Varanasi: a place like no other

Varanasi was the place that I imagined I would find India’s intriguing spirituality and most interesting of characters and I was not wrong. The city, with its holy people, it’s rituals, it’s maddening traffic, it’s delicious street food, it’s suffocating alleyways and it’s annoyingly frustrating boat touts and rickshaw drivers, was my favourite place yet.

I liked Pushkar a lot but tourism has crept a little too far there. In Varanasi, the cultural and religious significance remains so strong that tourism hasn’t really been able to ruin very much. It’s much easier to find the real magic.

I spent almost a week, mostly people watching, down at the ghats; watching pilgrims come to bathe in the holy river, watching local guys trying to persuade tourists to take their boat ride, watching children fly their kites around the steps, watching the same sadhus or holy men sit in the same spot and bless people (as long as they pay a donation), watching the same street kids begging for money, it was a continuous circus that you could never be bored watching.

It’s one of the oldest cities in the world and boasts around 2000 temples along its famous stretch of ghats or steps leading into the holy Ganges River. Dying in the city is believed to bring you both salvation and liberation according to Hinduism, particularly if you are cremated at one of the designated ghats. The most famous ‘attraction’, if you want to call it that, is the Manikarnika ghat or the principle burning ghat where most of the cremations are done on the steps of the river for everyone to see. It’s a fascinating place where fires are burning round the clock, firewood is stacked by hardworking men and bodies are brought down the steps almost like a conveyor belt and people sit to watch.

As much as I’d heard and read about it, I sat there for over two hours watching the activity. I’m not sure if it was because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or whether I was just so intrigued by it all. I had never seen a dead body in my life and yet here I was seeing body after body being carried down on stretchers, washed in the river and then rested on a bed of firewood for it to go up in flames while strangers watched on.

I tirelessly avoided holy men walking around giving blessings because I knew I’d have to give a donation. It was almost like a game of dodgeball amongst the crowd, as they lifted their arm towards me I darted out of the way. There were also countless boat operators up and down the steps and I heard a continuous cry of, “Madam, boat? Boat, madam?” as I walked. One afternoon I actually did accept one of the many offers, an old, small man with a tiny wooden row boat said he would take me for just 100Rupees or $2, an offer I couldn’t refuse. He took me up to the burning ghat and back around sunset time, it was so peaceful to see it all from the water. When we got back I didn’t have any small notes and my new friend just said, “No problem, madam, you go and come back when you get change. I am always here.” In a country that can be frustrating at times, it’s people like that who I appreciate even more. I, of course, did get back to him and decided to give him 200Rupees instead.

I sat for a while one early morning with a guy selling chai, I met a documentary film crew over lunch, I stood flat against a wall with a crowd of people eating idlis (South Indian food) in a small alleyway for 20cents trying not to get run over , I watched a sadhu giving a talk with a crowd of pilgrims sitting around him, I walked passed women wailing as a body was carried through the streets heading for the river… The people were what made the place and it’s a place not quite like any other I’ve ever been. It was fascinating, chaotic, even shocking at times. But that’s why I wanted to come to India and that’s probably why it has been my favourite place.

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