By January 9, 2013 Read More →

Spiritual India: Varanasi

Getting to Varanasi from Delhi

The hardest part travelling to Varanasi was getting hold of the train tickets where we had spent a couple of hours queueing at the international ticket desk at Delhi station a few days previously.   This is one of the places that I was very excited to see, many people had told us it has a special magical quality and we were eager to find out why.

Our train left at 20:40 and promised to get us to Varanasi for 8.30am the following morning.   We had 2AC berths here, one lower and one upper.   By the time we got on the train and messed about with the Ipad for an hour it was time for bed and early rise to make sure we got off the train on time.  When we awoke I discovered we were running about two hours late, not a problem, but I could have done with a bit of a snooze, so to keep ourselves awake we snacked on an Indian rail breakfast of veg cutlet and toast and a cup of chai for 45Rp.

Many tourists hire a driver and car to do this trip from Delhi, personally we recommend the train/bus as a more efficient and cost effective way as part of a tour of India.

You will notice as you travel on Indian trains that there is very little in terms of information from any train personnel.  You can ask any of your fellow passengers and they will help you out, but you will find out nothing about approaching stops or whether the train is running late from rail staff. You see them once to check the tickets and that’s your lot, before exiting the train.

I always download the train route and times and am able to find out if we are late from the timings on station stops. I have just re-read that and it makes me sound a bit nerdy, but trust me it helps.  Although based on our other train experiences in India, the whole train knows where you are from, your job and where you are going so there is zero chance of you missing your stop.

Varansi First Impressions

We arrived at about 10:15, the Varanasi stories told to us by travellers who had visited here were evident the moment we stepped off the train.  The place is incredibly busy, noisy and messy. The traffic is appalling, the sound from the horns of frustrated log-jammed drivers of buses, cars and rickshaws is absolutely deafening. We took a rickshaw ride from the station that gets you into the old town (about twenty minutes of ear bursting traffic) and then we had to make our way on foot through the narrow lanes to the hotel that lies beside the Ganges.  You can’t get a taxi directly to the ghats, which is a mild slap in the face, but is what makes this place more interesting.

The five minute walk is an assault on the senses, the smells in the form of food and spices being sold in the market stalls and the rather nasty smell of cow and goat (and a smattering of human) dung and urine litters the congested pathways.  The sacred cows roam freely through the narrow lanes, some of the lanes are so narrow you’ll have to walk backwards with a backpack if you have a face-off with a horned cow. You will be very lucky to avoid standing in at least one cow pat – I managed two.

The sights are equally as intense, the brightly dressed pilgrims in orange and brown wander through the lanes with their long white beards and the mix of Muslims and Hindu shops selling spices, kites, food and a range of tourist and local merchandise .

You will also see quite a few Indian police dotted about the lanes.   The temples of Varanasi have been a target for terrorists in the past and the Indian security has been tightened considerably over the last few years.  They know the lanes though, so if you get lost this is one place where you can ask a policeman.

If you want to visit the golden temple you will have to store any cameras, phones, pens, knives and computers in one of the local shops before you will be allowed to enter, at your own risk.  You will also face a body frisk at least a couple of times before finally getting in to the temple proper.  This is quite normal at high profile tourist places in India, but if your’e claustrophobic you may want to re-consider a visit here. We loved it, but this temple is packed to the rafters with pilgrims.

A Holy Place

Varanasi lies in the state of Uttar Pradesh (or shortened to simply UP)  and is Hinduism’s most holy city.  The sacred river Ganges banks are lined with the Ghats (or steps) leading down to the river where hotels and centuries old temples sit at the top.  It is considered auspicious to die and be cremated in Varanasi. If you are cremated here it is thought that you will attain moksha and end the cycle of reincarnation and your soul will ascend directly to heaven.

The dead are mostly cremated in funeral pyres on the side of the Ganges at a few ‘burning’ Ghats along the river.  I say “mostly” as pregnant women and  children are not cremated but  shrouded in cloth and stones attached to ropes to allow them to sink to the bottom of the river to meet their maker.   Naturally the ropes often give way, with a little help from the local fish, and it is not uncommon to see a putrefied corpse washed up along the banks.   Fortunately this was not a sight we added to our world travel collection, although we purposely avoided watching the scavenging dogs along the banks.

The burning ghats now operate 24 hours a day and business is booming as travel in India becomes easier and more people can afford to transport the dead to this holy place for cremation.

The Ganges is also a place for pilgrims to bathe, doing so is believed will absolve you of your sins.  A walk or boat ride along the river will provide you with hours of fascinating images as you see people bathe their bodies (and clothes) releasing their sins and then anoint their bodies with oil.

Each evening at the main Dasaswamedh ghat a special performance takes place known as aarti where ghee lamps are lit and devotional songs are sung and offered to the deities which we witnessed at the end of our first evening boat trip.

