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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!