Varanasi and the Ganges

On Friday 13th April 2018 we got a flight at 7:45am to Varanasi after spending the night in Mumbai airport. We managed to sleep a bit but were still very tried when we arrived in Varanasi. The airport in Varanasi is an hour away from the city and taxis were expensive but, thankfully, there is a taxi company called Ola (similar to Uber) which did rides half the price of the prepaid airport taxis so we were able to get to our hostel without breaking the bank too much.

Varanasi is a city with a huge holy significance based along the banks of the River Ganges. Varanasi is one of the oldest established cities in the world that has had continuous inhabitants and that still has people living there today. It’s a major religious hub in India and is seen as the holiest of the seven sacred cities in the country for Hinduism and Jainism. Varanasi also had an important role in the development of Buddhism and the city is a huge pilgrimage site for people all over the world.

We were staying at a hostel called HosteLaVie which had good reviews and was near to the Ghats and the Ganges which is what everyone who goes to Varanasi comes to see. The hostel looked like it should have been in Greece instead of India with white walls and blue detailing and our room was hot without any air conditioning (Varanasi was boiling) but we managed fine and it included breakfast as well as being in a good location.

As we were very tired after our night in the airport and early flight we spent most of our day relaxing and napping although we did get out to see a few sites to make sure it wasn’t a completely wasted day. Our first stop was to a ghat that was near to our hostel called Assi Ghat. This is one of the most southern ghats in Varanasi and is where the Ganges meets the River Assi. When we first went here it wasn’t very busy but we saw more people here when we returned another day in the early morning. Assi Ghat is an important place for Hindus and pilgrims come here to bathe before worshipping Lord Shiva. On our last night in Varanasi, we returned to this ghat for food that was nearby and there were stages with people doing speeches as well as a live band playing with neon lights by the river. The place was heaving and it was nice to see it during loads of different stages of the day from worshipping to socialising. When we were there in the early morning we also saw an enormous meditation session that had everyone laughing (laughing is very good for you) which was such a surreal thing to see and couldn’t help but have you laughing too!From here we walked to Durga Mandir. This is one of the most famous temples in Varanasi and has great significance in Hinduism as it is dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The temple was constructed in the 18th Century and it is believed the icon of the goddess that’s in the centre of the temple appeared on its own one day instead of being made by a human which gives it its religious significance. This was a pinky red temple with gold detailing inside and had a steady stream of people coming here to pay tribute. It was in a small courtyard near to our hostel and was quite nice but, in all honesty, India’s temples weren’t very spectacular as a whole compared to other parts of Asia and Varanasi was no exception to this.That evening, we met up with our friend Gary who we’d got to know in Jodphur and we all went along to an Aarti Ceremony which is held every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat in Varanasi and holds a lot of religious significance with legend saying that Lord Brahma created the original ghat there to welcome Lord Shiva. The ghat here is enormous and our first view of it was when it was full of people before the ceremony. We’re not 100% what anything meant at the ceremony but the whole thing lasted around an hour and involved chanting, prayers and ringing bells. Four or five young men sang whilst burning incense in metal lamps. At certain intervals people would pray or clap and we just went along with everyone else when we had to stand or clap. It was an experience but would have been better to be there with someone who could explain what was going on.After the ceremony we joined the throngs of people leaving the ghat and found a restaurant to have tea for the night where we had a nice paneer tikka masala and caught up with Gary since we last saw him in Jodphur. It was a nice evening and interesting to see the ceremony. I was surprised that every evening the ceremony will have the same level of crowds as when we were there it was rammed!

The next day, we woke up around 4am to go on a sunrise trip of the River Ganges. We met Gary at the ghats and managed to negotiate a boat for the three of us for 200 rupees (£2.20) each. Our boat driver rowed us up and down the river to one of the last of the main ghats and back again and I’m still in awe of his strength to do that. We left when it was still dark and watched the sunrise over the horizon as we made our way from Assi Ghat, down past Dashashwamedh Ghat to our last stop of Manikarnika Ghat (the burning ghat). The sunrise was really pretty.Manikarnika Ghat is the ghat where people come to cremate their loved ones. This is one of the most important ghats on the Ganges and has massive spiritual and cultural significance in India with people coming from all over the country to end their life and be placed into the River Ganges.

We got off the boat and a man from the ghat came to us and told us more about the rituals and significance of this ghat. The first thing we saw shocked us all as there was a small white bundle which was being tied to a rock and we were told that it was a baby. We were told by the man who worked there that babies are not cremated and, instead, are placed straight into the Ganges as they’re regarded as being pure as they haven’t lived a life to create any sins. This is the same for pregnant women and children. By going back into the river once you are dead, it is believed you will be sent to the afterlife. The cremation is seen as a way to cleanse the spirit of its sins and the ashes are then placed into the river to stop the reincarnation cycle and send that person to the afterlife. That’s why so many people come to the Ganges: to wash their body of sins and/or to remove any last sins upon their death.

Whilst we were at the ghat we saw some cremations take place and even saw someone before they were cremated which was hard to see. Apparently families aren’t allowed to be sad at the ghats as this creates unrest for the spirits and could stop them from passing over. I imagine this would help you to be strong but I don’t know how I’d manage it.

