At the start of the Varanasi section of the Lonely Planet it says “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.” Colourful it was, but chaotic and indiscreet it was not. We found wandering along the ghats next to the Ganges one of the most relaxing experiences in India to date.
We had a bad start to our time in Varanasi. Unfortunately we didn’t sleep much on the overnight train from Agra, so we arrived tired and in need of a shower at midday on Thursday. We had a free pick up from the train station to our guest house and when we arrived at our destination the driver asked for a tip. Anthony and I were discussing between ourselves how much to pay and confirming that it was a free pick up. The manager overheard us talking and confirmed that it was free. Anthony wanted to make sure that the driver was being paid by the hotel and accidentally used the word ‘commission’. This sent the manager into an uncontrollable rage, it was really quite extraordinary. We tried to explain what we meant, but he wouldn’t listen to us and yelled at us to go to our room. After 10 mins Anthony went downstairs to apologise for the misunderstanding, the manager told him that he didn’t want to speak to us while we were staying there and that he did not accept the apology… needless to say, we left! This was the first time that someone had been so outrageously rude to us and we were pretty shocked.
We found another guest house which actually turned out to be closer to the action and had a fantastic view from the eating area. So we were happy! We got our bearings that afternoon and basically just chilled out.
The next day we took a long walk the whole way along the ghats, stopping to chat to people and just sitting by the river watching people bathing and performing puja. It was an incredibly serene experience and makes you nearly want to jump into the Ganges too, until you see massive drains depositing raw sewerage in right next to the people. In the evening we sat at Assi Ghat, wrote some post cards and chatted to some of the locals. As I was writing the postcards a crowd of people gathered to watch me. One man sat down next to me and took the postcards (including the pile that we had written in Agra) from me and proceeded to say ‘who is Linda? And Ben, and who is Eva? Who is Suzanne?’ It was pretty funny. Then he read the postcards and quizzed me about the pictures on front ‘Who built the Taj Mahal? Who did he build it for? Who is the god on front of this one?’. It was something that would simply never happen in London! On the way back we stopped at Dasaswamedh Ghat to watch the elaborate daily Ganga Aarti ceremony along with hundreds of other locals and tourists both lining the shore and sitting in boats packed from the ghat to halfway across the river.
On Saturday we got up at dawn for a boat ride along the river. The river is busiest in the mornings and evenings and it was absolutely beautiful bathed in the morning sunlight. We spent two hours relaxing in the boat, disturbed only by our boat man spitting out his paan and drinking the water from the river! We were pretty alarmed to go past the washing ghats (two of which were literally right next to an open sewer) and to be told that that’s where all the washing from the hotels is done… we’d deposited a big bag of laundry the night before! This got us thinking about how close to the river our guest house was and where the water for our showers came from, we came to the frightening conclusion that we were probably showering in Ganges water!!
We spent some time in the afternoon sitting by Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat and the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. It’s a pretty sobering place. Behind the ghat are two hospices where people come to die. As a Hindu, if you die here you are offered moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) which is the ultimate desire of every Hindu (apparently!). We saw many bodies being brought down to the river and placed carefully on the huge piles of firewood. A ceremony is performed and the fires are lit. I never realised that it would take a body so long to burn. It’s certainly not an experience for the faint hearted, but I didn’t find it awful, the people who were being cremated there were being given their final wish and would have been happy.
The next morning we were up at 4am for our 17hr train journey to New Jalpaiguri where we were stopping overnight before taking the toy train up the mountain to Darjeeling.