Ganges by Boat:  Dusk and Dawn

The boatman was recommended  by our Hotel (Alka Hotel) which for the price of 1200 Rp per night we got  a good clean room with hot water an LCD Tv and wifi.  But best of all a great terrace view of the main ghats along the river.   We spent the first afternoon just watching the pilgrims and bathers along the river before setting off to meet our boatman, Tanu.

Tanu was cheeky young lad who clearly enjoyed his job, he was full of life and gave us a good commentary about the various temples and ghats along the riverbank.   The cost of hiring a private boat in Varanasi is around 100Rp per hour, obviously you can negotiate if you want for a few hours as we did. He offered to go and get us some beers and cheekily mentioned that he likes beer too, so we sent him off to get some supplies while he moored the boat next to one of the burning ghats at the south end of town. We weren’t going to drink in this most holy of sites, but after witnessing the blessing of the booze by other Indian’s in the river, we were very discreet.

John was going to the beer shop with him, but after inadvertently inhaling his first burning corpse, Tanu had to continue alone. John was repelled by the alien smell, although he did manage not to display his repulsion publicly, and made it back very quickly to the boat. It was just a bit of shock and his body reacted to the smell before his brain could process and react.  Obviously, after this initial reaction it was much more easier for us to wander around.   Tanu returned with a bag of beers and some chicken to munch on and then called his mate Santus, he explained he wanted to share his beer with his best friend – who were we to argue.  We picked Santus up and spent the next hour chatting together before we went to see the aarti performance at Dasaswamedh ghat.

We were up at 6am the next morning to do the sunrise boat trip to view the northern burning ghats and see the pilgrims by the riverside for their sunrise ritual bathing.   The scenes were amazing with the riverbanks full of bathers in the cold morning water and the sunrise was spectacular.

Even though I am a person of no particular faith I was moved by the spirituality of the place, it truly is a mesmerising sight. You can forgive the noise, the smells and the pollution as you watch this slice of Hindu spiritual life go on around you.  It reminded us both of our trip to the Western Wall in Israel and to Bethlehem in 1999/2000,like then we can’t explain why it felt special, it just does.

Later that day we did our first tour with a guide around the temples and marketplaces in Varanasi, while it was interesting seeing the temples and having the significance of each temple explained to us, it was not a thrilling sightseeing event.  We also didn’t really like the tour guide very much so that kind of added to the disappointment.

Varanasi has been a truly remarkable destination to visit.  I know at the start of this post I talked about the downsides, but they are insignificant when placing some perceptive on what an amazing destination Varanasi is.   The only real warning I would give you is to not visit here as your first Indian destination, it is a little much to take if you haven’t eased yourself into India, in other parts of this energetic country. Its also worth booking accommodation ahead so they can guide you through the old city, not sure we would have found the hotel easily on our own weighed down with backpacks, and this place is to precious to waste time.

The touts are in abundance here especially around the train stations, main ghats and the market areas, not as pushy or aggressive as Delhi or Mumbai, but sometimes tiresome to repel politely.  Personally I could not now imagine visiting India without spending at least two nights here to soak up the atmosphere and if you are feeling brave, take a dip (or dip your toe) in the sacred Ganges.  I would recommend booking your first night here in a central hotel or hostel overlooking the Ganges until you get a feel for the place.  Hotels can also book up at peak periods, but you can always spend the night on a boat if you are desperate!

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Posted in: Varanasi

13 Comments on "Spiritual India: Varanasi"

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  1. Jenny Shaddick says:

    Hi John and Craig,

    Thanks for this amazing trip down memory lane. I spent quite a lot of time in Varanasi in my year of travel in India and it was beyond doubt my favourite place in India. You have captured the emotional assault on the mind and the senses that this unique and very special city gives so well and as always the photography is fantastic. Big kisses to you both and a Happy New Year xx

  2. Lane says:

    Your images are always so lovely. They really evoke mood and the atmosphere of place. Kudos.

  3. Thanks Lane an Jenny, this place really does grab you by the throat and the heart at the same time.

  4. You nailed it. Varanasi is my favourite city in all of India. I have visited three different times and every time I am overwhelmed by it all. Overall, I am always utterly gobsmacked by the intensity of India, but like you say, Varanasi sort of steals the show.
    Thought you might like to read my article about my first visit to Varanasi. I, unfortunately, did not know to turn away from the feral dogs.

    PS A great book about Mumbai is called Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.

  5. I’m guessing that this is one of those places that’s hard to imagine unless you visit yourself in it and see and smell everything – but your blog post gives me a really great idea of the place! Looking forward to visiting one day, I hope in the not too distant future.

  6. Great blog again guys, although it makes me very jealous!

  7. Suzy says:

    “Intense” certainly seems like the right word to describe Varanasi. Sounds like a fascinating place of chaotic life and death.

  8. Alex says:

    Ahh, Varanasi. What a place! Going there for my 10th time next month!

  9. I love this post – I feel like you really captured the essence of Varanasi.

  10. Stephen says:

    Varanasi looks like a fascinating place and an intense experience visiting. I’m looking forward to traveling there this coming summer.