More than 24 hours after I left home I
finally checked in at my homestay. Exhausted but happy and anxious for
what laid ahead. My adventure was about to begin…
The drive into Varanasi
was, as expected, a hectic one. Noise everywhere and cars making use of
whatever road space available. As a new highway was being constructed
over the congested road leading towards the city centre things were not
made easier. For the time being at least.
My homestay was outside
the hectic of the old city, in a small neighborhood. It was extremely
quiet for Indian standards and as the owner was out for work I was
welcomed by the daughter of the house. By now I could feel my tiredness
so I was pleased the checkin did not take too long and I could have a
well deserved afternoon nap.
When I woke up I had a
refreshing shower and although I had planned to do nothing at all for
the rest of the day I could not resist and headed to the Ganges or the
daily evening Puja. Unlike the first time it was dry that evening. The
Tuk Tuk drive to the city centre was horrendous, the crowds, the
constant sound of the horns, the driving, it was complete chaos. Instead
of suffering from a culture shock I was tremendously enjoying it.
Things simply would not have been the same if this place would have been
somehow organized. Even before I got out of the Tuk Tuk I made a new
“friend” who simply jumped in and was going to show me the way, no money
sir, just good karma… Yeah…
The final way to the ghats
was as hectic and packed as one could expect. Stalls everywhere, Sadhus
(and lookalike Sadhus), pilgrims and people who just wanted to witness
the ceremony. The only ones who seemed to be calm were the cows who
seemed undisturbed by what was going on around them.
And then it began, Shivers
ran down my spine and I could hardly hold my tears. Words fail how
impressive the ceremony was and my memory had not been playing up with
me, this time was as impressive as the first time. I even got to
understand a bit more of the flow. Whilst one Brahman was singing the
others were praying in front of the Ganges. Some pilgrims took a ritual
bath and everywhere small cups with marigolds and a candle were offered
to to mother Ganga.
Next, all seven Brahmans
started to chant and it seemed the world stood still. I was totally
absorbed by the scenery and the ritual that takes place 365 days a year
and starts 6 o’clock sharp every single evening (allowing for exceptions
which I learned later). Routine for the locals perhaps but I, like the
first time, was blown away…
I managed to get rid of my
new friend who, not much to my surprise, was interested in more than
just good karma and when the ceremony came to an end I returned to the
city where I arranged a Tuk Tuk back to my homestay. On arrival I went
out for a restaurant I had seen and enjoyed my first proper Indian meal
of my trip, as well as a well deserved Kingfisher beer. What a day it
had been !!!
That night was a restless
night, the impressions, the sounds of the city, I was still absorbing
them and had to get used to my new environment for the next 2 1/2 month.
I had a slow start, Indian style breakfast and returned by ricksha to
the ghats just to soak in the atmosphere and see what was going on.
It was Sunday so things
were relatively quit. Still the air was buzzing with activity. Prayers
were being said, monks were following meditating classes, the laundry
was being done and kids were flying kites. My stroll alongside the ghats
was one of many surprises. I witnessed ritual baths again and at one
point was asked to leave the main pathway. It would have been rude to
disturb a match of cricket.
Sadhus who seemed to be
asleep suddenly woke up when somehow they noticed a camera was in sight,
it must have been their third eye. For whatever reason it seemed to be
popular to dress goats as tigers, and the cows and Buffaloes, well they
could not be bothered less as they were just re-chewing their meal of
ehhh, yes what?
And if you start doubting I
lost my common sense, no I had not been drinking, nor had I accepted
one of the plentiful offers of hash, this was simply another day in
I took my time soaking the
atmosphere as I strolled at ease past the numerous ghats. There were
even times I noticed how quiet and tranquil it was at certain areas.
Across the river there was
some activity at the sand banks so I decided to go there one of the
following days. I did not find back the place we saw on our first visit
where the Sadhus were performing their rituals but then that might be
restricted to early mornings, a good excuse to go on a boat ride one
On my return I went to one
of the roof top restaurants from where I enjoyed a completely different
perspective of both the river and the city, as well as a wonderful
Instead of returning to
the ghats I continued my way through the maze of narrow alleys. But as
narrow as they were it did not stop motorcyclists and cows to add to the
chaos. Hundreds of shops selling dresses, clothes, food and hash pipes,
mainly the essentials in life. I thoroughly enjoyed the buzz and the
atmosphere. One pair of eyes was simply not enough to see everything.
