38) Varanasi - India's holiest city


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May 12th 2005
Published: June 2nd 2005
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Welcome to VaranasiWelcome to VaranasiWelcome to Varanasi

This is definitely the place where you can find most of these wonderful personalities
We were in the train station of Katni at 9:30 a.m., enough time to buy tickets. We split up to different queues, a strategy that has already proved quite helpful in India. Suddenly, a policeman led Stephan to a different ticket counter in a car outside the building, a man was sitting there with a computer on his lap. This was supposed to be the express counter! We did not really trust this arrangement, so Klaudia stayed queued, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Soon, the policeman turned up again, violently dragging the Indians in front of Klaudia from their places in order to make Klaudia advance faster. He treated these people in an incredibly unfriendly way, shouting at them something Klaudia could not understand, but she could imagine the meaning of his words. These poor men did not understand what was happening to them and were rather frightened. All of a sudden, all eyes turned to Klaudia with reproachful looks and she felt extremely ashamed. She blushed deeply, stammering apologies and trying to make the others understand that she had much time at her disposal and that she could wait. Finally, Stephan arrived with the tickets, what a relief!
Another holy manAnother holy manAnother holy man

It is important for them to be well groomed
Klaudia could not wait to get to the platform. Anyway, the train arrived 2 hours late and until the arrival in Varanasi it had accumulated 5 hours delay. We had the impression that the trip would never end and were really glad to arrive.

We had originally planned to take a hotel by the ghats, but rickshaws cannot drive there and we did not want to walk with our backpacks in the dark (it was close to 1 a.m.). We took a prepaid rickshaw to the hotel Buddha situated between the train station and the river, happy that it was still open upon our arrival. The hotel was very clean and nice at reasonable prices, only the breakfast was not very good. Next morning, our first impressions of Varanasi were these of a typical big Indian city: heart, dust, filth and chaos in the streets. Klaudia had an infection on her left calf after an insect bite which got worse and worse, so we went to see a doctor. He cleaned Klaudia’s wound (not himself actually but his assistant), prescribed her antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pills and gave her two injections against sepsis. After three days, her leg was perfectly
Water ceremonyWater ceremonyWater ceremony

We did not know what he was doing but it was impressive
all right again. We planned to do some shopping in Varanasi, since it was our last Indian city before going to Nepal, we were especially looking for a Nepal guidebook. So we drove to one of the most crowded parts of Varanasi, Godoulia, the main silk shopping area. We really love walking, but there it was a nightmare, once Stephan even got scratched deeply by a bicycle rickshaw on his left calf. Still, we accomplished several tasks, e.g. making photos for future visas and we also found a guidebook, though an old one. We stumbled across a wonderful bookshop, Universal Books Co. The young owner was very nice and friendly and we spent several hours with him in lovely conversation. Along the way he sold us several beautiful books we had not intended to buy and also arranged the sending for us. After all, he was a business man, too.

We of course wanted to see India’s most famous and most sacred river and walked to the ghats along the Ganga, also in order to find another hotel. Soon we found ourselves caught in the maze of the narrow back lanes which run along the ghats through the old
Brushing teeth by the GangaBrushing teeth by the GangaBrushing teeth by the Ganga

The river is like a big common bathroom
quarters. Now we perfectly understood why rickshaws could not go here, it is simply impossible, there is hardly enough space to walk! Although they are fascinating to stroll through, we found them overpowering and decided not to take a hotel there. Somehow we got out of the narrow lanes and found our way to the Ganga. The ghats were teeming with life: people walking or bathing, hundreds of aggressive touts (many children) trying to sell candles for floating on the Ganga (“mother Ganga, this good for your karma”) or boat rides, children playing cricket and the usual dogs, cows, buffalos and goats. The riverside was dirty, but to be honest we had expected much worse, the river itself appeared almost clean. We read somewhere that the Ganga is one of the world’s most polluted rivers (sewage…) but somehow it can cleanse itself quickly, like tropical rivers. Maybe it is not a holy river for nothing… When you are in Varanasi, you would of course like to see the cremation places and we walked to the main burning ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat. There we learnt how the burning procedure takes place: first the dead body draped in cloth (white for men,
Holy river holy cowHoly river holy cowHoly river holy cow

