After 18 hours on the train, which should have been 14, leaving from Agra, and a sore back typical of those who have to deal with the afflictions of advancing age, as well as a bad organisation of baggage distribution organiation in the wagon, at 13 on a Sunday, I arrive in Varanasi.
The chaos is the same as always, the aggressive tuktuk drivers leave you no time to think, to bargain, to decide. They follow you and talk to you, in those moments when, because of the fatigue, you wish for silence and, even if it means paying more, at least have the freedom to choose without being pulled and pushed a towards a tuktuk over another.
Sometimes I hear them behind me, talking to me. I do not answer, as if they do not exist. I learned in Jamaica, how to treat with those who insist to offer me an unrequested service. It was Soshana who taught me that with a point-blank refusal, without a thank you (he kept on reminding me), the spirits would calm down and I could go straight on my way.
learned to get through the crowd without letting myself be frightened, walking with a tank-like movement taking force from my rather impressive physical form.
150 rupees and I arrive at the Rahul guesthouse, just outside the old city directly by the river. I wanted exactly that peace after a long journey and especially wanted a tuk tuk that would leave me in front of the door of the guest house so as to limit the effort of the slew of steps that I knew I would have to do.
The city stretches along the Ganges, respectfully called Mother Ganga. Varanasi stretches out in front of me in the distance and I see it from the terrace with a view that does not fling me immediately into the maze in which, even if gifted with an excellent sense of orientation, I found out was easy for me to get lost despite having walked it many times. But this from the terrace I did not know yet and I wonder, what on earth is the charm of this city? I said that I would lie down to think about it, and I fall asleep from exhaustion.
The morning after a long and healthy refreshing night’s sleep, for the first time after a month in India I feel the sun warming and leave the sweatshirt and windbreaker in the room, cover my shoulders as tradition wants with one of the many scarves bought here and there in this first month.
I walk the muddy streets where wild boars, cows and dogs rummage gulping down everything that man can produce. Plastic, paper, waste and garbage that turn into food for the animals who live with the men in a mess without logic.
<< Boat? Boat trip? >>
This is the tourist activity par excellence in Varanasi, and the reason is valid enough not to let it slip away. But it was not the right moment, so I ask the third boatman to leave me alone and in silence.
<< Then shall we talk later? >>
<< Yes, we’ll talk about it later. But maybe you prefer to smoke? A cream, and I can find it for you a bit higher up. >>
The sun begins to be felt, I take off the scarf and put it on my head to shelter me from the sunlight beating on my head. I wander through sarees and clothes washed in the waters of the most polluted river in the world, among women and men who immerse into these murky and black water. They enter slowly and then dip inside for five times, I imagine they repeat the mantra and cleanse themselves first from their spiritual sins and then for those earthly ones. Once you’re in the water to pray, why not give yourself a nice soapdown? Varanasi, or Benares, an absurd city, in which are summed up the contradictions/follies of a country that I have never really understood and that perhaps will never understand. The holy city, the holiest of all, but also the oldest inhabited city in the world.
An important history and an essential role in the life of a Hindu who has, among all desires, perhaps the greatest, that of being able to die here, place where, if you’re lucky (and rich enough for you to afford it unless you are not a resident) the cycle of reincarnation ends once and for all. In Varanasi, is where we rid ourselves of the burden of reincarnation that, like a spiral, will take us, who knows how many lives later, to the total liberation.
The shortcut would be to come here and wait. There are some who have been waiting for twenty years without considering that life has lengthened and perhaps to rely on age alone as an indicator is not sufficient anymore (to learn more read this article: Waiting to die in Varanasi). . But they are willing to do anything just to die in Varansi, even though the time has not arrived yet (but it might at any moment!).
Varanasi, the city where the spiritual gets mixed up with money. Where the baba seems to get on the ghat more for you to take photos, in exchange for an offer, than to pray. Or you will see them walking towards you, then holding out their hands towards you to ask you for a few rupees.
It is also the city where the Westerner who comes to India to find himself, will lose himself instead, thanks also to the fumes of hashish and marijuana which come cheap. He strips off his Western clothes, wears a longi, walks barefoot, sometimes it seems like he wants to distribute blessings.
Maybe he will meditate at dawn on some step of the ghat, and takes no matter of the cow poop and dirt around him, in the end even the trash cans in Varanasi are also HOLY (saints), that’s fine.
The night, along with armies of very aggressive mosquitoes, gives rise to an odor that I’m sure is that of sewer and yet I convince myself that it is the smoke of the dead, bodies I see burning not too far from where I am.
It is in Varanasi that instead of speaking of the contradictions of India makes me think of the absurdity of this country, that lives by the rules, or no rules, all its own, that lives with filth, that reveres the cow, but that treats it badly remaining unmoved at seeing her eat junk, which is not hard to find, and where spirituality smells of rupees more than of the good karma.
“What did Varanasi seem like to you?” Alena asked me, a writer who comes to India because she shares the spirituality to the point of having a Guru of her own, “Have you felt its spirituality?”
