Ghats, boats and Toilets.....Varanasi, The Holy City

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September 5th 2013
Published: October 9th 2013
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So, the time had come to face Varanasi. I think out of everywhere we wanted to go to in India, this was the place we feared the most. This fear mainly came from speaking to people that had been previously, but also from our guide book that starts the Varanasi chapter off with the words ‘Brace yourselves’. To be honest, now that we had been in India for around two months or so, we were starting to know how everything worked over here, and the fact that we would have rickshaw drivers hassling us and shop sellers dragging us into places wasn’t really anything new to us, so we cut the pessimism and stopped the worry. The fact that this place would bring us burning corpses and people bathing in one of most polluted rivers in the world still however, left us with a slight unease as to what we were up against and to what sort of people we would encounter whilst here.

On the train from Gwalior there was little to talk about until we got very close to Varanasi, and that’s when everything changed. Suddenly the train stopped and off jumped a couple of guys from the carriage next to ours, holding what looked to be women’s bags. This was closely followed by several other men, running after them shouting no doubt all manner of obscenities in Hindi. Shortly after chasing these perpetrators, the common hero’s from the train dragged these rascals back to the train by the scuff of the neck until we reached the next station, where they were dragged along the platform and no doubt given a good wallop with the large sticks that the police carry with them. All this was happening whilst sipping our train bought Chai Tea (more on this later), and it was all very entertaining indeed. Who needs a TV?

Twenty minutes or so down the line, this same scenario happened all over again. Different ‘Perps’, same have a go hero’s and same outcome….. more scruff of the neck grabbing and plenty more dragging along the railway line and being slung back on the train. Having watched these brave acts, we nodded in appreciation of the ‘train hero’s’, grabbed our bags a little closer to us, and sat back as we made our way to the Holy City.

On arrival at the hotel, through the crazy streets and bustling markets, we were fairly happy with our choice. It was near the Ghats (the steps leading to the Ganges river), fairly quiet and the room was half decent albeit a little dark. When checking in, the resident hotel tour operator sat us straight down and kindly showed us a few things on the map. We have been here long enough to know that this is code for ‘I’m gonna try sell you a tour before you step outside and get one cheaper’, however the guy was friendly enough and we wanted to see what was on offer. After being shown everything that was worth seeing and doing on the map, he quoted us what seemed a decent price, and so we accepted and quickly went about starting the tour that afternoon with a trip to Sarnath. We were a little tired from the thrills of the overnight train and the theft debacle, but decided that if we started now, it would give us more opportunity later to wander around Varanasi by ourselves over the coming days.

Sarnath is around 12km away from Varanasi and is said to be the place where Buddha held his first sermon. We had heard about this from our time in Sri Lanka, so it seemed like a cool place to go visit. After having been there, I can confirm that it was, and on top of a fairly new Buddhist temple (the old one was burned down) and an even newer 80ft Buddha statue, there was also a very old stupa which is said to contain some of Buddha’s ashes….all very impressive and a good hour or so well spent.

After this relaxing tour of Sarnath, we were quickly headed back towards Varanasi where we would be seeing the famous Ganga Aarti ceremony of Fire and Dance. In-between hitting our guide Manush with hundreds of questions regarding Varanasi, Buddhism, Hinduism and anything else we could think of, as well as having a bit of banter with him and his driver, we hurtled towards the ceremony at an unbelievable pace considering the amount of traffic on the roads. Narrowly missing the ‘traffic police’ (Cows in the middle of the road) as well as pot holes and humans, we eventually arrived at where we needed to be. It seemed where we needed to be was the middle of some kind of friendly riot. Thousands of people, animals, cars and rickshaws filled every nook and cranny of the one lane streets and it felt like we had arrived in the middle of a festival. Turns out, there was no festival, but just a regular day on the streets of Varanasi. This place certainly had some energy.

Unfortunately for us, as the monsoon had only recently died away here, the banks of the Ganges were at crazy high levels, and because of this, the ceremony was to be held on the roof of a building overlooking the Ganges rather than in its usual spot on a platform on the Ghats. Having got there early to grab a prime spot, we had decent seats, meant having to witness an hour and a half of people shuffling around and faffing whilst being shouted at by the ‘staff. Trying to organise a piss up in a brewery, these guys would fail in epic proportions! Considering this had been done every single day for the past 45 years, you would think they would have organisation licked by now… such luck.