The cows' biggest pleasure is a bath in the Ganga
red for women) is cleaned in the Ganga, then it is put on the soil for drying and the last step is its burning on a huge pile of wood. The resulting smoke is the soul flying to Nirvana, cleansed from all earthly sins. We were impressed by these ideas including all different elements, but for us it was not understandable how beside the burning body also rubbish piles were burning and maybe the smokes would mix. This is not very clean and definitely not good for the soul. But this is India, mystical and not easy to understand for foreigners. We were also told that for burning only wood from the holy Banyan tree is used in large quantities, and this is very expensive partly due to the fact that it has to be transported for a long distance. So when tourists come and want to watch the burning, they are asked for donations to the deceased’s family to relieve their financial burden. We were very upset about such disrespectful acting, even more so because we were convinced that the family would never get the money and would also not ask for it. So we refused to pay and
FishingFishingFishing

And they do catch some fish. However, you will not find it on the restaurants' menu
walked away, but respecting the local costumes we did not take any pictures of burning bodies in order not to disturb their ascension to Nirvana.

In the evening we watched a ceremony, acted according to the “Ten Horse Sacrifices”, performed once by Brahma, God of Creation. It was quite fascinating, ten brahmins moving several different receptacles full of burning oil to the monotonous sound of chanting and typical instruments. Suddenly, Stephan pointed a young man out to Klaudia who was sitting beside them. He was convinced to have recognized a fellow blogger whose blog on Nepal he had read in the morning. He addressed him, and was actually right, there he was, Chris Schwalm, another blogger from www.travelblog.org! All of us were happy and excited and soon left the ceremony to have dinner together. We went to a restaurant close to Chris’ hotel, the owner was incredible. He talked about the food and its preparation in such a way that it made our mouths water. We exchanged travel experiences with Chris but separated soon because he had had a hard travelling day and was absolutely exhausted. What a wonderful experience, something as virtual as a web page turned into
SwimmingSwimmingSwimming

The boys amuse themselves like in other parts of the world, but the girls must go swimming fully dressed
a concrete encounter! Another day we crossed the narrow back roads and came close to Varanasi’s main sanctuary, the Golden Temple. It is dedicated to Siva and is over 1000 years old, its two towers are covered with gold plates. Only Hindus are allowed inside and the place is guarded by so much police that we did not really see anything, also because in the narrow streets it is very difficult anyhow. It is absolutely forbidden to take pictures, so we cannot show you anything. We were feeling very uneasy and not really impressed, we had expected something grander, so we soon fled this overcrowded place to get some air.

Close to our hotel, we had found a fabulous restaurant, Nirvana. Already the interior was exceptional, all walls painted in different colours, beautiful stone floors, artistic wall hangings and, to top it all, on one wall a real cascade! Wow, we were impressed. The food was also very good, a place we can only recommend. It was in Varanasi that we found lychees for the first time, until the end of our stay we ate between 1 and 1.5 kg every day. They were big and juicy, absolutely delicious,
RowingRowingRowing

Every morning and evening you can find plenty of boats moving up and down the river
much better than in Europe, and this way we made up our vitamin deficiency. Finally we moved away from hotel Buddha after three nights to a small guesthouse at Assi Ghat. This southernmost ghat is the place where the small river Assi meets the Ganga. Our guesthouse was beside the Ganges View hotel, very quiet with friendly staff, though not as clean as the hotel Buddha. You reach it by climbing a back lane and some more steps and all rooms are behind a corridor. On the side facing the river, several tables were placed, an ideal meeting place for backpackers. As it was intolerably hot between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (up to 47 degrees C), we often sat there drinking lemon soda, reading and writing, talking to other guests. Many people were writing their diaries, some decorated them with nice paintings, an American professional tabla player (kind of Indian drum) was composing pieces of music or practising, it was a lovely atmosphere. We met a young American from the Peace Corps returning to his position in Thailand; two Israeli doctors who had finished their studies and took a break before starting work; Jenny and Jona, a couple from
Temple at the ghatTemple at the ghatTemple at the ghat

The holier the ghat, the more people want to bathe there
Wales who had been travelling for almost one year and were very close to the end of their trip, they gave us important tips. Very close to the hotel was the Pizzeria Vaatika which we liked so much that we went to eat and drink there every single day. First of all, they served good coffee (a bliss for addicted Klaudia), then the food was indecently good (spinach pizza, lasagne, apple pie, vanilla ice cream), the view on the Ganga was also spectacular and the staff very friendly. We really enjoyed this place and sent everybody we met there. We should have asked for commission! We were very delayed with our travelblog entries, so we stayed for 11 days in a whole, trying to catch up. Apart from that, staying in a cooled room on the computer was not a bad way to spend the hottest hours of the day.

