Like the sleepy and sluggish River Ganges, Varanasi is best enjoyed slowly, savouring the spirituality and the diversity of the devout pilgrims the river attracts.
That’s the theory anyway, but on an organised tour you need to cram in as much as you can in only two days.
Varanasi is located in the Uttar Pradesh region, about 807km south east of Delhi. Our introduction to the city was by the notoriously unreliable train from Agra. We all gratefully tumbled onto the platform when the train finally arrived, over eight hours late!! I love trains, but even I was glad to be away from the constant movement and jiggling from side to side in unison with the train.
The long train delay (no real reason given, although its reputation preceded it) meant that we lost precious time in this fascinating city, and after a quick shower and refresh, we were ready to make up for lost time.
Varanasi is one of the most sacred and spiritual places in India. The city hugs the gentle twists and turns of the Ganges River. Mythology says that the Ganges is actually the God Shiva’s hair bun, or topknot, uncurled and laid across the country. At Varanasi, the Ganges actually runs South to North as it wends its way down to the sea, making the region especially sacred.
Varanasi, and the Ganges, are popular destinations for pilgrims from all over India. The pilgrims spend their days praying, visiting temples and bathing in the river itself. To our Western-eyes this is quite incredible as the river is brown and soup-like, with an unimaginable amount of mysterious floating objects, perhaps even bodies.
There are 83 ghats lining the Ganges in Varanasi. Ghats are like great sweeping sets of stairs that extend right down into the water itself. They are popular places with people of all ages, sitting and praying at all times of the day and night.
Two of the ghats are used as cremation sites, where the devout are burned and their ashes are washed into the river. I had experienced these funeral pyres before on a trip to Kathmandu, but this experience was more shocking. It was pure mayhem.
There seemed to be no sense of actual ceremony in the cremation process, with hundreds of men milling about, cows and oxen wandering past the fires and dogs staging intermittent brawls in amongst the stacks of wood. Actually, the symmetrical piles of timber were the most ordered thing about the whole scene.
It was dirty, noisy and shambolic and lacked any sort of dignity or spirituality. Again this is through my Western eyes, but it was in stark contrast to what I saw in Kathmandu where families tended to the pyres with care and respect. Our guide, Ankita, had warned us not to take photos or stare for overly long. Apparently many of the men use marijuana as part of the cremation rite, which can make them a little unpredictable and quite aggressive. I think we were all very happy not to linger.
Interestingly, there are five reasons why a body can’t be cremated. They are:
- If a woman is pregnant when she dies.
- The person dies of leprosy.
- The person dies from snake bite.
- The person is a holy man.
- The deceased is a child under two years of age.
In these cases, the body is simply slipped into the river, fully-clothed, to decompose and/or eventually float out to sea.
This may all sound incredibly gruesome, but the ghats are fascinating and it is difficult to clearly articulate the spiritual atmosphere that envelopes the place.
Without even going anywhere near the cremation pyres, the sense of spirituality pervades the ghats. They may be covered in highly colourful art and graffiti, or decorated with sculptures, and are always full of beautifully dressed pilgrims and gurus. You could spend hours just sitting and people watching.
The river itself is a hive of activity as pilgrims take boat tours out into the middle, or to the other side of the river to visit and pray. We took a boat out at night time to listen to the stories and mythology of the river before sending our own small candles and prayers on their way. It was a beautiful sight to see our little lights joining the throng placed by other boat people. All those hopes and prayers bobbing away into the dark.
A highlight of the evening was to watch the night puja, or night prayers, a ceremony conducted by five priests. We couldn’t understand a word, but the pageantry of the fire, smoke, chanting and music had us all spell-bound.
Apparently morning puja are also conducted on the ghats, but we missed these as we tried to cover as much of the city as possible.
Varanasi is a city of alley ways. There is no rhyme or reason to their design or direction, and I suspect they have developed organically over the years under the direction of many feet. You just have to have faith that you will eventually make your way to your intended destination. It is a delight to go backward and forward through these mazes and have them eventually open onto the expanse of the Ganges. I have a little of the feeling of wonder that the pilgrims must experience when they see the Ganges for the first time.
It was time to pack our bags and clamber back into the tuk tuks, ready to do battle with the Indian train system once again. Hopefully a bit of the spirituality of Varanasi rubbed off on us all and we could relax and accept whatever train delays awaited us!
What place did you wish you had more time to savour?
What: We stayed at the Hotel Haifa. It promotes itself as a ‘luxury’ hotel, but that is a fairly loose description. It is comfortable and clean enough and very close to the Assi Ghat. For fabulous breakfasts, lunches and more, check out the Open Hands café, just around the corner from the Hotel. The best coffee I had in the whole of India and large!!
Where: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.
When: We visited in early December. The days were warm and hazy, and the nights were cool.
Why: To enjoy the spirituality, and the controlled chaos, of the Mother Ganges.
How: Every public and private transport option is available.
Who: The cremation areas can be a bit confronting, but they can be easily avoided if you are a bit squeamish.
Related Posts: To find out about my Kathmandu cremation experience, have a look at my post about the Cremation Complex.
Related Blogs: For more insight into Varanasi, have a look at The Traveloguer’s descriptions and photos.