Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Holy Varanasi!

Our train was late when we pulled into Varanasi and we went straight to the pre-paid rickshaw stand so as not to waste any more time. Our driver assured us that he knew where the hostel we wanted was, the problem was that we knew that were two hostels with similar names – one bad and one good – and when we checked the rooms we knew that he’d taken us to the wrong one. We were slightly annoyed as the driver had been very arrogant and rude so rather than continue on with him we decided to head out on foot to find a better place to stay. However, he kept following us and trying to direct us to hostels where he knew he’d get a commission for bringing in tourists, every corner we turned he was there - he was impossible to shake!

View along the Ganges
We checked a few more places, but they were all overpriced for what they were and none were open for bargaining. Since it was lunchtime and we still hadn’t had breaky we decided to find a café and to rest and eat something. We fluked upon a great place – really nice food and iced coffees and it turned out that the owners had a hotel just down the road that was cheaper than anything else we’d looked at and had AC so we took it, very happy with the final outcome. 

We showered and rested in our struggling AC till the temperature dropped a bit and then we walked down to the Ganges to explore the ghats along the river and to see what the holy place was all about. It was nothing like what we had expected, despite having read the stories about it. The first ghat we came across was where bodies are cremated and there was already a body burning with a second being washed and prepared for cremation. It was strange to stand so close and watch, especially when only 5m away naked kids were swimming and playing games in the river, seemingly oblivious to the sorrow only metres away.

Buffalo washing station, human washing station
A bit further up the river we located where to take your buffalo for a wash, and just passed that was where you can enter and take a bath once you’re finished cleaning your buffalo. Many old men were having their evening wash, thankfully still in loin clothes unlike the children. A few metres past the old men and buffalo section was where offerings to the gods were placed on the water to float out into the current and downstream. 

We wandered all the way up to what seemed to be the main ghat and decided that since it was at the centre part of town we’d detour in and find a place for dinner. We had no map or plan of where to go as we just figured we walk back down the river till we found where we’d come out at, so we roamed with no destination in mind, just dinner and absorbing the craziness of the place. We bought some deliciously sweet lychees from a small stall we passed and eventually found some ramen noodles for dinner in a small café which was quickly followed by home-made ice cream. 

Evening ceremony on the Ganges
Afterwards we followed the noise back to the main ghat where the evening ceremony was in full swing. A crowd of onlookers packed the Ganges riverside and we squeezed in amongst them, eager to see what the drumming and chanting was all about. We were amazed by the spectacle and the sheer volume of the singing and the crowds. We watched as lit offerings were pushed out into the river accompanied with blessings we couldn’t understand but didn’t really need to. 

Once the ceremony began to wind down we slowly walked back along the river in the almost black conditions, we had just assumed that the riverside would be well lit at night, but in a country with such frequent power outages in hindsight this probably wasn’t the best assumption. Despite the lack of light we made it back to our room and gratefully turned on the AC before the next blackout and tried to get a good night’s rest so that we’d be ready for a full day of explorations the following day.

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