An hour or so later I
found myself on common grounds, the market leading towards
Dashashwamedh ghat. Back at the ghat I turned left this time, towards
the cremation ghats. More boats, massages and hash to be declined, and
no, I don’t want my beard shaved either. One could certainly ask oneself
how many disturbances and offers one could bear but until now I was
still walking around with a big smile on my face.
Closer to the cremation
ghats I was warned numerous times not to make pictures so I packed my
camera just to avoid any misunderstandings. And the sights were not for
the faint of heart. Being cremated in Varanasi has nothing to do with
the grandeur like in Bali or the efficient and clean way it is done in
the west. Over here it comes back to the basics, a ritual cleansing of
the corpse in the Ganges, a pile of wood, after which it is set on fire.
No matches or fuel is being used and every fire is set alight with wood
that comes from a holy fire that is already burning for 3500 years.
Women are not allowed on
the premises as their crying would make successful passing on of the
spirit to a new life very difficult. I could see partly burnt bodies
with only the skull and legs still visible. Still the atmosphere was
serene and somehow it all seemed to fit. This was the way things were
done in Varanasi and therefor I could not feel shocked or gruesome.
What I did feel was how
tired I was getting so I returned to the city and decided for a beer,
something I felt I had deserved very much. Back at my homestay I went
for a nap after which I returned to the restaurant I was the day before
for dinner. After that I worked on my journal and returned to my
homestay for an early night. What a day it had been!
Before going to bed
however Prem, the owner of the homestay, came to say hello and told me I
could join two French ladies the next morning on a boat ride to the
Next morning the alarm
went off at 5:30 and after a refreshing shower Prem, the two French
ladies and myself went off to the ghats. The activity once again was
amazing and we joined the crowds of people all on their way to mother
Ganga. Several groups of worshippers, followed by a Sadhu were chanting
to Shiva and formed a small procession. Food stalls at the side of the
road were selling chai (tea) and hearty snacks, the cows were still
unimpressed, and everybody seemed to move towards mother Ganga.
Once at the Ganges we
could see a Brahman performing a morning ritual and loads of people
having their ritual cleansing in the Ganges, men and women separate of
course but all still open in public.
We entered a small rowing
boat and made our journey upstream. It was difficult to decide where to
look as there was so much going on at both sides of the boat.
At the shores of the
Ganges was obviously a lot of people were bathing. Pilgrims were praying
and chanting, people were meditating and I even saw some yoga sessions
going on. It was a tranquil environment, something that one could think
impossible just taking the hectic and chaos in the old city in mind, a
city that started one row of buildings behind the Ganges.
Looking to the other side I
witnessed the perfect sunset. Fist only part of a red ball surfaced
from the horizon but not much later it was perfectly round and it’s
intensity became stronger by the minute. It created a perfect reflection
on the water and the birds and boats formed silhouettes that, together,
formed the perfect image on my eyes.
After an exciting round
trip we continued to the main burning ghats. Several fires were burning
and we witnessed 2 bodies being carried to the Ganges for the last
ritual cleaning before cremation. Cremation is a 24/7 business over here
and on average 150 to 250 bodies a day are cremated and the spirit
released, ready for another reincarnation.
Just past the cremation
grounds we went ashore and first admired a temple which had totally
tilted to one side. Every year during monsoon it gets totally submerged
and tilts a little further, until one day there will be nothing left,
just like the bodies cremated and their ashes being shattered to the
We were absorbed by the
narrow alleys of the old city whilst we slowly made our way to the
golden temple. Sometimes the journey is the goal and that was definitely
the case this time. Getting closer to the golden temple, which laid
close to a white mosque, security increased tremendously. Armed guards
could be seen everywhere and at one point every shop had lockers to
leave luggage behind, nothing was allowed inside the area around the
temple, no exceptions for anyone. There was a long queue and one could
feel the excitement of the people. As Westerners were not allowed inside
the temple but only could get a glimpse from the outside we opted out
and returned to our homestay.
