Varanasi on the River Ganges was to be my favourite place in India. It is one of the oldest continually habited cities in the world, the most sacred Hindu and Jain city, important also to Buddhists, a favourite place of Lord Shiva, a centre of culture and scholarship, and full of activity, colour and sights. There is also an amazing lassi café. What’s not to like?
The first thing we did on arrival was to get very lost. The old centre of the city is a maze of narrow alleyways where no vehicles or tuk-tuks are allowed. If you thought that might mean they were less hectic though you’d be wrong – pedestrians share the space with bicycles, motorbikes, dogs, bodies being carried to the river to be cremated, overflowing side-stalls and, of course, aimlessly wandering cows. Varanasi should really be known as the “holy (cow) city”, because they are a special feature here, pottering along, eating rubbish, staring slightly aimlessly at you, having a lie-down at the riverside ghats and generally being holy and therefore left to do as they please!
Eventually with the help of a kind bellboy from a neighbouring guesthouse we found ours and then set out to find the fabled Blue Lassi café. Best lassis ever! Homemade curd blended with fresh ingredients by a man sitting in the special window lassi-mixing seat while he talked on his phone. It took quite a while to decide what flavour combo to go for, but in the end we had banana/apple and choc/banana and they didn’t disappoint.
Afterwards we went down to the river for a walk along the ghats, which are areas of stepped riverbank where devotees gather to pray, do ritual ablutions and make offerings. More than 80 ghats line the riverbank in Varanasi along with temples and shrines, and up above, tiers of buildings overlook the water. It is a fascinating place to walk along and just watch all the happenings.
Aside from the bathing ghats there are also cremation ghats, the biggest being Manikarnika Ghat. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi can release the soul from its earthly cycle and being a holy city it is an important site for Hindu cremations. Whilst it might sound like a visit here is a bit sinister, in fact I found that the simplicity and relative tranquillity of the cremations gave a feeling of peace and that since these people were being cremated in a holy place it wasn’t too sad an occasion after all.
In the evening we went to watch the puja ceremony at the large Dashashwamedh ghat. We found a place to squeeze in to sit on the ghat steps – the people watching were crammed in whilst the cows had plenty of room! The priests performing the ceremony used flaming lamps, incense and flower petals to perform ritual offerings and obeisance to the river and the gods and it was a colourful and noisy ceremony. Plenty of tourists from all over India come to Varanasi and to participate in the ceremony and it was very interesting to watch the rituals take place. Halfway through everyone around us for up and dashed over to one of the buildings at the side. A quick sign-language discussion with our friendly neighbour told us that there was free food to be had and we joined the crowd for a free bowl of rice and some pretty spicy yellow dal!
Next morning we were up before dawn for a boat ride on the Ganges to watch sunrise. After apologetically waking the guesthouse owner to unlock the door for us, we headed to the Brown Bread Bakery in the heart of the old town. This bakery was founded by a German baker and supports Learn for Life, providing schooling for disadvantaged local kids who would otherwise most likely miss out on an education. (It’s not to be confused with the ‘other’ Brown Bread Bakery across the street run by their ex-business partners who they are in the process of taking to court for embezzling money raised for charity.) They offer volunteering opportunities to help teach and play with the kids for people staying a bit longer in Varanasi, and Cindy later returned to the city to do just that.
After a brisk trot through the maze of alleys to the river, we set off in our rowing boat under the light cast from the ghat streetlamps. At this time in the morning the city was so peaceful and the temperature pleasantly mild. Boat rides on the Ganges here may be a popular thing to do but with very good reason, and despite our fears there were hardly any other boats around as they all set off from different places along the river.
The views of the different ghats and temples were really interesting from the river, and the changing light across the water in hues of pink and orange was quite spectacular. Overall I had a real feeling of peace which is a rare commodity in India! With the rising sun people started to emerge and go about their daily tasks, including early morning ablutions in the river.
Once the sun was up we were returned to dry land and set off to find some breakfast. There was a great selection of street food available in Varanasi and we ate our first ‘dosas’ here – thin rice flour crepes, this time cooked with butter and onions and stuffed with mixed vegetables. Delicious!
Exploring the city’s alleyways we came across a big queue for a doorway with a metal detector (there’s always a metal detector in exciting places but this was both switched on and had a guard checking people so it must be somewhere important!). It was the entrance to the Kashi Vishwanath or ‘golden’ temple, a very sacred Hindu temple of Shiva. Although we got through the doorway we then weren’t allowed into the temple area as non-Hindus so we had to content ourselves with a view of its spectacular golden roof from our guesthouse rooftop. This area was a photo-free zone though because of the temple so sadly no pictures to share. Whilst up on the roof we could also watch the kids indulging in their favourite part-time of kite-flying from neighbouring rooftops all around. Kites were everywhere! I started counting but lost track after about 80.
As the light started to fade we headed to a riverside guesthouse to watch the sunset from their roof terrace. We discovered that the price of a cup of tea increases exponentially with proximity to the river so after a spectacular light show we retreated to explore the night market down by the Dashashwamedh ghat.
And so it was time to get on the night train again, this time carrying us north towards and a rendezvous (with any luck) with Ed. And so we spent the evening repacking our bags in the hotel lobby, made a little more difficult by the number of small children alternately running amok and trying to engage us in conversation! However, they became very well behaved when the prospect of a photo became apparent: