and they let us go in. We removed our shoes and walked like so many millions of other people throughout the temple streets barefoot to visit Shiva, a very spiritual place for Hindus. So spiritual they travel for multiple days with bamboo poles, matching clothes, excitement, and barefoot every step of the way (over 100 kilometers for some) to bring water from the Ganges and pour over shiva in the temple. Some of the people we passed throughout the time even had their feet bandaged completely and yet still taking painful step after painful step to get to the temple. When they arrive at the temple doors they kiss the floor. One man we saw entering the temple was laying on the mud of the floor crawling across the entrance so happy to have made it, I wondered how long it took him to get there and what his story was. The lines before had been so long, sometimes on a Monday (Shiva day) they can get up to a 10 hour wait to step inside the temple. When you're in there the police are guarding and they only let you stay for a moment inside the main temple where Shiva is. Even though it may have taken you 6 days by walking barefoot, you are still only allowed moments in the temple of Shiva. Even being from a Christian faith it is amazing to witness another religion and see what drives them and what they believe. I imagine it is hard from some Christians and others to see something as real as this and accept that they are not going to heaven. But it is so important to step back and accept people and other religions for what they are, without judgement and without fear. It is important to know that people around the world are not like you and yet their faith in something might be as strong or stronger than yours, just in something that is very much different.
SITES AROUND VARANASI