Varanasi poses a problem for a blogger. How on earth do you even begin to describe this crazy place? How could I dare to try and summarise something so unique? There is too much to say and yet I am gobsmacked. I was so overwhelmed that I’m almost lost for words. Almost. I suppose I was astonished to find that chaos, crushing crowds and religious fervour could all exist on this scale.
This city has been a hub of activity since time began. It is significant to a number of different religions, but none more so than the Hindus, who consider it a lynch pin of their beliefs and the cornerstone of some of their most fundamental practices. They have flocked here, without a day’s break, for thousands of years. They come to celebrate, to die and to cremate. This means that this city is a focal point of people experiencing the extreme highs and lows of life, and that means that emotion is palpable here: it powerfully penetrates everything. You cannot escape it.
The physical make-up of the city is a higgledy piggedly whirl of ancient stone buildings, stacked high and towering at varying heights above and beneath each other. The buildings look shabby, slightly ruined but with plenty of pastel hues and strips of shocking pink or tinges of gold. From a viewpoint of one of the towering hotel terraces, where cold fizzy drinks offer some temporary respite, you can try to take it all in. It looks like a labyrinth puzzle that you could never solve.
Beneath these buildings snake main roads containing what must surely be the world’s worst traffic. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, goats, pedestrians, moving market stalls, policemen, pilgrims, monks and beggars – they all clamber forward along ancient roads which were built for nothing wider than a couple of donkeys, three thousand years ago. Nowadays they cram together, weaving bumpily, nose to nose and constantly braying and beeping their horns. The traffic is so dense that you can’t see more than a metre in front of you at any one time. And if you can see, you’re alarmed to find there are no road markings, no traffic lights and no roundabouts. You don’t ‘give way’ here, you simply point your vehicle in the desired direction and inch forward dangerously.
Running in between all this madness are tiny alleyways, walled either side by several storey buildings, all colourfully hand painted with advertisements and bewildering arrows tempting you in varying directions. The alleys are on gradients sprouting even smaller lanes leading off into doorways and teeny cupboard-sized shops.
What makes navigation even more difficult here are the sporadic power cuts which plunge the alleys into blackness every few minutes. Plus the floor is uneven and splattered every few steps with cow dung. Said cows are everywhere in this holy city, nonchalantly blocking the alleys, all too aware of their holy status. There’s also the odd red-bottomed monkey and enough scabby mongrels to put you off canines for life. (As if.)
So you might wonder how the hell anyone can possibly cope with this chaos. Well, I reckon what makes it manageable is that all of this tumult tumbles with a collective sigh, the clash of a brass symbol and huge plume of smoke into that river – the mighty Ganges.
At the edge of the mayhem, the crowds and the cows cool off and calm down at the sturdy stone ‘Ghats’. It certainly chilled me out, looking down the curvature of the river’s confluence with the huge wide swell of the water in the foreground and the desert-like mirage of sand and soft focus trees in the distance.
The waterfront is spectacular, dotted with colourful blocks and temples curving along the water’s edge. There are over 80 ‘Ghats’ here, each one a sturdy set of stone steps down to the river and each with its own set of rituals and religious significance. The ceremonies and pilgrimages have been constantly coming here for centuries. Looking out at the wooden rowing boats, the ancient temples and the robed worshippers, you could be in any century at all. Varanasi is timeless.
My swim in the river of chaos
Our arrival here was suitably chaotic: people trying to push onto the train before we’d gotten off, then an onslaught of rickshaw wallahs at the enormous busy station. Luckily I’d booked a transfer to the hostel, so I was grateful to see little smart shirted Pintu with his sign seeking “Mrs Sarah”. Touts and scams are notorious in Varanasi so we’d been forewarned to avoid a few classic ploys such as “This is your guesthouse, honest.” Pintu, who became a common fixture of our time here, was no exception. He’d entered a deal with the guesthouse to pick us up so he could try a two day long scam of being really helpful and informative when actually, he was just a tout embroiled in a complex set of scams with various services around the city. We knew something was going on and despite this, he did actually offer a useful service of helping us get from one place to another without getting lost and also chattering ten to the dozen about ceremonies, rituals and prayers. He taught us a lot of the history and sheer importance of this magical place. Just listening to him was exhausting. He spouted pure Varanasi – fast, complicated and incredible.
We stayed at Ganpati Guesthouse in the centre of Godaulia, well located and with a wonderful rooftop café looking onto the Ganges. It is not a very friendly place though and the staff, like everyone else in this city, are looking to heist you at every available opportunity. Our room was a wooden windowless box with elephant embroidered bedding and occasionally functioning electricity and water. We almost had a river view, if you stood at the door and craned your neck a little. The payoff for great views is that even the rickshaws can’t fit down the tiny back streets to reach your guest house, so you have no choice but to tackle the maze of darkened alleys on foot. Then you have to try and recall your steps home, and you need to do this without looking even slightly confused, because the second you make a wrong turn, someone will pounce with a friendly offer to get you to a ‘very good restaurant’ or trick you into visiting a shrine or a silk shop with them. False confidence is a must.
On our first evening, Pintu took us through darkening alleyways, passing by fly-ridden food stalls, mini temples and continually bumping into groups of pilgrims in the midst of yet another ceremony. The streets here are so blindingly colourful – a rainbow stream of holy men’s acid bright clothing, paint and flowers adorning every wall – it’s a wonder to behold.
