I arrived in Varanasi on Christmas Day, my second stop on a two-week adventure organized just for me by India Someday. After spending a bit of time in New Delhi, I was ready to see the REAL India. New Delhi just felt like a big city in Asia.
Well, if India was what I was looking for, India is what I got. From the moment my taxi left the airport parking lot, I was on sensory overload. You know when you picture India in your mind, or you see a B-roll clip in a movie? That’s just what Varanasi was like for me.
In the taxi ride from the airport to my hostel, I saw a dog chasing a pig, cows sleeping in the intersections of ridiculously busy roads, goats in coats (yes!), and a little girl shitting on the roadside. I was in love.
Look at the napping cow!
As soon as I walked in the gate at Stops Hostel, I was recruited to join the evening Ghats Tour. I dropped my bags and grabbed my camera, and we set off on a walking tour of Varanasi that lead us down to the Ganges River.
Our tour guide helped us into a boat, and we pushed off into the ‘The Ganga.’ The guide was full of information, and I was soon leaning forward away from any possible splash from the river, as I learned about all the dead bodies floating around in there. Unlike the East River in New York, where bodies are dumped in hopes of never being found again, the Ganges is a sacred river that is believed to secure salvation for cremated ashes released into its waters.
|The Ganges at dusk|
Hindus also believe that a dip in the Ganga will purify them from sin. That’s why you see men swimming in the river, even though right upstream they are tossing in dead bodies.
We saw a cremation ritual happening along the banks and watched a Puja prayer ceremony at sundown. I learned that certain dead bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, and people with leprosy, are not cremated. These bodies are tied to a rock and sunk down to the bottom to reach salvation. Floating along in our boat, with all those bodies below, I was very careful when I placed my ceremonial candle down into the water to float away in offering. Unfortunately my depth perception at night has deteriorated and my fingers plunged beneath the surface of the Ganges straight up to the first knuckle. I may have leprosy, but now I’m holy.
|The beautiful ghats of Varanasi|
The next morning, I took a stroll through the back alleys of Varanasi, taking in the colors, the people, the smells, the sounds, the cows.
|Morning in Varanasi|
Back down by the banks of the Ganges, there are more than 5km of ghats to walk along. Ghats are the big sets of stairs leading down to the river from the town on top of the banks. I spent a couple hours enjoying the holy river and all the life happening on the ghats.
|Boats on the Ganges|
|Ghats of Varanasi|
|Life on the Ganges|
Notice the men bathing in the river (the guy
in pink is about to do a backflip into the water)
|Laundry day on the Ganges|
The clothes are washed and rinsed in the river.
|I loved watching these brothers flying their kite in the wind.|
At the far end of town, there is one special ghat that does very holy cremations. Only men are allowed to watch the cremations because women used to throw themselves on the fires in grief. Tourists are allowed to do some gawking, at a respectable distance. I had a look, and it was an experience I will never forget. I saw actual dead people being burned in a fire right in front of me. They use a mix of sandalwood and other fragrant woods, so the smell is not like you would expect. It’s the visual that really did me in. As I stood looking at a group of men tending to one fire, I noticed one man using a stick to poke at the fire. After a few jabs, I realized he was shoving the dead man’s foot back into the blaze. Then the glass was shattered, and all I could see was limbs and blackened heads sticking out of the fires, being licked by the flames. I moved on quickly.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering deeper into the alleys and back streets, buying souvenirs, and eating some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had.
|These alleys wound all around in a dizzying maze.|
|Pomegranate banana lassi from Blue Lassi|
I bought a few!
|Feast! (paid about 2 dollars!)|
And to top it off, I took a rickshaw back to the hostel. The poor guy had to keep getting off this bicycle to get a running start in all the crazy traffic.
|I thought rush hour in Saigon was bad....|
Varanasi was amazing and made for the most bizarre but wonderful Christmas I’ve had in a while! (And I’ve spent Christmas lounging outside in hot springs and eating vegan food on a mountain...)