The Holy City of Varanasi


After five days in Varanasi we are waiting at the train station to catch the overnight train to Agra. Its running a couple of hours late so there’s an opportunity to reflect on our time in Varanasi and for a little writing in the station and during the train trip.

Varanasi was a very good choice for our introduction to India and it threw us right into the heart and soul of India. Varanasi is India’s holiest city, famed for its cremation ghats and vibrant ceremonies along the Ganges River. We stayed in the heart of the old city just a few buildings back from the river and with two Hindu temples in the same laneway. As well as having easy access to the river and the laneways we could also hear the goings on down by the river, on the river and at the nearby temples.

Easy access to the river comes with the proviso that you are ready for the steps, lots of them. Ghats are steps after all, either like these steps along the river or steps of hills in mountain ranges. After climbing up and down the steps to the river numerous times each day and then tackling the steep steps up to our room on the fourth floor it felt like were tackling the mountains. Hopefully we are getting fitter and fitter. In the wet season the river rises almost to the top of the steps but at this time of the year it is easy to walk right along the banks taking in the sights as we go or to wander through the laneways absorbing their sights, sounds and smells.

Early mornings are generally the most peaceful time with a calm and mystic feeling and mellow light. Paul was up and about with his camera before sun rise every morning of our stay. We took two sunrise boat trips and at other times he wandered down the steps and along the river finding plenty to capture his attention.

We had organised a boat and boatman with Sanjeey, the manager of our guesthouse and we met our boatman at the base of the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi’s liveliest and most colourful ghat. Our boatman weaved out past the other boats and we headed north toward Manikarnika Ghat. Shortly after we began the sun showed  faintly as it rose through the smog layer and gradually brightened as it rose and reflected in the calm river waters before lighting up the buildings on the shore. Behind the buildings the full moon was sinking toward the horizon. The relative cool of the morning was about to change.

Along the way we passed palaces and mansions which were built by rajahs and other wealthy families but most are in serious disrepair with just a few now taken over by hotels which are in a good state. 

Huge piles of wood surround Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat. Varanasi is a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). People approaching death are brought to Varanasi by their relatives and after their death they are wrapped in cloths and carried to one of the cremation ghats where they are doused in the river and then completely incinerated on a carefully stacked pile of wood. Relatives attend the cremation and while it is permissible for foreigners to observe it is strictly forbidden for photos to be taken during the ceremonies.

Past Manikarnika we see a ruined temple sliding into the river and more pilgrims who have come to bathe in the river or to perform puja, (prayers) to the rising sun.

When I say the mornings were peaceful I need to exclude the Sunday morning. All Saturday night music had been playing, at first it was drums, sitars and voices which was great but later there was intermittent techno music which continued all night. In the morning when we took our second sunrise boat trip we found the source of the ‘music’. As well as numerous other boats carrying passengers, far more than on our first sunrise boat trip, there were several large boats cruising up and down and carrying banks of enormous speakers which were deafening. The views were still good but unfortunately the atmosphere was severely compromised. It must have been an auspicious weekend for weddings though, we saw several wedding groups including one couple preparing to bathe their feet in the holy water of the river.

During the day our time was divided between wandering along the river bank and through the laneways and retreating to our air-conditioned room to escape the heat. On a long walk south one morning we made our way through the laneways checking out the shops lining the sides. Some sold silver jewellery, others beautiful saris and shawls and others had clothes designed and sized to fit westerners. The lanes are far too narrow for cars or tuk tuks but motor bikes sped through them with their horns blaring to warn pedestrians to move to the side. Cows also wander through and everyone gives way to them and steps around the messes they leave behind. Food scraps are left in the lanes to feed them.

We made our way down to the river at Harischandra Ghat, another cremation ghat and then further along to Assi Ghat which is one of the biggest and most important ghats. In the evening the large area is filled with entertainers and people but in the heat of late morning it is almost deserted. We made our way back along the river in the midday heat enjoying the views as we walked but feeling the 42 degree heat. After lunch in one of the restaurants near our hotel we were very glad to spend the afternoon in the cool. 

As well as our sunrise boat trips we took a sunset trip. It also left from Dashawamedh Ghat and crowds were beginning to form as we headed south.  It was far more comfortable to be rowed in the relatively cool evening than to walk in the heat of the day.

After just forty minutes we returned to Dashashwamedh Ghat as the evening Ganga Aarti (river ceremony) was about to commence. The place was filled with crowds, both on the steps and in boats packed tightly in the front of the stages. Our boatman deftly manoeuvred us into a good position to see the ceremonies which included puja (prayers), fire, chanting and dance. 

The next evening we returned to watch the ceremonies from the land and managed to get a good position on the side of the performers. Once again there were crowds gathered to join in the ceremony.

Flower sellers prepared offerings to be bought by worshippers so they could float them in the holy river in memory of their families and several times people moved through the crowds with trays containing a smoking pot and a pile of vermillion powder. The trays were proffered to people who washed their faces with the smoke and applied a dot of powder to their forehead in return for a donation.

Our close up view gave us a great chance to observe the five young men performing the ceremonies, particularly the one closest to us who was ardent in his devotions.

We wandered the river banks frequently and always found plenty to capture our interest.

Wide steps make good cricket pitches, maybe if you hit the ball into the river you have to retrieve it.

In between our walking and chilling we of course ate well. We both love Indian food and it was no hardship to eat it at least twice each day. Most times we sampled the small restaurants close to our hotel but on two evenings we ventured to roof top restaurants and enjoyed the added bonus of watching the full moon shining on the Holy Ganges River. 

Anyway, its onward to Agra and the Taj Mahal now for more wonderful experiences.