By far the most popular tourist activity in Varanasi is a sunrise boat trip on the Ganges, and so, you guessed it our alarms were set for 5.00a.m. You can easily bargain with the boatmen to get a trip for 100 rupees down at the water, in fact we had done so for the evening aarti ceremony the night before, until deciding it would be better to experience it amongst all the pilgrims on the ghat. However, we had got back really late and since it was the equivalent of a £1 saving, we opted for the hotel organised trip. This meant we were picked up at 5.30 by a local teenager and escorted the 200m to the water where we met our boat driver. The extra £1 employed an extra person.
Our boatdriver/guide was also named Ravi and was the perfect mix of interesting and fun. He explained a bit about the history of Varanasi, the city is over 3000 years old and is said to be one of the oldest places on earth! As we rode by the bathing ghat he explained what a lifeline the river is for the city, it provides income from pilgrims and tourists, water for the locals to bathe in, even a business for people washing clothes in it. Everything about the city is focused on the holy river. It was lovely and fresh since it was so early and so peaceful and quiet. We passed by some of the famous royal palaces right on the ghats, Udaipur was definitely my favourite but Bihar also had a nice one. Each of the cities, particularly in the North West of India in the state of Rajasthan had a royal family and all of them had residences in Varanasi for the members of the house to come for prayer and bathing to wash away all of the sins associated with a royal life (I imagine there were many).
We kept on going down the river before Ravi explained some more about the burning ghat. They do not cremate the bodies of children, babies or pregnant women. This is because of the idea of attachment, it is believed that adults become attached to their human bodies and on death the soul stays behind with the body. However, on burning the body the soul loses the attachment and so passes over. Since young children and babies have yet to acquire such attachment their bodies are not cremated and instead illegally put into the river with stones on. This is why, prior to the boat-ride you are prepared that there is a chance you may see a dead body floating past, particularly due to the illegality the bodies are often disposed of at night. Just as we passed by Manikarnika Ghat Ravi rode us out into the centre of the river to watch the sun slip up over the horizon as he said a morning prayer to River Ghanga to have survived another day. The whole boat journey was so peaceful and calming and we learnt a lot from Ravi, even managing to spot a Kingfisher, which I was not fast enough to click. We headed back to the hotel for our inclusive breakfast of toast with a cheese and tomato omelette yum!
After having a few hours of rest (it was only 7a.m after all) we packed up our room and headed downstairs to check-out. We had hired a tuk-tuk for the day to take us to a few of the famous sights around the city of Varanasi since outside of the windy streets of the old town it is actually quite a bit place. First stop on our trip was the famous monkey temple – Durga Mandir. Our guide Pumbu, picked us up from the BnB and gave us a quick safety lecture, not unlike my father, before zooming off to the monkey temple. When we arrived he explained the temple had increased security due to a bomb attack in 2006 and he agreed to come in with us and show us around. We had to leave all of our valuables (bags/cameras etc.) in lockers which were guarded by armed police which didn’t really settle my unease any at leaving all of the valuable items (including passport and purse). I would advise bringing nothing with you if you are planning to visit the temple for this reason, although the safety lockers worked fine for us. The temple was quite large and we walked through some gardens before arriving at the main Hanuman shrine. Hanuman is the monkey god, and was central in the Hindu story of helping to find a missing Sita for Rama. He is worshipped on a Saturday in particular and so we had arrived at the temple on the busiest day of the week since Shani stated that those who worship Hanuman on a Saturday will be saved from his wrath. The temple was interesting to see, but not unlike the many other temples we had visited and so after a quick wander we headed back to the tuk tuk.