There a wonderful Indian
style breakfast was being served after which I decided to go for a nap.
Four hours later I woke up, I must have needed it. For lunch I choose
the second restaurant in the neighborhood, a pure veg serving place. A
stunning Doha (kind of large crepe made of rice flour) was served,
filled with tasty vegetables. I could not resist some garlic naan but
that turned out to be too much.
As I had decided for a
quiet afternoon I returned to my guesthouse where, instead of listening
to music, I slept for another four hours. It must be that adrenaline
and pure excitement were my driving factor but by now I felt how tired I
was. I knew this would happen but having time on my hand I could sleep
in for a day without having the feeling having missed out on something.
By now I felt rejuvenated and extremely relaxed.
Later that evening I went our for dinner and splashed out on two kingfishers. Once again I was ready for bed.
Next morning after
breakfast I took a Tuk Tuk to Sarnath, the place where Lord Buddha had
delivered his first preach after reaching enlightenment. It was only a 7
km drive and in spite of the hectic traffic did not take too long.
I was dropped of at
Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, which my driver said was the main temple.
Fortunately I knew better but it was a good place to start anyway. The
temple, completed by the Mohabodhi Society in 1931, is well known for
it’s beautiful wall paintings. Even more noticeable was the completely
different atmosphere than in Varanasi. Only 6 km away I might as well
have been on a different planet.
The tranquility of the
area was a welcome change to the hectic of Varanasi. After admiring the
temple I walked at ease to a Jain temple which was not far away. I got a
informative lesson in Jain philosophy after which I admired the simple
but well kept temple.
Next were the monastery
ruins and the Dhamekh Stupa. Nothing much had changed since my first
visit in 2009 but I enjoyed the peace thoroughly. I took my time to
explore the ruins. It marks the place where Buddha delivered his first
preach after having reached enlightenment. At one place some monks were
meditating and I could hear the chanting of pilgrims not far away. I
looked for a nice place under a tree and meditated myself for an hour or
so. By now I felt completely at peace. After my meditation I strolled a
bit more through the park and met three students who were very eager to
learn from where I came and what I did.
I decided to skip the
museum, having seen that in 2009 already, instead I moved on to a nearby
Thai temple with an impressive 34 meter high standing Buddha. Another
lovely place where one could literally breath the relaxing atmosphere.
It was way beyond
lunchtime now and as I could not see any suitable restaurants I took a
Tuk Tuk back to the old city where I returned to the rooftop restaurant
for a small lunch.
After that I walked past
several ghats, enjoyed the atmosphere and continued to the cremation
ghats to witness several cremations. Once again I was not shocked though
the smoke and smell of burning bodies sometimes took my breath away…
I returned to
Dashashwamedh ghat and as it was still early I managed to secure a front
row seat at a boat, directly facing the place where the Puja would take
place about an hour later. A perfect place as from here I had a
unobstructed view over the place where the Brahmans would perform some
rituals at the Ganges preceding the Puja.
Once again I have
difficulties explaining the ritual, it is something so completely
different, so intense. The performance of the Brahmans, the way the
crowd is fully to attention, chanting and clapping along. One simply has
to experience this breathtaking event to get a feeling what is going
on. This is the India of your imagination, something we Westerners
cannot get a grip of (although there are some who try to adapt to this
lifestyle and somehow they totally look out of place).
After the ceremony I
returned to my homestay where I had an appointment with the two French
ladies to have dinner together. It was a pleasant finishing of yet
another fantastic day.
Next day I had another
long sleep in. Prem was already worried I had not returned home and was
checking the security videos to see if I returned. A lovely breakfast, a
nice chat, and then it was time to update my journal.
Varanasi is an amazing
city, but as I had already noticed, also a city that drains me, the
noise, the crowds, the intense impressions. As today was a lunar cycle
the evening puja’s would take place much later as usual. Also the prime
minister visited Varanasi, meaning security would be tight, there will
be even more people and life will be totally affected by the VIP visit.
For me reason enough to opt for another quiet day. I had seen everything
I wanted to and enjoyed every single moment. With time on my hand I
could enjoy the experience to the fullest but also take time to recover
and relax, this was perfect…
Continue to The Kolkata Experience