After spending a few days on a camel safari in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, we headed to Varanasi, a city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When I say headed we didn’t just pop over there, oh no, we spent 26 hours sitting on a train before we finally arrived. It was actually, surprisingly, one of my favorite train journeys while in India and the time flew by. We ate way too many snacks offered up to the train windows as we pulled into each station, it’d be rude to say no right? Go on then another pakora please. We read, played cards, chatted to a Canadian who shared his fruit with us, then an Israeli guy who came on. Then we slept… a lot. I woke up and 20 minutes later we had arrived in Varanasi. So 26 hours on a train is nothing, blink a few times and you’re there!
Varanasi, the home of Shiva, is regarded as the spiritual capital of India and is said to have been inhabited for 5,000 years which would make it one of the world’s oldest cities. One thing’s for sure, Varanasi is considered the most sacred city on the banks of the River Ganges and it was the most profound place that I visited while in India. Hindus come from all over to pray here, bathe, collect sacred water and attend to their dead.
Travelers such as myself, come to simply observe all of the above, to stand on the sidelines, in awe, bewilderment and with a thumping heart, witnessing the hum drum nature in which the people here deal with life and death.
Around 300 bodies are cremated each day at the Burning Ghats, (ghats are the riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges). Although Varanasi has 88 ghats in total, most of these are used for bathing and puja ceremonies and only two ghats are used as cremation sites.
I was really tired upon stepping off the train, tired but excited. After a one hour rickshaw ride with Claudine and our new Israeli friend we settled into Vishnu Resthouse and went to Ganga Cafe for a Chinese. Yes that’s correct… a Chinese. Intrepid travelers that we are, we then set off to explore and OMG this place is in your face crazy.
There’s a maze of winding alleyways where you can’t even stretch your arms out fully, street food simmering and bubbling away on every corner, the air is so thick and the heat so suffocating that I could hardly breath. The chaos of daily life in India that I’ve described before and that I love, well times that by ten and you have Varanasi. Along the city’s narrow streets are around 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the Golden Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. We escaped the maze and began walking along the ghats, alongside the River Ganges.
Here we came across a derelict old house with no doors and wide open windows. Twenty or so old ladies were sitting around on the floor, some lying, others propped up against the barely still standing walls. It was a dying room. They were waiting to die and their fate awaited them just a stones throw away. We stepped back outside and watched as dead bodies were wrapped in orange cloth, dipped into the Ganges and then burned. Realizing that the wind was blowing ash into our faces we headed to a quieter spot, away from the burning ghats.
It was a surreal first night in Varanasi and what I found most striking was how the people here do not hide from, nor hide, the only inevitability in life: death. They treat death as though it’s just another very normal and mundane part of life, which it is I guess. I would have loved to have asked the ladies in the dying room how they felt. Were they afraid?
Reincarnation plays a large part in the Hindu culture and they believe that if a deceased persons ashes are placed in the Ganges, their soul will go to heaven and therefore escape the cycle of rebirth where they may just get really unlucky and come back as a cow or cockroach. So it’s every Hindu’s wish to be cleansed with the holy waters, cremated at the burning ghats with the eternal fire and then have their ashes thrown into the sacred water of the Ganges. To be gone forever and eternity.
My first attempt at a yoga class the following morning failed. I missed the 8am class but did meet a Baba who read my palm, unconvincingly. Anyway, the 10am yoga class was awesome, with a mad Indian instructor who had the craziest laugh. We kind of just did the tree pose the whole time while he erm laughed at us. Then I hung out afterwards and shared a Thali with the same crazy laughing yoga teacher, who was called Sunny and a girl I bumped into on the street who I’d met previously while in the South.
Every night I was in Varanasi we would end the day sitting on the ghats watching the world go by as the sunset over the Ganges. Holy men doing their prayers and going about their rituals. Listening to the endless bells ringing from every direction, admiring the beautiful colors all around, the women’s multi-colored sarees wafting past.
Beggars approached every few minutes and hawkers relentlessly tried to sell postcards while we ate Japanese food and Bob Marley got blasted out from Ganga Cafe. As spiritual as Varanasi is, it’s equally as touristy and filthy as hell.
Claudine and I both got sick (we blame the Japanese food) and we felt as though, with the heavy air and claustrophobic vibe of Varanasi, we wouldn’t get better here. The place zapped our energy, as much as it was an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience to walk the streets and observe life (and death) it was also exhausting and overwhelming. We decided to book a sleeper train for the next day to Rishikesh, up in the mountains, for a dose of much needed fresh air.
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Read more: A Baba Love Affair – Sadhus In India
Check out the Jetset Bunny Guide To India including the basics, things to do, eat, stay and plan: India Travel Tips