2018 India – Varanasi

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 Varanasi.

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 day.

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 tali.

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 ghats.

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 Ganges.

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…

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