India Travelogue: Varanasi

For the next few weeks, I’m posting a travelogue about my recent trip to India – my first on the sub-continent. For those of you dreaming of a trip to India or for those of you who have been, feel free to add tidbits of your travel stories in the comments section!

We arrived in Varanasi as the sun was setting – not that one can tell in the ever-present haze. A car took us from the train to the nearest ghat (steps leading to the river) where the hotel’s boat picked us up. A boat ride at sunset was a great introduction to Varanasi!

The hotel is located along the river and cars simply can’t get through the narrow streets. We’ve only seen a few motorcycles so even rickshaws can’t get through. This part of the journey our travels will be by boat.

I went out early to explore along the riverfront and see the city wake up. Technically, I was out for sunrise, but the haze obscured any sunrise. In fact, I missed it completely. The sky simply got lighter and when I looked up the sun was already well above the horizon.

Varanasi is at its heart a religious city. There were only a few people about bathing in the river or praying. I came across three men washing clothes in the river, a sight that seems so Indian, beating cloth on flat rocks and spent quite a lot of time watching them work.

Laundry on the ganges river India
This man does laundry by repeatedly hitting the cloth on a flat rock. Water flies with each hit. Looks like tiring work!

Later, we wandered along the river and also up the steps into the market. The streets were as narrow as those in old Delhi, but here we encountered many more cows, dogs, and goats – and what they leave behind. The narrow streets were sometimes more smelly than I could stand and at some points under heaps of rubble that we had to climb over.

The best part of the afternoon was watching a herder wash his buffalo in the river. I have no interest in bathing the river and even less now, but the buffalo looked quite happy.

Buffalo Ganges River
I chose not to bath in the Ganges when I was in India, but these buffalo enjoyed their bath immensely. Herder bathes his buffalo in the Ganges in Varanasi.

Everyone is friendly – maybe too much so. Willing to help – along the way to their shop so we can buy something. These folks are fairly persistent and we had to get a bit firm at a few points. The beggars are also more persistent than we’d encountered so far on our travels. I tried to be polite, but I draw the line at them tugging at my clothes. In the afternoon we finally had to dive into the hotel from the sheer fatigue of it all.

The hotel provided a boat to visit the Ganga Aarti ceremony Dashashwamedh Ghat in the evening. This was a nice treat. Ganga Aarti is a fire ceremony where priests offer prayers to the river. It is a spectacle and packed with tourists. It was nice to float in and watch the ceremony from the river.

We thought we’d be spared having to fend off the ever-present sellers, but nimble kids hopped from one boat to another selling offerings to the river. We bought our share and sent the lit candles floating off into the night.

Selling offerings Ganga Aarti ceremony Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi India
This boy hopped from boat to boat selling offerings to the river at the Ganga Aarti ceremony Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi India

On our way to and from the ceremony, we passed Manikarnika Ghat AKA the “Burning” Ghat. It was full dark and we could see about a dozen funeral pyres burning into the night. It made a somber sight.

I returned to Manikarnika Ghat in the morning – and walking along the river really does take you through the middle of the cremations. They are right there at your feet. I came through early in the morning when they were cleaning up from the night before and before they’d started cremations for the day. There was steam and smoke coming from everywhere as they poured water on the fires that had burned through the night and raked out the ash.

Burning Ghat
I was careful not to take photos at the burning ghats in Varanasi to respect those who were being cremated along the Ganges River. In the morning, the cremations from the day before are cleaned out to be ready for the day’s cremations. Water is poured on the still hot fires sending steam into the air.

Any time we get near the burning ghat or are on a boat, the locals want to point us to the burning ghat – they seem proud to show us or they just know that tourists are fascinated and want to see. I picked up an Indian guide for the morning – I think he was trying to guide me to his silk shop, but he was happy to take me on a tour of the crematorium and tell me about the religious significance of what I was seeing.

Later, in our travels around the back streets, we came across a café, the Brown Bread Bakery. We’d read about it online somewhere and it was lunch time so we went in. The rooftop was small, but had a vibe of 1960s hippy – probably because it was full of westerners who look like they belong to that sub-group. We had a nice lunch with a couple of Australian families. We ended up going back in the evening to take advantage of their classical music concerts.

One surprise on this trip was the lack of music availability. Even Bollywood seemed absent from the streets. We didn’t often hear music coming from houses or cars and there haven’t even been many street musicians. The concert at the BBB was very good. Just a sarod and tabla player, but it was good music. We’d end up returning each night we were in the city to enjoy the musical offering.

Our goal was to visit the golden temple – Shri Kashi Vishwanath. This seems to be the attraction. We found it on our first day – sort of – at least we found the soldiers guarding it and the metal detectors and caught glimpses of gold through breaks in the buildings. We didn’t go in because it would mean leaving my camera and all of our electronics in a locker. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. So, today we set out with only our cell phones.

The temple is sunk into the city and mostly obscured making it difficult to find in the maze of streets. This is the same for many of the temples. There is a big one actually behind our hotel so we started by trying to find this one. We did, but we really had to be looking. Following directions was challenging because the maps look more like a maze than a map and our GPS dot just kept dancing all over the place.

The streets leading down to the Ganges River in Varanasi India are narrow leaving barely enough room for the locals – including the free-range cows.

We finally stumbled across the correct street – or so we thought. We put our stuff in a government locker, took off our shoes and headed – or were rather pushed – through a metal detector. There were seriously people pushing everywhere. We were then pulled out of line and told this wasn’t our gate. We needed to go to a place where foreigners were admitted.

Ok – we headed off in the direction the soldier pointed. Except the road was closed. There was a pile of rubble in the middle of the road from a building that has fallen down or was being torn down. We tried another way – and into another street full of rubble.

We found the foreigner’s gate eventually, but more by osmosis than any real knowledge. That, and there was a very long line of people with offerings trying to get into the temple. A very long line. There was no way I was going to stand in this line in a narrow, smelly alley. We were going to the foreigner’s gate so we played foreigner and just walked forward as far as we could by-passing the long lines.

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After checking in with security and giving our passports over to be checked, we were allowed inside. It was a madhouse! Everyone was so intent on placing their offerings that they really didn’t see anyone in front of them. It was easy to be stepped on. We didn’t stay long. Based on what we saw, the line outside would take hours to clear.

We’d done the tourist thing, but it was draining.

In all, we stayed 4 nights in Varanasi and I had many great photographic experiences. I loved walking up and down the river and taking boat rides. There was always something to see with life along the river.

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