There is a very special feeling waking up on a moving train after a solid 10 hours sleep en-route to one of the holiest cities in India. I am pretty lucky, I can sleep anywhere, and Indian trains are no exception. In fact, this was probably one of the best sleeps we had had on the trip so far! I was beyond excited to be going to Varanasi finally. It was somewhere I had wanted to go on both of my previous trips but had just never had the chance or time. Finally, after convincing Halle that experiencing the North and South is vital to get a good overall impression of India we had settled on coming here. Varanasi is famous for being one of the key towns on the holy river Ganges or Mother Ganga. Pilgrims journey here from around the world to bathe and carry out funeral rites in the holy waters. We had arranged a train pick-up so we didn’t have to bargain on arrival for a tuk tuk and so that the driver could directly drop us at our guesthouse since most of the old towns streets are so narrow only scooters and bikes can pass. We arrived at the Kedareswar BnB and checked in. This place was a lot more hotel like than the place we stayed in Pondicherry and our room was spacious, clean and had a balcony with amazing views of the famous river we had come to see.
The first thing on our minds was food after the long journey and so we headed to Shiva Café and German Bakery on the recommendation from the hotel owner. Ordering food, much like shopping for food while hungry is a mistake. I ended up with a chai and chocolate ball to start, then a full meal of dhal baat (Nepalese style) with a side of chicken momos. We had not heard very positive reviews of the food in Varanasi but were pleasantly surprised with most of it. The chocolate ball was amazing, so soft and fluffy, chai was average, dhal bhat was nice and had a lot of yummy side curries but the momos were pretty terrible. All in all a satisfying good meal.
From here we headed directly out to explore the ghats and river area. We wandered along the river completely consumed by the sights, sounds, smells, animals, people, it was such a great place to just take in your surroundings and witness life, death, and everything in between. We enjoyed watching the buffalo bathing in the river, hanging out with the many playful goats and monkeys and sat in one of the ghats for a while just watching life go by. A little along the river one of the many salespeople approached with postcards, which I actually wanted to buy so we had some chat with him and ended up purchasing the cards and a powdered make-up set to stamp different symbols of powdered colour. He then invited to take us to the market and since we had no other plans we followed along. NOTE: I would always recommend never doing this, these people make money on you buying things but since we weren’t really looking for anything in particular we knew it would be fine and enjoyed having a guide for the short walk to the store. We walked out with some pretty well bargained (75%) goods and a nice experience.
We headed back to the ghats and kept walking along the river until we bumped into one of the couples from our guesthouse. They were hanging out taking photos of the buffalo in the water and so we wandered along with them until we got to probably the most famous ghat in Varanasi – Manikarnika Ghat. This ghat is known as the burning ghat and is where families bring their deceased relatives to be cremated before scattering the ashes in the river. The significance comes from Shiva’s wife Sati who sacrificed herself and set herself on fire after one of the sons of Lord Brahma tried to humiliate her husband. Shiva took her burning body to the Himalaya’s but on the way parts fell to earth and each of these places are deemed sacred in Hindu mythology. Manikarnika Ghat is the spot where her ear ornament fell and due to its significant position right next to mother Ghanga where all hindu’s wish their ashes to be scattered to achieve Moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. It is an extremely peaceful place and somewhere I am privileged to have visited.
We had planned to check out the Blue Lassi Shop and so the guys from our hotel agreed to show us the way through the winding streets. As we walked up to the shop (about a 5 minute walk) 2 different funeral processions passed us on their way to the ghats. The one thing that really struck me was the lack of a sombre air in the processions. They are made up of only male members of the family who hold the deceased body above them on a wooden board and covered with flowers. Every person chants loudly in prayer and because they believe their loved one is being released from the constant circle of life and death there is a sort of joyous element to the procession. We ordered our lassi’s in the tiny shack shop and watched everything going on, Varanasi is such a crazy place you don’t need a list of things to do there, you just have to be present and watch life. Also, the lassi’s were the best I have ever tasted in my life, definitely recommend!
We met up with some other travellers and headed down to Dashashwamedh Ghat to get a good spot for the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony. This ceremony is carried out every day of the year at sunset (so times vary during the year). Priests conduct a ‘Agni Pooja’ or worship to fire where they make dedications to; Lord Shiva, River Ganga, the Sun, Fire and the Universe. As the people started to swell in to see the ceremony and the boatmen brought tourists to the river an atmosphere of excitement began to grow. The ceremony itself was really interesting and had lots of chanting and bell ringing throughout. Obviously, I had no idea what the chants were saying but you can feel the power of mass chanting (whether you know the significance or not) and it was pretty magical to be a part of that and to feel so connected to everyone around you.For 10p I bought my own flower candle which I lit before setting off on the river, wishing for the happiness of my friends and family, in both life and death.
We stalked away towards the end of the ceremony, it was quite long and repetitive and made our way along the river and then up to one of the long narrow streets to find some food. We settled on the Nice Restaurant where I ordered a Fanta (and ended up with a Miranda) and a special Veg Thali. Not one thing about this restaurant was ‘nice’. The food was all ok and there was a power cut in the middle of them making our meal which I assume was the reason for the delay. We waited about an hour to get food and for a lot of that time there was no wifi (power cut). Tired and full, but not necessarily satisfied we made our way back to the hotel for a not so early night.