I have not felt the spirituality in Varanasi as has happened to me, rather, in more secluded and less known places among the Hindu Wannabes but just as important to the Hindus, which are Chitrakoot and Allahabad.
In Varanasi I saw materialized all the Indian nonsense known until that moment. Here are concentrated the stereotypes of India, that are right to be considered so, showing themselves one after the other, just like the long line of beggars that leads from The Market Street up to Dashashwamedt Gaht.
Varanasi gives a nice concentration of Indianness. It is the stereotype of India that anyone who comes here expects to encounter and perhaps fears.
The traffic, the human crowds, the true devotion and also the least true, the noise, the stench and the garbage, the client-hunters and lines of beggars or the crippled who, sitting next to each other, tend their hands to obtain a few rupees for the 500 meters of the pedestrian street, where obviously the bikes are allowed because it is unthinkable to leave some piece of the city in silence, the ghats and the temples, images of shiva on the walls, the Pan, excellent product of the city, the fires that cremate the bodies, as many as 450 a day, the puja in the evening.
The public life of the Indians, from morning … .to death
We leave before dawn by boat to see the sun rise behind us and illuminate the great gath that makes this city so famous. So starts the earthly life, that of the washing of clothes, or of the teeth. Of baths with soap. In the meantime someone with legs crossed meditates with eyes closed in the direction of Ram (the sun) that in meanwhile rises.
Varanasi does not stop. Every day at Manikarnika GHAT between 400 and 450 bodies get cremated. Because if you die in Varanasi you get to block the circles of reincarnation, samsara, and it’s right here, in the most holy city, where the destiny of the Hinduist, exasperated by the never ending reincarnations which make him continue to return karma afer karma, is fulfilled. Varanasi, the final destination.
But if 450 bodies get burned, up to 10,000 await death. If in the 70s in India death arrived at age 50, in 2000 it arrives at 60 or maybe more. So the pilgrims arrive here around their 50 years to wait, even 20 years, to die invoking Shiva to take them away. Just to die in Varanasi.
Easy to understand why death characterizes this city. One by one the bodies are jammed between piles of wood, of different value because the more you can pay the more the wood will be scented, such as sandalwood, and as closer to the shore you will be cremated.
<< The women do not attend the cremation, because they cry, and if they cry, the soul is not free to leave this earthly life and would remain chained, not allowing for a new birth in another body. So the women are left at home to cry while this moment is for the men, who do not shed tears >> the gravedigger told me, an untouchable, who, because of his caste, gets to do that job earning also well (in fact, the caste is not directly related to how much you earn), whom I found watching a cadaver burning when I was undecided whether to stop or carry on.
I feel a macabre curious onlooker.
In the while I was wondering what the hell I’m doing impaled in front of a pyre not as if I was watching fireworks, my eye is caught by a foot of one of the corpses that is burning and is dangling. To the side, a little farther on, a small bundle wrapped in a white cloth with a string, is laid down on a boat, here also with only men on board, to then be thrown into the Ganges.
<< It is the body of a newborn. Children under 10 years, just like pregnant women and those who die bitten by a snake, are not cremated because they are already pure >> continued the undertaker.
Thence the body is thrown intact, exactly not far from those who, in the meantime, are brushing their teeth with the same water in which life, death and garbage are concentrated in the most polluted river in the world but that, the beliefs, want to be miraculous.
Varanasi summarizes the unpleasant feeling of ILike/IDoNotLike typical of those traveling in India for long periods. The spirituality moved by the greed for money transforming everything into a show, among other things beautiful, like that of the evening puja.
The total lack of privacy, but with a turnaround, this time we are the ones who are looking staring at the other and staring at dead bodies that are releasing their souls and not them anymore looking at us with almost an annoying look at whatever we are doing, or not doing.
The babas who place themselves in strategic places to have their “picture of the year”taken in exchange for a few rupees, which makes me even believe that they may well dress in orange but, according to their own logic, I doubt that they are at their last turning point, if it is true moksha (end of the reincarnation cycle) is achieved only when you are no longer attached to worldly things and to your own egos.
The blond lads converted to a religion that I believe would have made more sense if they adopt it as a belief and a way of life without losing their cultural identity. The bodies that are burning and the souls that are flying.
The baskets with flowers and the candle to be released in the Ganges put by force in hand to make me want to be part of an event for which however, I do not understand a damn and I consider tantamount like going to church to pray without believing.
Incredible India, it is said. I add absurd. Varanasi absurd.
What to do in Varanasi
If India already seemed strange, here in Varanasi it becomes the apotheosis of the oddities, and yet 3 and then 4 and then 6 days pass by and this city has the power to make you walk the streets and think that you’re in the filthiest spot the world, but, you are still there.
What is possibly there to do in this city for all these days?
In truth, if it is not, in any case, unleashing a certain charm, made up also of misunderstandings, two days would be enough, but it’s worth experiencing it with calm. Strolling through the Ghat first, which continues without interruption and especially without obligation to take your shoes off, alternating them, when the temperature starts to rise, with the cool labyrinthine streets of the old center, are reason enough to dedicate a few days beyond the in and out visit.