It was about a 30 min journey to our main site of the day – Sarnath. Although it was quite a distance from Varanasi we were both really keen to visit here being the place that Buddha gave his first ever sermon and hence, where the teachings and religion of Buddhism originated. Sarnath is a massive complex with temples of different religions set in the beautiful serene grounds of a deer park. It is a lovely escape from the hectic vibe of Varanasi for a few hours. The first place we stopped was of course the Dhamekh Stupa and Monastery. As we wandered through the entrance we were surprised by how lovely and green all the surroundings were and how clean the monuments were kept. There was a small temple with beautiful drawings depicting the journey of Buddha before we crossed over to see stone carvings replicating the first sermon that Buddha taught. Despite the crowds there was a peaceful atmosphere and we wandered round turning all of the prayer wheels taking in the significant spot we were in. Sarnath is one of the 4 pilgrimage sights for Buddhists, along with Bodhgaya (where he found enlightenment), Lumbini (birthplace) and Kushinagar (where he died) and it was very cool to have the chance to go. We also visited a more modern Buddhist area with a huge Buddha statue, and Shreyansanath which was the birthplace and a famous Jain with a temple dedication which was interesting given the little I know about this religion.
Feeling very accomplished for the day we headed back to Varanasi when our driver asked if we would like to visit the ‘famous silk muslim market’. This was so clearly a scam but we hadn’t splurged much on the trip and so got dropped off at a small store where the owner claimed he was selling his scarves to Liberty London. If his claims hadn’t been quite so wild it would have been a lot easier to take him seriously. He showed us a bunch of stuff we had absolutely no interest in and then some silk scarves and pashminas. After claiming his prices were wholesale and not negotiable we walked out with a few items each all 75% less than he had pitched them at, maybe we did get ripped off but we paid what we were happy to for something we wanted.
The one restaurant we had been recommended by the guesthouse was Aman Restaurant which turned out to be a Restaurant/Hotel on the main road just next to town. It was pricey, but they had some great North Indian classics. We opted for the Khaju Korma and Paneer Achari with a Tandoori Paneer Tikka. It might have been expensive but god was the food good, some of the best North Indian we had on the trip. Really creamy and spicy and just perfect. Feeling very full we waddled back to the guesthouse to chill out in reception for a few hours using the wifi before we took a tuk tuk to the train station to negotiate our waitlisted tickets.
When we had bought the tickets I had questioned the fact they were waitlisted, Halle had a flight to catch the next morning and so waiting around in Varanasi for a few days wasn’t going to be an option for us. However, I was assured that this was quite normal and that as the date of travel got nearer people would cancel and refund their tickets and so we would be bumped up the list. While this did undoubtedly take place we only made it from 38 to 22, which was still a long way off for my liking with only a couple of hours until departure. We found the ticket man and tried to plead, cry and beg for him to confirm whether we could get on the train or not but he simply refused to confirm. He explained the train was fully booked due to the recent festival and that there was literally no free space to put us. We had 2 options, wait and chance our luck that we could find somewhere or try and get a last minute flight. As the minutes ticked by the flight option became more precarious, the last flight with availability was at 20.15 and we were an hour away from the airport. We took a call and decided to try the flight, it was going to be expensive but way less than having to get Halle a brand new flight. The ticket manager gave us a refund card and we flew across the busy street, with a bike stopping inches from Halle after slamming on his breaks, what a stressful evening this had become. We took one look at the refunds queue and decided to leave it, if we waited we would definitely have missed the flight. We took off at lightning speed in yet another tuk tuk, during the rush hour traffic, to the airport. It was a nail-biting ride for us both just hoping we would make it in time and that the tickets for the flight wouldn’t sell out in the hour it took us to get there. After what felt like a lifetime we drew into the airport, jumped out the tuk tuk, perhaps shouted some expletives at the driver who tried to ask for more money and literally ran to the ticket counter. The salesgirl had no idea why we were so crazy and calmly booked us both tickets for the hefty price of £125. At least we made it.
After all the adrenalin of the journey we checked in and came back to earth again. I managed to convince a stranger to let me use his phone to call Meetu who kindly agreed to let us crash with them when we got into Delhi. We enjoyed some Fanta and Coke while waiting to board and I slept like a baby for the duration of the flight. An uber later we were back at Nick and Meetu’s with 2 beds, a hot shower and some friendly faces. What an adventure!