I’m not sure why I even bother writing this blog because most of my posts about India seem to start with something like: ‘I’m at a loss for my own words to adequately describe Varanasi.’
The Lonely Planet says,
“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”
And now please forgive my corny as hell Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reference but I really did have one quote from that ringing through my mind heavily on the trip – that bit where Tom Wilkinson turns to a miserable Penelope Wilton and says, “you really don’t get it do you? All life is here.” – I know the film offers an overly romanticised and flowery depiction of India, but that line resonated with me more than any other during and after my trip.
Varanasi was the destination I was most excited to visit, and it definitely ended up being my favourite in India.
Varanasi, one of the holiest cities for Hindus has always been called The City of Life. It’s full of it. Everywhere. And everything. Cows, goats, dogs, monkeys, rats, and a hundred pilgrims all dance to the beat and feed off the energy of the sacred river Ganga, which it sits on. Ghats line the side of the river so that people can wash and swim in the filthy waters; it’s believed that doing this resets your karma, cleansing you of sins.
Endless narrow alley ways full of shops, guesthouses, cows and dhabas wind down towards the bathing ghats; we got so unbelievably lost in these when we arrived, sweating like hell with our backpacks. Since working by address is impossible and every other brightly painted sign pointed in opposing directions towards something ‘Shiva’ or other, we couldn’t find the right Shiva Guesthouse. But the alley ways were charming – they were well kept by their residents and the morning light bounced around off of the walls, which were painted in bright yellows, lilacs and powder blues.
But Varanasi has it’s fair share of death and grief. A hundred or so bodies are cremated on the banks of the river every week before their ashes are poured into it. For Hindus, it is the most divine and sacred place to be laid to rest and thousands of families make the pilgrimage each year for a funeral. There are many old and terminally ill people in Varanasi too. I was told that they make the pilgrimage to the Ganges to die.
Then there’s the squalor and poverty that is ever-present in India but somehow magnified in brilliant technicolour here. The beggars are skinnier, the smells are more pungent, even the stray dogs are closer to death.
And it’s all glued together by this intense spirituality that hangs heavy in the air. You can just feel it in the atmosphere and hear it through the sounds of constant prayers, chants and Ganga aarti – river worship. Everywhere you look there are religious pilgrims, sadhus, weddings and funerals. My guess is that every kind of sacred ritual and celebration and imaginable could happen in a day here.
We had just enough time in the city to soak it all in. There are hundreds of photos on my camera from our 27 hours there.
It’s strange when I try to explain to people who haven’t ever really batted an eye toward other cultures or thought much about visiting India, that we saw open casket cremations. What that means, is that we saw bodies burning on the ghats. The ash from them floated up through the air and into my hair. The smell of smoke was ingrained into my clothes for days afterwards until I could find somewhere suitable to wash them. Every now and then, a limb would fall out and the cremator (is that what you call them?!) would give it a prod back in with his stick. But surprisingly, seeing all this didn’t suck. The whole process was peaceful and dignified, and felt really natural.
A man explained to us that there are several types of people who cannot be cremated if their funeral is held in Varanasi: holy men, children, and pregnant women, due to the fact that these people are already seen as ‘pure’ and don’t need to go through cleansing rituals. Also lepers and poor people aren’t burned, maybe because they can’t afford the wood for a cremation. Instead, they are thrown into the Ganges to decompose naturally. They’re weighted down by rocks they are tied to with ropes that very often become undone, allowing the corpses to float up to the surface just meters away from where children splash around in the filthy water and families wash every day. It’s utter madness.
He also told us that women were not permitted to enter the main burning ghat right on the banks and instead had to watch friends and relatives funerals from a distance whilst the men congregated around the cremation. When I asked why, he said matter of factly that women are seen as too emotional, and it would disrupt the peace to have them screaming and crying near the Ganges.
We people watched for hours on the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, eating chaat (street food), chatting to locals and having broken conversations with pilgrims and even a sadhu, before watching the sun go down, eagerly awaiting the fabled Ganga Aarti (river worship) ceremony thousands flock to see. A really kind Indian man saw me craning my neck and wrinkling his nose, ushered me to come forward to the very front so we could get some amazing photos.
As the crowds dispersed after aarti, we rounded off our day with Woodpeckers and some tasty goat curry atop a beautiful rooftop. It was one of the fanciest and most expensive eateries in the city… and it didn’t even cost us £10 for two meals, sides of a biryani and naan, and drinks.
The most moving and chilling experience was being rowed down the river at the break of dawn as the city woke up. We were luckily staying just a stones throw away from the ghats, so we rolled out of bed the following morning and jumped into a boat within minutes, managing to haggle one for an hour for around 500 rupees (£5).
While I sadly can’t claim that my experience in Varanasi elevated me to some higher spiritual plane, or changed me in any way – I was a little too shy to strip and jump into the Ganges to ‘cleanse’ oneself like some crazed Westerners were doing – it did blow my mind and deeply humble me. Whereas my stories and photos might make some people feel uncomfortable, I found Varanasi fascinating and moving . I’d like to return, next time for longer.
As for Lonely Planet dubbing Varanasi as ‘unrelentingly chaotic’, I didn’t feel that was true. It was busy, but really peaceful and calm.
The place we rested our heads, Shiva Guesthouse on Munshi Ghat was one of my favourite guesthouses too, and I would recommend booking online before you go! Clean rooms, hot showers, ideal location in the centre of all of the action and a lovely welcoming host who’s family make an absolute killer Aloo Ghobi and masala chais on their rooftop restaurant. Which has monkeys. You’ll just have to rely on the helpfulness of locals to find your way there though.