In these alleys we discovered my favourite characters of all, the Sadhu monks. They have long white beards, big round eyes, painted faces, orange robes, turbans and huge smiles! They hold up their hand in salute and smile, “Hi!” when you walk past! They achieve their possession-less, nomadic existence by going through a complicated 4 stage life process to achieve Sadhu status. Women can become one too.
We visited a little Brahmin monastery where the young monks were practising their Sanskrit chants in a hypnotic rhythm. These men are born into this highly respected caste and are therefore, by birth, considered to be a bit special. They have to spend their lives devoted to religious ritual, reliant on public gifts. Incredibly, we were welcomed to take our shoes off and step inside the 3 x 3 metre pagoda to watch the Brahmins worshipping in the centre. They were focusing their chanting energies on a central stone, deliberately-shaped like a vagina and decorated with flower garlands! It was a powerful sight. One of the things that shocked me was how familiar their faces were. They were quite pale and all in their early twenties, so I could just picture them in baseball caps walking around the Trafford centre, listening to Tychy Strider. But no, instead they were here doing this, just because of the societal traditions they were born into.
The culmination of ceremonies we witnessed was the nightly shenanigans down at Dasaswanedh Ghat. Every evening, this Ghat plays host to a display of devotion by the Brahmin monks with chanting, bell ringing, gong donging, cow dung smoking, dancing, waving, fire swirling splendour! We spent an evening sat on a wooden bench near the water’s edge, setting off flower candle offerings to the water. There were hundreds of people down here, joining in the gestures of worship. People were dipping themselves in the river – which, by the way, is unimaginably filthy – putting their heads under, sipping the acrid liquid and splashing it over their heads. These ritual ablutions were something we witnessed continually during our time here but it’s not something you could ever get used to seeing. I know it’s a holy river, but it’s also filled with dead bodies, factory pollution and cow shit – it is surely not pure enough to drink?!
Filth is part and parcel of the celebration though. Indians think cow dung is sacred, so they collect it off the street, dry it out and use it for a variety of things, including smoking it in lanterns and swishing the smoke around majestically!
Witnessing these rituals was a moving experience; there was an evident and intense spirituality present. Although as soon as you start to feel carried away, there’s a sharp scam to bring you back down to earth, like a religious man plastering red paste to your forehead then demanding an extortionate donation. Thanks for that.
Dawn boat ride
On the first day of November, we were up before the cockerels (but not before the incessant barking dogs or nightly temple chants). We stepped through the dark and at 4.45am drank a street stall’s sweet cardamom tea from little disposable clay cups. There were a surprising number of people up at this time, all preparing for the next big religious festival. Life for a devout Hindu is a constant stream of dedication and preparation. People here do work, if they’re lucky enough to have a job or a trade to ply, but its never strict hours and it always makes way for religious celebrations. Our soulless 9-5 battles are completely alien to them.
Anyway, back to this morning. We went down to the waterside to haggle for what we wanted – a dawn boat ride on the river Ganges. This was a highlight of the trip for me. We had a big wooden boat to ourselves, sat on the bow with the boatman rowing his big wooden oars. We sailed along as the sun rose over the wide, misty river and visited some of the important ghats along the way.
One ghat had fasting women immersing themselves into the water, religion the only sustenance they needed. Another ghat was used for laundry cleaning, by rinsing and beating the clothes on the wet stone steps.
The most significant and truly unforgettable ghat of all was the ‘burning ghat’. We had no idea that the boatman was going to dock here and take us close to the horror. The burning ghat is where millions of bodies have been brought, and will continue to be brought, to be cremated on the holy river. This city is an auspicious place to die as it is said to break the cycle of reincarnation. Families club together and travel from afar to say farewell to their relatives in this way. One of the workers took us around the ghat to explain the ritual:
The bodies are shrouded in yellow cloth, bathed in the water then dried on the banks of the river, in full view, for two hours. The mourning family who by custom cannot cry at this point, stand over the drying body in prayer, before it is attached to a wooden raft and set alight. It takes three hours to turn to ashes but meanwhile the pelvic bone of a woman and a rib bone from a man is removed for keepsake. The dead’s jewellery is left in for donations, so workers rake through the hot ashes to sift out the valuables. We witnessed each of these stages, the smell of burning hair fortunately masked by sandalwood. It took every bit of willpower not to cry. It’s obviously horrific, but it is real life (and death) and some version of this happens to all of us, so I was glad to be forced to face up to it temporarily. But also glad when it was time to leave!
The saddest thing about the burning ghat for me is that it also houses three derelict ‘nursing homes’ where dying poor people are brought from the streets by charity and wait there to die. They’re too poor to afford a proper cremation, so they rely on donations from visiting pilgrims. Thinking of the poor elderly people was the most heart-wrenching bit for me but again, it was good to face the issues of aging and death and learn to think of life differently. Dealing with these issues is a big enough problem in the West, but here in a country of 1.1 billion people, where there are no social security benefits, not enough jobs and a poor health system, it was amazing to find that they are open about death and tackling it head on. Witnessing it briefly was a rewarding but harrowing experience. And one that sums up this city of contradictions.
Varanasi is like the mind of a madman, split open and spilled out onto the street for all to see – gory guts and gems of genius both gushing out. It’s horrific yet beautiful. It’s the reality we want to hide from but are intrigued to see. It’s exhausting to try and take it in, yet it makes for compulsive viewing.
Varanasi is obviously not for the fainthearted but it is completely mesmerising, enthralling, addictive and utterly overwhelming.