Varanasi, aka Benares or Kashi to the devout, lies on the river Ganges (a goddess in herself) at one of Hinduism’s holiest tirthas or crossing points where devotees have access to the divine and gods and goddesses can come down to earth. Whoever dies in Varanasi escapes rebirth and attains moksha or instant enlightenment. So lots of old people come here to die, living off alms and sleeping in the street or empty buildings along the ghats.
Most hostels in Varanasi are hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny alleyways leading down to the ghats that line the river Ganges almost the entire length of the city. Aidan got lost in the maze while looking for hostels, finally resorting to the help of a guide to try and find a room. I waited by the bikes for what seemed like an eternity and dusk soon turned to night. Getting worried he might have been kidnapped by touts or worse, I tried to call him. Of course his phone was off and in the bag on his bike. There was no chance in hell I would ever find him. I started hatching plans of how I would pay one of the street kids to find him.
Luckily he finally turned up with his guide. They’d found a great little place and if we chose the right lanes avoiding steps and narrow passages, we could ride the bikes all the way to the front door. We hopped on the bikes and our guide jogged ahead, weaving past cycle rickshaws, people carrying parcels on their heads, children running errands and cows causing traffic jams in the narrow lanes, leading us right back to the chosen hostel.
Inside it was a welcome sanctuary each floor with balcony overlooking the reception hall and a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Ganges. In the dark an orange glow showed us where the burning ghat was.
Super exhausted and dusty we all deserved a hot shower, including Hatti and Munki.
During breakfast we were treated to that awesome view.
Afterwards we walked down to the river, going from ghat to ghat. Our hostel was near the main burning ghat, where bodies are still cremated to this day, their ashes thrown into the Holy Ganges. As you approach huge piles of wood tell tales of what is to come. Stalls selling shredded sandalwood to add to the flames line the narrow paths. Smoke smelling of its incense wafts through the air, burning the eyes of onlookers.
The story goes that some people cannot afford enough wood to burn the entire corpse, so any unburnt parts are thrown into the water. And apparently the lingering dogs around the ghat eat any left over body parts they can scrounge. But I did not witness any of that. Some bodies, such as those of pregnant women, cannot be burnt for religious reasons and so they are thrown into the river, weighed down with stones.
All day and deep into the night mourning relatives carry their deceased wrapped in fine white orange and gold cloth and draped in chains of marigolds and rose petals on green bamboo stretchers down to the ghat, where they sit and wait their turn. Wood is weighed out carried by the Untouchables on their heads from the seller to the fire pit and piled up, some under but most over the corpse. Any sandalwood is spread over the pile, which is then set alight with glowing embers from a fire by the river’s edge. The stretchers and flower garlands are discarded on the riverbank and goats and cows rummage around, munching marigolds.
Untouchables tend to the fires. You can clearly see the body, as the flames consume it. But it doesn’t feel horrific. The dead person cannot feel the heat and it just seems like a natural way to pass into the next world. The relatives, if they wait around, do not cry, as this would bring bad luck to the departed on their onward journey. When the fire is reduced to ashy glowing embers, the helpers, often young boys, put it out with water from the Ganges and then the ashes are scooped up and thrown into the river.
I expected myself to have some big emotional response of some kind, visiting this burning ghat, but everything here seems so part of life, I did not feel sad or some other intense feeling. The place just inspires a huge amount of respect and photography is of course frowned upon. We found an empty building where we could watch from the balcony and I managed to sneak a picture. No one saw so no one could feel offended.
We walked along the river dodging touts, watching pilgrims and holy men. There are big paintings of gods everywhere and even another, smaller burning ghat.
Then we returned to the streets through the maze of alleyways passing a vegetable market in a little clearing, watching paan wallahs prepare their beetlenut concoction to be sold in green leaves to men with red teeth chewing the stuff and spitting fountains of red into street corners.
There are some intricately decorated, old buildings almost drowning amongst the city’s sprawl of modern shops. Temples are squeezed into the mix all over the place, sometimes with new concrete buildings engulfing their spires. And here and there a family will keep cows tied up amongst bicycles and scooters outside their house.
Aidan reveled in the chance of yummy, super spicy street food, while I opted for the creamy spiced sweet foam sold in little throwaway clay pots.
In the evenings little boys would fly paper kites from the ghats and rooftops, decorating the dusky sky with little squares of colour flapping this way and that like butterflies.
We spent a few days here, wandering the city and enjoying a cold beer and just about acceptable WiFi in the rooftop restaurant. Of course we also went to see the eveningly puja ceremony at the main ghat. Pilgrims and tourists alike gathered on the steps, surrounding balconies and even on boats in the Ganges to watch the seven men perform the ceremony.
Incense sticks and incense coal as well as a chandelier of tiny flames were waved in the air in all four directions to the incessant ringing of lots of bells and a gong while prayers and songs were sung, amplified by loudspeaker. Anyone who knew the songs sang and clapped along. And little kids took the opportunity to sell little bowls of marigolds, rose petals, red and gold powder and a candle that people put as offerings to float in the Ganges. It was a noisy spectacle but had a very spiritual feel to it.
One morning we got up at 5.30 to meet the boatman that comes to the hotel every day at six to collect guests for a sunrise boat tour of the river. Of course no one was there when we arrived downstairs and the front door was locked. After waiting for half an hour, we went back to bed, only to hear the bell ring as we crawled under the covers. The boatman had arrived and took us down to the ghats, where his rowing boat was waiting. The dawn was chilly, but already men and women had got up to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges. As far as they are concerned the goddess Ganga is so pure, no debris, sewerage, dead bodies or even chemicals from the industries upstream can dirty her waters. Some even drink the holy water and fill bottles to take home.
Many boats with tourists are out each morning and touts row out to sell them food to feed the flocks of bird and bowls of flower offerings to set into the water. Of course we were not spared.
The shoreline looks really nice in the morning light though it is a little chilly and we soon asked our boatman to turn around.
We watched as motorized boats put-putted up to the burning ghat, laden to almost sinking point with wood to be carried up the steps to the storage places on the heads of scrawny men.
Eventually we were treated to the much anticipated sunrise over the opposite, empty shore of the river. As usual in India, the sun does not rise over the horizon, but has to climb over the perpetual cloud of smoggy mist as well, emerging a bright pink ball, before gaining its golden strength.
To the north of Varanasi is Sarnath, the spot where Buddha gave his first ever sermon. So lots of Buddhist nations have built a temple with attached monastery there. We decided to pop by on our way out. The Cambodian temple was shut, so I sneaked a picture through the gap in the gate.
The Tibetan temple a bit further down the road was open and it was my favourite of the lot. From the outside it looked nothing special and Aidan got chatting to a guy much more interested in our bikes and journey than the Spanish girls he was supposed to be showing around.
But inside it is painted in primary colours, walls covered in intricately painted tiles, a big white stupa at the back and one of those spin-and-walk-around-as-you-pray drums in the back. You could just imagine how amazing this burst of colour would be in the green and brown mountains of Tibet. While spiritual with its big golden Buddha shrine and cabinets lining the walls filled with thousands of little Buddha statues and holy scripts, it also had a really down to earth and homely feel to it. A bunch of monks were cleaning the cabinets with plenty of smiles and time to answer curious questions and the young protégés had left their desks in the usual classroom disarray after their last lesson.
A bunch of nice guys outside a shop pointed us in the right direction to find the Japanese temple.