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Published: October 25th 2011
Sliding down the sacred river Ganges at dawn was the most peaceful experience I have had in India to date. This serenity, given a soundtrack by the chanting of those performing Puja (prayer) on the Ghats of the famous river was a far cry from the heaving train that brought me here.
Following the infamous bus journey south I had a few hours to kill in Delhi before I boarded my overnight train to the holy Hindu city of burning ghats and pot smoking Sadhu’s. I luckily met a Bristolian chef whilst breakfasting at the reliable Sam’s Cafe atop Hotel Vivek. He too was a solo traveller and both having a day to kill we joined up with another Englishman, Adrian and spent the day sampling street food and visiting Jama Masid, India’s largest mosque.
At 6.45pm I elbowed my way through the masses and found my seat in sleeper class. Divali is on 26th October and as Varansi is a favoured place of celebration for the festival of lights, the train was rammed full. In my booth of six bunks, there were ten people; myself, a young English photographer called Jack, two Korean girls, and an Indian family
on “reserve” tickets. “Reserve” means that you can sit anywhere but if no bunk is left vacant, you’re on the floor. For the next fifteen hours we made do, crammed in and took it in turns to rest on the bunks, needless to say a good night’s sleep was not had by all.
Arriving in Varanasi I took the advice of the LP Bible and headed for Ganpati Guest House in the Old City. What a find this was, a beautiful old red stone building right on the Ganges. My room had two sets of double doors opening onto a balcony over the river itself and was a peaceful Oasis of calm in this effervescent city.
“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners.” Lonely Planet’s introduction to this city is pretty accurate. After a couple of hours rest I headed out through the labyrinthine streets of Old Delhi and down to the Ghats. Everywhere I turned I was confronted by colour; radiant, bright, confusing and spirit lifting colour. And Noise. Street sellers were selling, cycle rick-shaw riders were hollering to avoid
being bundled over by the cars tooting, children played and screamed and Sadhu’s sat by the river chanting in their stoned state while locals headed down to wash and meet others for the evening chat. Amongst all this people were gathering on Dasaswamedh Ghat for an evening Hindu festival. At around 7.30pm there were at least a thousand people sat on the steps of the Ghat, or in boats on the Ganges surrounding the celebration. A group of Hindu priests were knelt together at the water’s edge chanting “Hmmm Naray, Narayana, Hmmm Naray,Narayana” to tinkling Hindu music. I myself couldn’t help thinking of the famous Prodigy track that after twenty seconds would have thrown in a huge beat and got everyone off their feet for a big dance party! I watched silently as this strange spectacle unfolded but after half an hour headed back into the streets to see a little more of Varanasi life.
It really is a place like no other I have ever visited, but I didn’t experience the hassle and intimidation that others have described. It was energetic, and spiritual, and as diverse as it gets, but apart from a few part-time holy men who
wanted to daub my forehead in red paint, I was left to enjoy it’s carnival at my own time and pace.
Which apparently meant getting up at 5.15am! After being Narayan’d to sleep (the repetition went on until 1am) I woke before the dawn and headed down to the jetty for my sun-rise on the Ganges boat trip. I shared my little row boat with a lovely Spanish couple (playing Gooseberry I am becoming skilled at!) and a pan-chewing Oarsmen who delighted in his morning spitting of red mouth juice into the already highly polluted water.
For an hour we were slowly rowed past a myriad of people performing Puja and washing in the holy river before beginning their day. We were also witness to the burning ghats, observing Hindhu’s fulfilling their lifetime goal of being cremated on the banks of their spiritual river.
The boat trip was a beautiful way to see Varansi, its holy river, and its people. As we were slowly paddled back up the river the sun rose through a hazy sky casting fishermen’s boats in silhouettes beneath it. So at peace was I that I continued to just watch the river for another
hour or so from my privileged balcony, observing from a distance as Varanasi’s colours came back to life, ready for another day of vibrancy for the senses.
My time in the city was brief. Later that day I checked out and headed to the local bus station. Feeling like a glutton for punishment I was beginning the two day trip up to Pokhara in Nepal. Little did I know what awaited me as I arrived in the heaving wasps nest of buses....
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