At this ghat there is an ‘eternal flame’ that is constantly monitored and tended to so that it never goes out and this is the flame used to light all fires in the funeral piles. The wood to light the fire is very expensive but there is a system whereby people can donate money to the ghats which gets recorded in a log book and then that money is used to pay for or top up the price of the wood for those who can’t afford it. This is a good system as I had wondered how poorer families or the homeless would be able to afford enough wood. We were all asked to donate to this and all gave a bit but I imagine some people would give substantial amounts as it would be seen as good karma for you.

We hadn’t expected to be shown around the ghats and be told more about what went on there but it was very interesting to learn about it as well as it being a challenge, particularly when we saw some people about to be cremated. I guess that’s part of life though and the ghats are cremating people 24/7 so there would always be a chance of seeing this if we were ever at the ghats.On our way back we reflected on what we had seen and learnt about. I find it remarkable the belief that the people coming to Varanasi to be in the Ganges has. It’s incredible to be able to believe in something so strongly and I respect that a lot despite not believing in anything like that as strongly myself.

Anything that dies will be taken to the Ganges. Animals are also seen as pure and are weighted and put straight into the water as well as people who suffered from leprosy as burning them is thought to cause harm to others from the smoke. This is the same river that people come to wash themselves, their clothes and undoubtably take a drink from. There are ghats specifically for entering the river to heal skin ailments as well as all manner of other things. It did make us very aware of any splashes into the boat and didn’t make any of us want to take a dip in the water.

As the boat headed back up the river to where we started we saw loads of people in the water washing, dunking their heads under the water and praying. Dashashwamedh Ghat was particularly busy and it looked really nice with all the ladies in colourful saris in the water. The boat trip had been really interesting and was a great way to see the morning rituals at the ghats in full swing without intruding which I’d have felt we were doing if we were at one of the ghats on land.Later on we had a walk down to a place called the Dosa Cafe to try dosa which is a southern Indian dish. Dosa is like an Indian crepe and can come with many fillings. We went here twice during our time in Varanasi because it was really good and tried spinach, paneer, potato and cheese dosas. They all come with two curry dips and were surprisingly filling as well as very tasty!

We attempted to go to some temples around the Dashashwamedh Ghat but the sheer number of people making the pilgrimage to these temples was extraordinary and we would have waited for hours to get in which seemed pointless just to have a quick look and leave.

After our dosa and attempts to visit temples we had ended up walking along many of the narrow streets of Varanasi which had been great. We had walked a full street that sold what looked like curd, a street that only sold books, one that only sold engineering parts and streets selling everything else in between. All the streets were full to the brim with people like we hadn’t experienced anywhere else and it was great to see what it would be like to live in this city. There were also a lot of cows which was a little bit scary particularly as many of them had big horns and they could sometimes take up the entire street. You could tell even some of the locals were a bit weary of them!We spent most of the rest of the day walking along the river on the ghats all the way back to our hostel. This meant passing the majority of the ghats and we got to see Varanasi life on the ghats in action with people praying, children getting swimming lessons, people playing cricket and even boats being made. We thought it was great and loved getting to see the range of stuff that was happening. The river itself was also really nice and a nice colour too which we didn’t expect considering what goes into it. It was just generally a really nice day and we liked Varanasi a lot!On our final day in Varanasi we got a taxi to a neighbouring town called Sarnath. This is where the Buddha made his first sermon, teaching the four noble truths discovered through attaining enlightenment and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Buddhists.

Whilst we were there we walked through a park where there was a few Buddha temples and memorials to see. The park itself was also very nice and was all built by a devout Buddhist who wanted to make a contribution in the teachings and worship of Buddhism.Next we headed to the Dhamekh Stupa and excavated ruins of where the Buddha delivered his sermon. The entire site shows the foundations of temples and other community buildings that was once there when Buddha was around. It was a really large site and must have been so exciting when the archeologists found it all!The stupa itself was built in 500 AD to replace an earlier structure in the same location that was built in 249 BC so it’s incredibly old! This stupa was commissioned by the King at the time, King Ashoka, and apparently it has small pieces of bone and other relics from the Buddha and his disciples enshrined inside of it.Sarnath is very small and we also had to make sure we had eaten and got to the train station in plenty of time for our train so we only went to one more stop that day and that was to see the large Standing Buddha. This is India’s tallest standing statue of Buddha at 80 feet. The building of the statue was a joint effort between India and Thailand as a gesture to protest the destruction of statues of the Buddha around the world and took 14 years to construct, only being unveiled in 2011. The statue is set in a pretty park which has a nice pond running up to it and I think there may be other shrines or temples in the park too but we didn’t have time to go see them.Back in Varanasi, we had dosa before heading to the train station as we would be getting a night train that evening to take us to Kolkata.

Our time in Varanasi was short but sweet and we really loved the feel of the place from our wanderings around here. We had some nice food here (great dosa) and everyone was very friendly. I’m not a spiritual person so this didn’t hit me in the way it probably hits some people but I did love seeing the ghats and seeing everyone pray, bathe and perform their rituals here. I’m really glad we made the stop off on our way to Kolkata as it showed us yet another side to India that we hadn’t experienced before. This was what we would consider to be ‘real India’; chaotic, lively. We loved it.

Next and final stop: Kolkata

Sending love x

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