The corner shop next to the Gulnor hotel had the most delicious of vegetable samosas, so with four of these and some fruit and water I was ready for the night train to Varanasi. I had organised with Abid at Abyss tours to book not only the 2AC sleeper but the hotel as well. ( Abid organised my ongoing flight to Cochin and a hotel there for 5 days so I was sorted and could relax for the next 10 days).
I like travelling by train as unlike air travel passengers do talk to each other. The Delhi to Varanasi train was for the most part a pilgrim train. In my compartment was a middle aged Indian couple on their way to VNC as he called India’s Holiest City. For this journey I was very lucky to have the compartment with a bit of a polymath, and he was very happy to chat with me, in his impeccable English, until his wife told him to go to sleep. It was great to meet someone who could give me a crash course in India. He was the marketing manager for Lavazza Coffee and unlike most Indians I met had travelled around Europe. He was so happy to talk, and so was I , that he woke me with tea at 6 so we could continue putting the world to right.
His wife like many Indian women, expose their midriff and as most middle aged women in a country not obsessed with image, was slightly chubby; it was odd to see an expanse of flesh in front of me.
The station at Varanasi was chaos and as the only westerner arriving I was mobbed by auto rickshaw drivers. One has to make a quick decision on who is the most honest looking and then trust to luck. Little did I know then, but am passing on this knowledge now, that VNC has certain rules for vehicles. The auto-rickshaw took me about one kilometre towards the old town and then as he was allowed no further handed me over to a cycle rickshaw the driver of which must have been nearly 80, who took me only another 800 metres before he was allowed to go no further. Expensive journey by Indian standards not much really for a westerner.
But this still left me some distance from the Alka hotel which was another kilometre through the very narrow streets of old Varanasi which could only be travelled by foot. Luckily a young Indian guy picked up my rucksack and took me to the hotel for free, well hoping that he would be my guide the next day.
The Alka hotel is little more than a backpackers but it has the best location in all of the town, with a large terrace overlooking the Ganges and between the main ghats. The food and especially the chai masala were good.
The hotel was between the 2 main ghats, on one side some 600 metres away was the Manikarnika ghat, the main burning ghat and on the other the Dashashwamedh ghat where much of Varanasi’s pilgrims come to sit and watch the sun go down.
One of the remarkable things about Varanasi is the fact that there is no building on the other side of the river so one gets a great panorama of river and landscape from one of the busiest towns in India.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, founded at least 3,500 years ago, and when one is in the oldest part of town, a long strip next to the river about half a mile wide, you can imagine that you are back in Varanasi during the middle ages.
There are an estimated 23,000 temples and I presume many of them one would consider as small shrines and almost every step brings you to another. With the continual processions of families bringing their dead to the burning ghats and the scores of holy men singularly or in groups following, the twenty first century seemed a long way away.
I eluded the young hasslers / wanabee guides outside the hotel who all cry out ‘ I take you to the burning bodies’ and set off on my own through the labyrinth of streets to discover this most ancient of living cities. The maze of lanes were not much more than a metre wide, not wide enough for a man and cow to pass at the same time, and the old town and the ghats were full of holy cows many with tassles and other affectionate adornments.
Little had changed in the last few hundred years and one could imagine being an explorer in the eighteenth century.
Mark Twain in the later nineteenth century said of Varanasi , “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Apart from plastic waste nothing had changed since Mark Twain had walked these lanes some 120 years before me.
According to Hindu cosmology..The city is the centre of the earth and
‘Tradition says that Benares first existed and the rest of the world was formed around it,
and if asked who founded Benares one might well answer who created the Himalayas’.
And these little lanes had a couple of soldiers with AK47’s on each corner ..after the Bombay terrorist attack all tourist or pilgrimage sites are heavily guarded.
From parts of town there are little alleyways that lead down to a single ghat; in other places you can wander along the bank of the Ganges from Ghat to Ghat passing temples, boat jetties and pilgrims bathing.
Here there are more children selling flowers, and groups of pilgrims being led in prayers and the bathing by a priest from the nearby temple.
Groups of men would bathe and wash their dhotis and later hold their clothes aloft to dry in the breeze. It is quite a sight to see a line of men drying their clothes in the wind.
Of course where there are tourists whether they be Indian or western there is always a scam. Here where a smartly dressed young man takes you to one side and tells you about the burning, who is allowed and not allowed to be cremated here. And how so many poor people cannot afford the wood and he, as representative of the temple, is collecting money for wood for the poor and the widows, and there are many in Varanasi, to have a proper cremation.
Apparently in some poorer villages on the Ganges, families with not enough money for an adequate amount wood end up disposing of half cremated bodies in the river.
Again the 100 rupee note (£1) in the top pocket and the ‘ this is the only money I came out with ‘ gives one an excuse to get away with only a reasonable amount of severe hassling, but by now it was water off a duck’s back, and at least I had worked out how to get to a good spot without looking lost and attracting attention.
The best and only way to see and understand Varanasi is from the river and the morning boat trip, starting well before dawn, is a little bit of Indian magic. The small boats are best with just two young boatmen sharing the rowing.
As the sun comes up there are already hundreds of pilgrims and at the Manikarnika ghat the smoke is rising from a half a dozen pyres and the small barges are already unloading wood for the days cremations.
The light with the sun on the red and yellow sandstone buildings makes the light of provence a tad pallid. The golden glow is something special. The next day the monsoon had arrived and the sky was black but the town was still in hazy sunshine and the light again was a gift for a photographer.
I navigated through the maze to Manikarnika ghat, and luckily for me the bad weather had kept the tourist hasslers away and I was able to walk through the area of logs stored ready for cremation to the balcony overlooking the ghat where there were five cremations in progress.
Directly below me a group of temple workers were preparing the body while another was preparing the pyre.
There is something rather compulsive about visiting the burning ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat.
In the west the dead are usually hidden from the living and more often than not never seen before burial or cremation but in India and especially here it is more of a celebration;
We have all probably seen the burning of the bodies on some travel programme but why is one drawn to see it. It is of great significance in the Hindu religion, as cremation here, and the scattering of the ashes here in mother Ganga, is said to break the cycle of constant reincarnation and allow your spirit to ascend to heaven rather than return as a cow or an earthworm. This is receiving moksha.
The monsoon storm now with rain and wind, blew the the smoke and ashes from the pyres in my direction and soon my eyes were stinging and I inhaled a mix of wood smoke and cremated Hindu.
The other side of my hotel is the Dashashwamedh ghat, here pilgrims, many tourists and their families, locals and troupes of holy men come to watch the sunset and on the day I was there a small herd of about twenty cows.
There are chai wallahs selling tea, Sadus offering instruction and barbers shaving pilgrims heads before the ritual bathing. Compared to much of the frenetic activity of India here, gazing out over the ganges all was calm and serene.
Varanasi is the most colourful, spiritual and captivating of all Indian cities. Once seen it will never be forgotten.
Next …Cochin & Kerala….