Varanasi is a very special place, some people detest it, especially if they are newcomers in India. But we quite enjoyed the atmosphere of the ghats, especially close to Assi Ghat, where it was very quiet and almost free of touts. This city is like the essence of India,
Flags at the ghatFlags at the ghatFlags at the ghat

Every ghat has a different aspect, at this one we found the flags striking
it combines all positive and negative aspects in one place. We liked it, still we were not unhappy to leave India after 100 days.



Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


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Temples in the backgroundTemples in the background
Temples in the background

As a holy city, Varanasi has plenty of temples, however they are difficult to find as they are often located in very small streets
FortFort
Fort

Although it is in a neglected state (like many other buildings) this fort is still impressive
ParasolsParasols
Parasols

Under the parasols you can get a massage or get lessons in religion
Dasasvamedna GhatDasasvamedna Ghat
Dasasvamedna Ghat

This ghat is famous for its evening ceremony, even during the day it is always crowded
Heat protectionHeat protection
Heat protection

Although the parasol is quite torn, it still protects against the burning sun
Religion lessonReligion lesson
Religion lesson

Many activities take place outdoors, discussing religion by the holy river is the optimum
WeddingWedding
Wedding

Please notice how the bridegroom leads the veiled bride through the streets
Here comes the brideHere comes the bride
Here comes the bride

Isn't she beautiful?
Wedding guestsWedding guests
Wedding guests

Fancy dresses, also for the kids
Enjoying the foodEnjoying the food
Enjoying the food

The snacks were served in leaf bowls, very ecological
Ceremony of "Ten Horses Sacrifice"Ceremony of "Ten Horses Sacrifice"
Ceremony of "Ten Horses Sacrifice"

Every evening, it is performed in memory of Brahma, God of Creation
Ceremony toolCeremony tool
Ceremony tool

Ten different tools are moved during the ceremony. This one is filled with burning oil covered by a snake head


6th July 2005

Very Impressive pictures and discriptions !
Hello there ..I really enjoyed reading your blog about Varanasi..! In fact I too enjoyed it in Varanasi..more so because I always found a way to see it through a westerner's perspective..! Yeah,I'm an Indian and travelled through-out India like a backpacker. But Varanasi definitely caught my interest and made me stay formore than two months..and visit the place repeatedly..! It is really wonderful to see at my country through a traveller's perspective.. and inspite of their frightened expressions when I tried to talk to many western travellers , I managed to talk with many travellers .. and befriend them for an hore or two.. as I was enjoy to answer their questions and explain them the things they wouldn't otherwise know. It's a different experience.. for me.. Varnasi ..Nepal..Andamans..!! Thank you for the great pics..! ..of course I am not a tourist guide ..!:)
8th July 2005

Rames : spelling correction !
it is not hore .. an "Hour or two" -- very sorry for the spelling mistake
29th October 2009

Beware of the priests in the temple.
I have just returned from Varanasi. It is my first visit to this place and I have been there to perform my father's last rights as per the Hindu tradition. The journey and the visit to the place is good, a little tiring though. Inside the temple, when you visit different temples/Gods, the priests would ask to offer Rs50/100...etc. They simply ask for your name and gotra and would ask( I would say demand rather) to offer money. Just be careful and offer as much as you can. There is no compusion that you need to offer as much as they ask. The money you offer would not go to the temple, but would go to the priest himself. This is from my personal experience.
26th July 2010

Cheap Hotel in Varanasi
If you are looking for cheap hotel in Varanasi please make a visit to " Ganga Paying Guest house ".It is located on the way from Assi Ghat to Nagwa (on the main road,neary 300 meters from Assi Ghat).The rooms are very cheap starting from Rs 100/nearly 2 US Dollars for one night.They have a roof top reataurant also with a wonderful view of complete Varanasi ( from Assi Ghat to the first ghat ,., Raj Ghat , it looks like the city is sitting on the river Ganges)

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