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Published: December 2nd 2009
Buffalo cool off in the waters of the Ganga
Varanasi - once Kashi and Benares. An ancient city, known as the City of God and the City of Life... a thriving mass of humanity on the holy Ganga at the confluence of the Varuna and Assi rivers. Unfortunately, as the last stop on my trip through India (until re-entering in December to fly out of Kolkata), all I could think about was getting out of the place and onwards to Nepal!
I chose a hotel in the old town, down near the ghats, which is Varanasi's main draw. Now, every place I've been in India has been dirty. Plastic bags, food waste, excrement and all manner of other undesirable things can be found pretty much anywhere, but for some reason, the overriding thing that struck me when walking through the old town was the constant presence of cow shit. There are a lot of cows in Varanasi, and as they wander the cobbled backstreets, searching for food, they inevitably disgorge their by-products onto the streets. Barefooted pilgrims happily pick their way around the mess, but after 5 weeks of dodging shit, I felt this was one chore too far... it steeled my desire to make a quick exit from
Looking south along the ghats
the country! Having said that, talking your way around a cow to get to your hotel at 10pm at night turned out to be an amusing and highly entertaining experience... try it some time!
Through a combination of luck and good planning, my friends Kay and Steve were waiting for me on Dasasvamedha Ghat, one of the most central and busiest ghats, and home to a helpfully easy to find red temple. We strolled along the ghats, observing the bathing buffalo and brushing away 5-year old hawkers, and treated ourselves to coffee and a cake at one of Varanasi's many German bakeries. As with Paharganj in Delhi, these places were a sanctuary during my last weeks in India... bad form I know, when Indian cuisine is so rich and tasty, but I'm afraid I'd had enough of it by this point, and was seeking refuge in chocolate brownies, pizzas and toasted cheese sarnies. We strolled back along a narrow alley running parallel to the ghats, which seemed to offer just about everything we could want... bakeries, restaurants, internet cafes, incense sellers and traders offering naff little religious photos and statues... a favourite of Kay's! We spent the evening watching
Pilgrims taking an early morning dip
the ganga aarti ceremony, which is a bit showy and touristy, but thankfully we had our view blocked by a pair of young brothers, whose father (sat one row in front of us) encouraged them to speak to tourists to improve their English. Kay and Steve practised their Urdu and Hindi, but we were no match for them ('we learn English because it is the international language'... in perfect, clipped English tones).
Early the next morning, I took to the Ganga for the essential Varanasi experience... a dawn boat ride. Well it would have been a dawn boat ride if I could have been bothered to get up, but instead I snoozed and enjoyed the experience at 7am... still nice and cool and a time when the ghats are a hive of activity. We sailed past bathing ghats and the city's funeral ghats, where bodies wrapped in what looks like gold foil await their turn on the pyre. Dogs pick through the ashen remains, as relatives and tourists form separate crowds watching the events from above. At all times of day, the ghats are alive with activity, as Hindus venture down to the water's edge to bathe. Some wisely
A bather attracts unwanted attention
take a short boat trip to the other side of the river, where the water is faster-flowing and, therefore, cleaner. I say clean'er' because you could never describe the water in this stretch of the Ganga as clean... plastic bottles mingle with devotional flowers, scum and general litter to create a watercourse that I took great pains to avoid touching. My favourite moment of the tour was when part of a dead cow floated down past a boat carrying Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn (visiting Varanasi on holiday... I don't like to name drop but her boat bumped into mine)... I don't think she saw it, but I'd like to have heard what her entourage of keen guides would have made of it.
Later that day I hooked up with Kay and Steve again for some street snacks (delicious fried spinach), before heading off into new Varanasi to find a temple containing a relief map of India. Strange I know, but the walk there provided us with dozens of opportunities to tell passing rickshaw drivers that we were 'just walking', for Steve to ask for directions in Urdu and for us to inadvertently enter a gynacology ward of a hospital.
We eventually located the temple, which does indeed house a relief map of India, carved in stone... not quite to scale (even though the blurb says it is), but a bizarre sight all the same. Quite why it existed wasn't clear as all the signs were in Hindi, but the temple's dedication to Mother India gave some clue. We walked back through the city's muslim quarter, drawing many curious glances, and finished the day with our final farewell meal.
The next morning I headed to the bus stand to catch my 'deluxe' bus to Nepal. As per, the company tried to palm us off with a comandeered local bus, but we revolted and demanded better, and got it... a combined effort of British, Canadian, Belgian, Spanish, Japanese, Nepalese, Swedish, Korean and Macedonian will. Quite impressive I think! I got yet another chance to say goodbye to Kay and Steve as they wafted past on a cycle rickshaw, then settled in for the 8 hour ride to the Nepal border at Sanauli.
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