India – Varanasi

Words we’ve heard here and there about Varanasi—the holiest city of India and one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world—do not prepare us enough to what we see when our rickshaw starts to flow through the stone paved small streets close to Assi Ghat. It is late already and the lack of light gloomily reveals smelly trash, open sewers, cows, stray dogs and almost no soul walking around. Is it really here where we booked a room? The answer is yes, but fear not, it is actually a nice guest house with a great welcoming host. He even calls some of his friends of a nearby restaurant to wait for us before they close at 9:30 PM. Then the room back to the guest house is very good and the awaited rest finally transforms the gloomy area into a lively place with the sun of the next day.

One of the streets close to our guest house. This one is not as bad as others...

One of the streets close to our guest house. This one is not as bad as others…

Trash, cows and smell still remain though, with increasing connotation when we decide to go for a stroll around and find a coffee establishment. It turns out that—despite the surroundings—Varanasi has one of the best espresso coffee places of all India, it is called Open Hand and you should definitely go there for an oasis experience.

A small lake fully planted close to our guest house.

A small lake fully planted close to our guest house.

A stray puppy close to the coffee place.

A stray puppy close to the coffee place.

After coffee we walk further and further through one of the main streets, revealing the chaotic experience of India at its highest levels. With no sidewalks, the suffocating stress of the rickshaws, motorbikes, people, cows, dogs and street stores make walking very difficult but it is still bearable.

A cow looks at the camera.

A cow looks at the camera.

A woman cleans the area where she sells vegetables.

A woman cleans the area where she sells vegetables.

Cows eating trash in a trash collection area.

Cows eating trash in a trash collection area.

Some hours later we end at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. An Aarti ceremony dedicated to the Ganges River is held at 7 PM. One hour before the start there are people already sitting around and the place continuously fills with more and more attendants. There are also boats spread through the river to watch the ceremony.

People already congregating for the ceremony.

People already congregating for the ceremony.

Boats on the shore also for the ceremony.

Boats on the shore also for the ceremony.

The ceremony finally starts: 7 priests—each one in their respective platform—practice the everyday ritual burning incense, waving fire lamps, throwing flowers and waving peacock and yak-tail fans all at the sound of numerous bells and chanting. People around us certainly know much better what is going on, chanting and following each move with attention. The atmosphere is quite unique and we are glad to have come here to experience it.

Once the ceremony is over everybody leaves the area at the same time, creating an exalted level of chaos with an increased number of street sellers. The prices for a rickshaw are so absurd at this point that we just get a little upset and decide to walk back to our guest house. It has been a long walking day and tomorrow morning we have booked a boat trip before sunrise, so the bed is really welcome.

Burning incense.

Burning incense.

Priests burning incense.

Priests burning incense.

A priest using a multi-tiered oil lamp.

A priest using a multi-tiered oil lamp.

A priest waving a yak-tail fan.

A priest waving a yak-tail fan.

And there we are at 5 AM next day with our assigned boat guide walking us like zombies through the still dark streets of the area. Luckily, the boat leaves from Assi Ghat, which is just a few minutes far from our guest house. There, another Aarti ceremony is going on for the Sun, topped by a chorus of women chanting live at one of the sides. There are not many people this time compared to yesterday’s ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat. All together with the dawn light arriving from the other side of the Ganges River switches our zombie face into a relaxed smile.

Priests raising oil lamps in the morning.

Priests raising oil lamps in the morning.

Women chanting for the ceremony.

Women chanting for the ceremony.

Priests rising the big fire lamps.

Priests rising the big fire lamps.

Ganges sunrise.

Ganges sunrise.

Just when the sun rises, we prepare for our Ganges trip. Our boat is close by and it is a small rowboat similar to all vessels along the river, only for ourselves. Our guide has been doing this for so many years. He rows and guides us quite pleasantly through the calm waters under the still rising sun.

Ganges sunrise from the boat.

Ganges sunrise from the boat.

Rowing in the morning.

Rowing in the morning.

Our boat is ours.

Our boat is ours.

Varanasi’s shores through the Ganges offer a spectacular show full of life and colors. Uncountable buildings—almost one on top of the other—share the space over the wide stairs that lead to the waters of the river. Some look really old while others are recently painted or being restored. Some are guest houses or particular houses while others are temples for so many deities, rituals and prayers being held inside. Some stairs are also painted with alternate colors while others are covered with linen and clothes being dried, boats abandoned or being repaired and water buffaloes wandering around. And people, so many people doing so many different things at the river that we wouldn’t dare doing: Washing their clothes, washing their teeth or washing and purifying themselves while soaking in the water.

Buildings and temples at the shore.

Buildings and temples at the shore.

Buildings at the shore with painted stairs.

Buildings at the shore with painted stairs.

A priest prays inside his temple.

A priest prays inside his temple.

People soaking in the river.

People soaking in the river.

Dashashwamedh Ghat from the river.

Dashashwamedh Ghat from the river.

People washing teeth and bathing.

People washing teeth and bathing.

A boat is being repaired.

A boat is being repaired.

People washing clothes at the river.

People washing clothes at the river.

