Home > India > Varanasi – on the banks of the holy Ganges

Varanasi – on the banks of the holy Ganges

Swotting up on all the travel books, we were expecting Varanasi to be pretty hard, so to make our lives a bit easier, we booked a nice hotel in Cantonment. My first booking muck-up; we arrived a day later than I had booked and they had re-allocated our rooms. A bit of tough talking, and we were thankfully back in our rooms – but it was yet another case of staff tips and more money frustration.

 

 

rowing on the Ganges in the evening

Varanasi, the holy city, has a character of it’s own, a certain religious fervour hangs in the air: beads, flowers, shaved heads and incense abound. The back streets behind the ghats form a tight network of impenetrable alleys with the whole of the Indian culture from birth, life and death laid out in front of you.

For tourists, it is the ghats that provide the most immediate rewards, hugging the Ganges, the numerous ghats with their steps play host to the spiritual activities of the Hindu’s. Two burning ghats are for cremation, a few more for washing, a few more for cooling cows, but the vast majority are for the Hindus to bathe and purify.

the bathing and ducking is epic

the view north

...and south - beautiful but with an edge.

To explore the action, we took to the water in a rowing boat for sunset, watching the daily festivals and rituals, the light, colour and spectacle- you feel you are watching something immortal, everlasting or unchanging – it is quite a place. To get an idea of the colour of the ghat’s we also hired a boat to watch the sunrise over the Ganges. Both events are shared with numerous tourists, especially the evening ride, but they are both still stunning and etched on our memories.

evening ceremonies on the ghats

the Ganges before dawn

...and just after sunrise

At one stage I thought about bathing in the Ganges at dawn to mark my 40th birthday, but speaking to a lady who has been doing voluntary work in Varanasi for 26 years, I was persuaded otherwise – the water is poisonous to the weakling westerners. As well as the washing of bodies and clothes, cremation forms a major part of the life of the Ganges; the bodies are burnt on the banks and the ashes scattered over the water. These burning ghats operate 24 hours a day with around 10 fires at any one time. That is a lot of ashes. But the real problem with the water, is not the cremation, but the bodies they do not cremate.

Non-cremation is reserved for 5 groups of people: babies, pregnant women, priests, cobra victims and lepers. In these instances they tie rocks to the bodies and drop them in the middle of the river. The problem is that about 3 days later, the bodies balloon, and float to the surface, whereupon they float around until they are fished out and put on the far bank for the dogs to tidy up. It is all pretty raw, and means that the water is not for westerners to bathe in – it is simply too dirty.

giving the clothes a good wash whilst cremating in the background

we could not believe it - washing in amongst the rubbish. Most of the hotels get their towels and sheets done here!

Varanasi was also hosting a big festival whilst we were there, ensuring that we had the full hit, and it certainly made it a lively place, the only relative calm we found was around the very relaxing University, one of the largest in Asia, and the dilapidated and slightly sorry fort; a place where until relatively recdently important royal ceremonies and receptions took place. Like Pushkar, Varanasi was intense, it was tough, but it was memorable and seeing those ghats at sunrise was something unforgettable.

just north of Varanasi - the place where Buddha gave his first speech

camping out waiting for the train to Delhi and then up north to the Himalaya's

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