Finally the ceremony started, and with half an hour of banging drums, incense being chucked around and some large candles being ceremoniously branded about, truth be told, we were ready to leave. It was good to see, however it wasn’t the most thrilling thing we had ever watched. Saying that, this isn’t just done to keep tourists happy, and is a 45 year old ritual ceremony, so who are we to grumble, and so we just took it as part of our Varanasi experience. Maybe had it been performed in its usual spot on the platform by the Ghats, it may have intrigued us a little more, however saying that, probably not if we are honest.

Our second day was due to start with more sightseeing, followed by some downtime so we could explore Varanasi by ourselves, or go have a beer on a rooftop or what-not. Sadly for us, this plan came to a grinding halt around 9pm, the evening before, during dinner when Donna started to feel a little sick and made her way to the room. Not long after this whilst Donna started to try sleep off her on-going sickness, I also took a turn for the worst, and it wasn’t long before I would be running to the bathroom myself. It was starting to look like a toilet rota system was going to have to be worked out with us both in a pretty bad way. Due to this sudden illness, we cancelled the 5am sun-rise boat trip we were due to attend with Manush and hoped a day in bed would see off this nasty bug.

Come the morning, neither of us were much better and with alternate stomach cramps we both suffered miserably in our room. Thinking where we could have caught this bug from, we immediately assumed it must have come from the Chai Tea that we were sipping whilst watching the drama unfold from the bag thieves aboard the train. Fortunately, the cups are tiny, so we didn’t consume too much of this seemingly toxic liquid, however it was enough to put us out of action for a good 24 hours, so we thanked our lucky stars we didn’t buy a mug of the stuff!

The next morning, we awoke feeling a little better and so decided to go ahead with the sun-rise boat ride on the Ganges. We were a little sceptical about this as at the time, all boats had been banned from the river due to the high water levels, however Manush assured us he had a guy that would get us on the water no problem as long as we avoided the police….. Following the guys down the pitch black lanes and back alleys towards the Ghats at 4:30am, my stomach seemed even less keen than I did to get on the boat……

Once on the boat, all this negativity disappeared though, and the tranquillity and calm of being some of the only people on the river gave us a great feeling of peace. To add to this, we were then given a small container holding a candle and some flowers to release on the river and told to make a wish. So, lighting the candle and placing it on the water along with our wish, we watched our lights float down the Holy Ganges taking our hopes and dreams with it.

As the sun started to rise and with the dark receding, we were shown several of the 365 Ghats along the river. Each Ghat has a different purpose or meaning, and we saw all sorts of people bathing, practising Yoga, meditating and praying along the side of the river. We were also taken to one of the Ghats where cremations take place, and was stunned, as we actively watched someone recently passed burning in front of our very eyes. This is not uncommon to see here mind, as this particular Ghat saw 30-40 cremations day in, day out. Watching this ceremony it’s difficult to describe how we both felt about the situation due to how bizarre it is, however here, it’s just part of everyday life and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges is a very holy thing for Hindus across the world.

After our boat trip came a walk around the winding streets of Varanasi with our guide Manush. We usually don’t like to have guides with us all the time, however here it was just so interesting getting the low down on the ins and outs of life here in the Holy city. We were taken down all manner of side alleys and backstreets that we would definitely have missed out on had we gone alone, with everything being explained to us as we went. We saw another couple of burning ceremony’s whilst back at the Cremation Ghat we saw from the boat earlier. This time we witnessed each stage of the burnings as we saw one body reduced to ashes, another that had just begun, and finally a corpse being carried through the streets towards the Ghat with the family praying as they walked. I think for me, this was the one that hit hardest and made it all very real.

Having Manush with us had other benefits other than just providing information, as being with him meant people left us alone. It certainly made our stroll a lot more hassle free than it perhaps would have been had we been on our own. It really was an interesting and informative couple of hours finding out who did what, when and why, including which Sadu’s were fake and which were real and how to tell them apart (official Sadu’s don’t like you taking their picture, fake ones loved it and charge you for the honour!) . All in all, a great little tour of the Ghats.

We finished off with a trip going to visit a couple of temples. One in town and the other inside the university grounds which was interesting to see. More so because of how peaceful it is within the University walls in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Varanasi outside.

All in all, despite the bouts of Delhi Belly, we actually really enjoyed our time in Varanasi. Sure it’s crazy, loud and busy, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, it embraces this in fact. Seeing people washing and dunking their heads in a river that hosts dead cows, dead humans and more raw sewage than you can imagine is something I’m not sure either of us will ever understand, however that’s why we come to these places I think. To get another perspective, and to respect that there are other cultures and ways of life out there that, although we don’t always fully understand, it doesn’t mean that they are wrong or any less worthy than any other way of life.

Varanasi is a real eye opener, and a place like no other. What was once a place I was sceptical about is now one that I respect and marvel over.

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