Varanasi: where holy men meet boat men

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Free wifi rocks! Although I’m probably going to be cross-eyed by the time I finish this post on my iPod.

A new day, a new place! We’re in Varanasi right now which is such a change from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. Varnasi is such an old city – I think it’s around 6000 years old which is just unfathomable compared to Canada where the oldest building is a couple of hundred years old if anything. Right when we arrived at the airport, we knew this was going to be a much more chill place. The airport is very new but severely underused. There are gates but since there’s only 2 planes on the tarmac, they let us off about 200m from the airport so we had to all walk across the giant tarmac which is definitely something that wouldn’t be allowed anywhere in North America.

We took a taxi into Varanasi and found our guest house, Rahul Guest House, which is south of Assi Ghat. This place is perfect – the rooms are very clean and furnished nicer than most apartments. There’s also a rooftop garden which has a great view of all the ghats, the Ganges and the city. The owners are really nice and helped us book our train tickets to Khajuraho and a boat ride along the Ganges. The weather is cooler in Varanasi and perfect for exploring. However, it rained when we first arrived so thank god for free wifi! We were so bored that I even convinced Mike to sign up for Facebook just so we could play the Scrabble app. We ate some dinner and then just relaxed on the roof for the rest of the night.

The next day we started our journey along the Ganges, stopping at every ghat along the way. The city is so lively and sacred for Hindus so there were holy men everywhere performing rituals and ceremonies. The sounds of bells and smells of incense filled the air as we walked around while trying to decline the boatmen/touts as nicely as possible (by the end of it, we were joking that we should just change our names to “boat” since everyone would greet us with “hello boat?”).  There was also a lot of street art in Varanasi along the ghats – even spotted some of Space Invader’s work from 2008.

We stopped by Harishchandra Ghat which is one of the two cremation ghats in Varanasi.  A very nice man explained to us the Hindu cremation ceremony which was very helpful. It was shocking to see such a private event like a cremation so out in the open. Basically, a body must get to Varanasi within 3 hours, partially because they believe that the soul will escape and also because it’s so hot in India that they don’t want the body to start decomposing. Family members then adorn the body with colourful clothes and bring it on a wooden stretcher to the ghat by the water. The family members wash the body in the Ganges to purify it and they all scoop 5 cups of water into the deceased’s mouth to purify the inside. They then buy 360kg of wood – different types of wood have different prices – and this serves as the cost of the cremation. They build a pyre and place the body on top of it, covering it with wood as well. One male member of the family has to shave his head and wear white to symbolize purity because he is the one who gets the fire from the nearby temple and lights the wood on fire. The fire from the temple has been burning for around 400 years and there’s a person who’s responsible for ensuring that it stays lit. The family members then walk around the body 5 times. It takes about 3 hours for the body to burn and then the ashes are put into a basket and placed into the Ganges. Any remaining bones are given to the fish as Hindus believe in reincarnation. They also don’t cremate very high-up holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy or pock marks and children under 10 since they believe that those people are already pure. It was such a spiritual and amazing ritual to observe! We were in awe for at least half an hour before the smoke got too much to bear. It’s a very busy ghat and I was happy to see that the tourists were being respectful and not taking photos of such a sacred event.

We then walked some more, all while trying to dodge cow, buffalo, dog, goat and chicken poop. We saw men bathing in the Ganges and tried not to stare (sunglasses help). Mike got attacked by 2 men offering a massage so we had to do a quick escape and because we were getting hungry. We tried to walk through the streets behind the ghats but totally got lost within 5 minutes. The streets are so narrow and you can’t see if there’s going to be openings, turns or dead ends. We finally gave up trying to navigate when a pack of angry dogs started growling at us (all those hours watching The Dog Whisperer and acting as a calm pack leader didn’t help). We finally found our way to Brown Bread Bakery which serves organic food and had a snack. The bakery items and cheese are so fresh and the restaurant donates some of its profits to running a school and womens programs.

We then stumbled upon the main street and it was mayhem! There were bicycles, scooters, cars, rickshaws and people going in so many directions! We stopped to just take in all the organized chaos. After getting lost again, we decided to take a bike rickshaw back to the guesthouse. I felt so bad for the poor driver peddling as hard as he could to carry Mike and I for 30 minutes! At times, we just wanted to switch places with him but he was strong and got us home without even breaking a sweat! It wasn’t until we got home that we realized we had been walking for 6 hours. There’s just so much to see in Varanasi and such a spiritually calm feeling everywhere.

The next day, we relaxed at the guesthouse but was disturbed by loud laughing and yelling. We looked down onto the street and saw an elephant walking along the narrow streets dodging traffic as well while the local children tried to feed it. We then took a row boat ride along the Ganges at sunset and all the buildings were so colourful from the setting sun. We watched a nightly Hindu ceremony by one of the ghats where holy men offer different items to the Ganges (or as they call it, Mother Ganges). The boat ride was so serene except for the occassional swarms of moths that would attack us from every direction. I swear, I was picking moths off myself even hours after the boat ride.

This morning we woke up to this little girl selling tomatoes on the street from a huge wagon. We watched her for awhile and she was a really good salesperson – even bargaining and hard balling men who were quadruple her age. And she was using an old school scale that she could barely even lift up herself. It’s so amazing to see how much kids contribute and help their families. When I was her age, all I wanted to do is play and hated doing chores. Come to think of it, I’m still like that!

Varanasi is definitely a must-see stop on any trip to India. The buzz of the chanting echoes throughout the entire city and the smells of fresh flowers and incense makes this place kinda magical! Today, we’re leaving on an overnight train to Khajuraho. Let’s hope Mike fits into these berths or else it’s going to be a long night!

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5 thoughts on “Varanasi: where holy men meet boat men

  1. Tamara says:

    What a great post! Varanasi sounds like you stepped back in time.

  2. Mom says:

    Sounds like this is the place to visit in India. People there must be vegetarians that’s why there are so many dogs. China will not have the same problem.

  3. Kathakali says:

    Wow Claudia, u narrated Varanasi so well that I thought that I am listening to some tale. I went Varanasi so many times but to be honest, the way u narrated your venture, I am feeling proud to have visited that place and be a part of India…

  4. farrah sj says:

    great post!!! sounds like you are seeing the best parts of india!

  5. UrTravelAgent Rachel says:

    While reading your blog It felt like I was standing right beside you and seeing the same thing your seeing. Varanasi sounds like a beautiful place.

    Mike… good luck with the berth.. lol

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