Boat at dawn
This is one of those activities that you do without the ifs and the buts. It ‘a beautiful moment. The sun rising on the opposite side of the shore and that slowly illuminates the sacred city, in the while that the people of Varanasi start their day, brushing their teeth or bathing, or for religious ablutions, makes the city magical.
The departure is generally towards the morning and the return at 8.30. Cost of the boat between 250/300INR depending on the place of departure.
The puja is a typical ritual worship of Hinduism. It is possible to assist this ceremony in any of the Hindu cities even though that of Varanasi is probably the most sensational, something like a show, with lots of orderly chairs and a crowd of public crowd seems to want to applaud at the end of the show.
Every night at 6:30 for 45 minutes on seven platforms, each with a small altar, takes place the most important celebratory event in the city or at least, most coveted by tourists.
The candle is lit and the bells begin to chime, the rhythm like the movements of the seven Brahmins are coordinated and hypnotic. Fire dances watching the Ganges and venerating the holy river.
I recommend to arrive well in advance for the observation and to get in position behind the Ganges to be able to view the Brahmins during the ceremony, and therefore not to watch them from behind.
Alternatively a more characteristic option is to do it from the boat, and the boatmen in the area are not lacking.
The main ghats of Varanasi
The ghats are steps typical of the Hindu architecture that lead to courses of water, such as rivers or lakes, important for the Hindu ablutions, of which Varanasi is full of and extends for long way alternating numerous ghats, among which the most important, are the following:
- Dashashwamedt Gaht – Probably the most famous where invariably the boatmen will storm even the most peaceful and impudent tourists
- Manikarnika Ghat – One of the two cremation ghats, the one considered most auspicious to be cremated in and from which about 400 souls conclude their eternal round of reincarnation daily
- Harishchandra ghat – Other ghat for cremation but smaller in size and open to all (regardless of religion or social class)
- Assi ghat – This ghat is important because here is where the Ganges meets the Assi, definitely not very attractive for tourists, but very important for the Hindus who worship the lingam, a phallic symbol, of Shiva, that is under a pipal tree
- Darbhanga Ghat – One of the most beautiful architecturally thanks to the impressiveness of Brijramas Palace built in the early 1900s by the Bihar family.
- Scindhia Ghat – A quiet and picturesque ghat not far from the Manikarnika Ghat. What makes this ghat special is the Shiva temple partially submerged in the water, sunk in 1830 during the construction of the ghat. Behind the ghat, up through the steps in the old town are a number of very important temples so much as to make this area very important for the pilgrims.
VARANASI IS TO BE SEEN AND LIVED BY THESE SACRED AND BUSIEST PLACES AS IF IT IS A MARKET WHERE LIFE AND DEATH MEET AND STRIP OFF ALL THEIR PRIVATE SIDES, TONING DOWN PERHAPS THE MOMENT THAT WE ALL FEAR AND PUSH AWAY, TELLING US A BEAUTIFUL STORY, THE BODY DIES BUT NOT THE SPIRIT, THAT, AT THAT POINT, WILL FIND A NEW BODY, WHICH, I THINK, ALL SUMS DONE, I LIKE TO BELIEVE.
Where to stay in Varanasi
Survivor of a month in noisy Rajasthan, on the advice of a dear friend, I decided to stay outside the city center and by the river bank. I could get to the ghats in no time walking, but the evening it was pleasant to dine on the terrace and above all in total silence.
The guest house chosen was the Rahul Guest House, but I also recommend the YogaHouse, , a short distance from this. Prices are more or less similar, about 25$ per night for a double room.
The pros of these rooms lies in the fact that the tuktuks can get to the entrance. If you decide to stay in the center instead you have to walk, and take your bearings, in the narrow streets.
Alternatively for those wishing to stay in the heart of the ancient Varanasi, the solutions are not lacking. I recommend to check availability at the Teerth Guest House or the Lotus Paying Guesthouse. This is for those who do not want to spend too much (between 7 and 18Euro per night).
Remember that in these streets the tuktuks cannot enter, download an application using GPS, or use google maps if you have sim with data, to find the right way or risk to lose yourself in the labyrinth!
For a list of hotels and guesthouses in Varanasi I recommend to check on Agoda which has a very wide range of offers and discounts up to 70%.
Best time to visit Varanasi
The best season to visit Varanasi is between October and March, temperate climate and a little cold at night. These months are also those in which there are numerous festivities. The Dussehra and the Bharat Milap are celebrated respectively in September and October, the Diwali following, festival of lights, while the Ganga Festival is held in November. In the summer months, from April to October, it is particularly hot and it is the period of monsoons. The Ganges can overflow and not make it easy for boat trips.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Have you been to Varanasi? What other advice would you give that I have not mentioned?
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I travel independently taking mainly public transport. A world trip began in 2011 is not yet finished, my mission is to explore the world and write about it. Travel consultant Galapagos, Argentina, Morocco, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Namibia.