How to describe Varanasi? I don’t think anything I say will really do it justice. It was an utterly overwhelming sensory overload.
The pristine newness and contemporary design of the beautiful Varanasi airport gives you a false sense of what’s to come.
We had an incredible whirlwind 24 hours in this amazing city. It is a place like no other. A pivotal location for three major religions (Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist), Varanasi is filled with temples and rituals and ceremonies and pilgrims from all over.
We had such limited time here so every moment was packed to the brim with as much sightseeing as possible.
After checking in at the hotel in the evening, we headed immediately for the centre of activity, the Ganges river. We could only drive to the beginning of downtown as the congestion was far too great for us to ever get through, so we took rickshaws instead. They really are a heck of a way to travel. Two parts exhilaration and one part terror! Our poor rickshaw guy looked about 95 and had some struggles on the way. I really wanted to help him peddle but he managed to get us there safely.
Our Varanasi guide had hired a few young guys to help us out. They were about 17 or so and were all hearing impaired. When our guide first mentioned that he had these helpers joining us I didn’t understand the purpose but once we started walking through the crowds I got it. Those boys were really on top of things, gently herding their tourists and keeping everyone together and safe. They made sure we understood to watch our belongings and led us around cows and dogs and ruts in the road and through the traffic. It was pretty impressive!
We went to the main ghat, the steps that lead down to the Ganges river, and slowly picked our way through the crowd to the waiting boat.
We were there to view the evening sunset ceremony. Seven priests on the main platform perform rituals and prayers to honour the Gods and Mother Ganges using incense, elaborate candelabras and chanting. It was incredible to watch. We happened to be there on a particularly auspicious day as well, the day before Dev Diwali, so instead several hundred people on the steps there were thousands!!! The next evening 250,000 were expected to attend!!!!
When the ceremony was complete our boat floated down the Ganges a little ways and we lit candles and chanted as a group before lowering our candles into the river to float away. It was so beautiful.
Further downstream we saw one of the cremation sites where several families were saying goodbye to their loved ones. I’ll admit it felt particularly voyeuristic to be watching people going through such an intensely personal and preferably private experience. It was enlightening though to learn more about the beliefs and rituals that go along with the death of a loved one. How there is no crying or wailing at the funeral pyre as it is believed that such behaviour will interfere with the ascension of the person’s spirit. They have specific traditions to help detach the person from any worldly attachments. Though I’m not sure how I feel about gawking at something so private, it was unforgettable to see.
After that we moored our boat away from the main platform and climbed the steps to downtown and made our way through some windy alleyways to the rickshaws again. Somehow we switched drivers and an even older fellow picked us up and whisked (I use that term loosely) us away!
Bonita (our guide) had warned us that Varanasi would be the most intense city we’d visit and she was definitely correct.
After a short night’s rest we were up very early for the sunrise ceremonies. This time we were able to take the bus most of the way to the river as the crowds were not heavy that early in the morning. We again boarded our boat and started down the river to the main platform to witness people bathing in the river. Some of the pilgrims there had spent the night with their families sleeping on the steps so they could keep their spot for bathing. It’s normal for 50 or so people to be bathing early in the morning but because of the date there were hundreds at the waters edge. Again, it was pretty voyeuristic to watch people purify themselves in the river but unforgettable.
We were also able to see some young priests in training practicing their yoga. It was really cool to watch.
There was a crematorium beside the boat “dock” that was playing really upbeat, catchy music. It sounded like Indian pop music although I’m sure that’s not what it was. It just seemed so incongruous with the purpose of the place. I thought it was great.
After all that we made our way back to the hotel for breakfast and to finish packing for our flight! Next stop Kathmandu!!!