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But Varanasi’s shores are not only about life but also about death. Our boat passes in front of two cremation ghats where people burn the bodies of the deceased. These ghats are structured in different levels. The upper section is where the wood is stored in piles—each two or three meters tall—being replenished by hand from the boats down the shore. There are different types of wood, even sandalwood. The better the wood smells when it burns, the more expensive it is. The middle section is where the clothes of the deceased are piled before they are burned. Tenths of dresses form a shiny and colorful pile that might be sold again to be used in future cremations. Finally, the lower section is for the cremation spots: Small areas with a square platform designated to pile the wood for burning the dead bodies.

It is not too busy now and while there are several spots available, we only see one cremation going on. The atmosphere conveys a mix of respect while some unconscious empathy renders thoughts of sadness and embarrassment on ourselves. It must be hard to confront the reality of losing the loved ones while tourists like us are looking from a boat ashore. Pictures are not allowed from close for that reason so we just make one from far away.

One of the cremation ghats. Wood is being piled from the boats to be transported upstairs.

One of the cremation ghats. Wood is being piled from the boats to be transported upstairs.

As if to make up for the deep feelings of the cremations going on, hundreds of birds can be found loitering on the several boats anchored in the area. There are really beautiful ones—like the Bank Myna with bright orange around its eyes. Grains are sold for tourists to be thrown to birds so hundreds of them will fly to the area to catch some snack. We pass.

Birds flying around to catch some snacks sold to tourists.

Birds flying around to catch some snacks sold to tourists.

Bank Myna birds nosing around.

Bank Myna birds nosing around.

More birds looking for food.

More birds looking for food.

And we also pass for the several souvenirs of the “super market” boats that approach you constantly no matter the amount of negatives you throw at them from the distance. This is India and sellers reach you even in the water.

Super market boat.

Super market boat.

The boat trip ends again at the Assi Ghat and it is totally worth it despite the touristy. But our Ganges mission is not done yet. We’ve done it by boat, now is the time for a stroll on foot. Walking the ghats is also a highlight that we missed the other day going through the road behind. It helps discover what we’ve seen from the river from a closer perspective. It also allows us to enter in one of the temples—no pictures allowed. No matter if we want it or not, our touristy face assigns us a priest slash guide that explains each statue we see inside, including a Shiva lingam at the farthest chamber—with flower petals and other offerings moistening the place. The overall experience is nice but we don’t like to have compulsory priests at each temple—that of course ask for money at the end—and we don’t like to leave our shoes outside unwatched since we heard stories about them being stolen; so we continue the rest of the walk without visiting additional temples.

Colorful boat at the shore.

Colorful boat at the shore.

A woman prepares oil lamps in front of a temple.

A woman prepares oil lamps in front of a temple.

Piled buildings. Looks like people peeing everywhere has created the necessity of an urinal.

Piled buildings. Looks like people peeing everywhere has created the necessity of an urinal.

After denying what feels like thousands of boat trip offers we finally arrive to one of the cremation ghats and this time we really see it from close. The smoke is more noticeable here with small ashes flying with the wind. Men who work and spend the whole day here show noticeably yellow eyes probably because of the smoke.

A young man approaches us while we stand next to a wood pile. He apparently is in charge of the cremations and explains us different curiosities. The process requires some experience measuring the different bodies by eye to know how much wood is required to burn them properly. Also, knowing if the person died with medication or not is important since certain chemicals slow down the burning.

The smell is becoming too psychologically intense so we decide to move on and go behind the buildings. Turns out there are even more piles of wood here which makes us think about the amount of trees used only for this purpose in all India.

Wood piles behind the cremation ghat.

Wood piles behind the cremation ghat.

A crooked sunken temple close to the cremation ghat.

A crooked sunken temple close to the cremation ghat.

Further inside we get lost in the narrow streets of Varanasi which are also very interesting. There is a lot of life here—with all kind of stores placed in small garages—and there is a lot of death too—with processions chanting and carrying their deceased over their shoulders in the direction of the cremation ghat. All together with people and honking motorbikes that fit to the millimeter make walking quite stressful.

Apart of the usual chai tea stands we discover a quite common stall where they serve an intriguing snack. These places are usually the size of a door with a man sitting in front of a low table where he keeps all the ingredients. The snack is made with leaves and spices and it is prepared on demand with impressive dexterity—almost like a ritual. Once done the snack looks like a green triangle and it is then given to the client who eats it immediately all at once. We cannot catch the whole thing since there are people waiting but we are able to record part of the process.

One of those stalls for leaf snacks.

One of those stalls for leaf snacks.

At this point we consider Varanasi well visited and decide to stroll back to our guest house. A small rest is desired before taking our next train at 9 PM in direction to Kolkata. Taking that train will become an odyssey… But that’s a story for the next post!

2 thoughts on “India – Varanasi

  1. El snack que visteis es el paan, una combinación de betelnut con especias y envuelta en hoja de betel. ¿Lo llegásteis a probar? Yo llegué a probar una versión “mild” que iba sin la nuez, y era bastante asqueroso, pero muchos indios le tienen afición y lo mascan por doquier, llenándolo todo de escupitajos rojos. En muchas ciudades se multa si lo escupes, y en Mumbai vimos una campaña visualmente impactante que avisaba de que mascar paan provoca cáncer de boca.

    1. Nosotros también vimos a muchos escupiendo eso rojo, ahora lo entendemos por fin, jeje. Gracias por la información Anna, muy interesante 🙂

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