As you ride through the streets of Varanasi, the energy of this holy Hindu city that has been continuously inhabited for over 3000 years, and whose cremation pyres have been burning for over 2000 years is mesmerizing. In addition, you are hit with a constant stream of annoying touts, who are famous for their scams, aggressiveness, rudeness, and ruthlessness in this city. We got our first taste of one when our bicycle rickshaw driver, instead of taking us to our chosen guest house, took us instead to one of his buddies in a different direction who tried to sell us a guest house in order to get a commission. After yelling at them both using expletives that, best for all involved were probably not understood, we took our massive backpacks went the rest of the way on foot, not trusting any of these thieves, through the narrow maze of alleyways crowded with shops, people, garbage and cows, to our guesthouse. More that 30 hrs after starting our journey we finally lay our packs down, in the searing heat of the city, gathering forces to take on this city for the next few days.
No other place in
We gave ourselves 2 days, despite the depth of this city, thinking that with the heat, the annoying touts, the stench and filth of the place, a few days would be all that we could handle.
The best way to see
We walked back to the river in the evening via the Muslim quarter, where silk cloth is woven by hand and on mechanized looms, to watch the ceremony that takes place every sunset at the main Dashaswamedh ghat. In the ceremony, a dozen priests perform devotion and blessing to music and crowds with incense, fire, flower petals and choreographed dance. From a distance we could see the fires of Manikarnika ghat, the buring ghat, the most auspicious place to be cremated in Hindu tradition. After the ceremony we made our way to those very burning ghats, one of the most intense places we have ever been. The most sacred place to be burned in the Hindu faith, the ghat has been in continuous operation for over 2000 years. Specific roles are played by priests, family members and the untouchable cast who set the body on a pyre of sandlewood after having dipped the body in the Ganges. Then, visible to all, and naked as the day the person came into the world, the body is set aflame and burns for 3 hours exactly. Afterwards, a remain of the body, usually a piece of bone is found in the fire by the priest, who passes it using 2 sticks to the elder son who tosses it into the river. The place is heavy and mesmerizing, and not for the weak of stomach or constitution, and raises many an existential thought.
The next morning we woke up at and found a boat man who would take us up and down the river to watch the action from the water. The sunrise created magical light as the throngs of devotees descended upon the banks in the ancient tradition. From stoned Sadus, men dressed in orange robes with shockingly white hair and long beards who have renounced all material goods and possessions, to mourners, to frolicking Indians on vacation/pilgrimage, the river ghats were chock-full of people and color, filth and flower petals. We floated peacefully by the waters, which provided endless opportunities for photos and people watching.
That afternoon we bade farewell to this special place, and whether one hates it or loves it, Varanasi leaves a stamp upon the soul and questions in the heart. We made our way back in the searing heat that burns any exposed skin to the train station and a blissfully air-conditioned sleeper car to the capital: New Delhi.