At a point where several rivers join the sacred Ganges or Ganga river lies the ancient city of Varanasi, also know as Baneres, is the oldest still-inhabited city on the planet. According to Hindu mythology it was founded by Shiva and provides a gateway for the departed to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth. This also means the inhabitants have had longer than anyone to master the tourist trade and even the children are experts at pilfering money from Indian and foreign tourists alike.
Arriving at Varanasi station we were dubious of scams and touts. We immediately picked up a tout and had to deter him while we looked for the small tourist office in the station. After getting a map we phoned the guest house to pick us up from the station but two hours later they had not arrived and we resorted to getting a pre-paid rickshaw. The driver was over friendly and tried to pin us down for a rip-off tour of Varanasi the next day. He took us straight to the maruti guest house however. When we arrived there our scepticism was strong and we didn’t quite believe it was the right place so we double checked before taking our bags in. The room we had pre booked online was not quite how it was described – without a balcony and smaller than pictured. The guest house was not near the river with no view either as we had not realised that ‘assi’ was both the name of a riverside ghat and an area of the city. However, our disappointment was quickly made up for by the hospitality of our hosts. The atmosphere of the maruti guesthouse was more like that of a homestay, with their whole family making us welcome. The home cooked food was slow to arrive but very good. They drew us maps an gave us all the information we would need to visit the places in the city we wanted to see.
On our first day we Visited the grounds of the Baneres Hindu university a little way south of Assi. As soon as we entered the gates it felt like a different city, there were green and tended gardens, roads and pathways were clean(er) and the traffic congestion was almost none existent. Free from touts and rickshaws this was the perfect place for a peaceful afternoon walk. It felt as though people actually cared for and respected their surroundings here; a sharp contrast to so much of Varanasi.
The modern shiva temple within the university was spectacular. Outside the front gate a great picture had been made using coloured dust on the pavement. Leaving our shoes at the entrance we walked around the temple admiring the architecture as well as the peace. Students gathered here to relax on the grass or work in peace. Inside the temple another great chalk painting was being made by a woman before a crowd of spectators.
Evening Pooja at the Main Ghat
On our first evening we took a walk to see the Ghats (which literally means steps) on the bank of the Ganges. We set of a few hours before sunset in order to arrive at the central point in time to see the evening rituals just after dark. Walking along the ghats was like walking through a dream. A surreal scene of old and new. Ancient stones and temples, mud and water, children playing cricket and holy men bathing. There were buffalo, and park benches, touts, boats, water-works, sewers, beggars and children selling floating flowers all in one scene.
Along the river there are two burning ghats where the cremations of the deceased take place. The first one we came across was nicknamed the small burning ghat as it is the smaller of the two. We saw no bodies while we were there, just charred remains and ashes. There was also an electric crematorium here for those families who could not afford wood for a fire, it looked like a small factory standing on top of roman-style pillars.
Further along we came to the main ghat, and sat on the steps amid the gathering crowds to wait for the evening Pooja. A P.A system was set up to broadcast the ceremony and small palanquins were set up along the edge close to the river. On the central one was a lavishly decorated shrine, covered in gold and flowers. While we waited we were pestered a great many times for photos, to buy postcards and pictures. One begger even cursed us for not giving him any money after a little girl had told us not to. Eventually the ceremony started, some time after dark. Spotlights came on and five young men dressed in bright orange swung sweet smelling incense and candles in each direction of the compass, while a raket of music was performed and chanting was played over the loudspeakers. Most of the crowd seated nearer the front joined in with bells and percussion. It was amazing how no one seemed to be able to keep a rhythm. The smell of inscense filled the air and the ritual grew more intense. After what seemed like an age the din died down and the thing came to an end. Although we didn’t understand most of it the spectacle was worth watching an certainly very different from anything i’d seen before.
We concluded that day with a dinner from the Kerala Cafe. Recommended to us by our host, this cafe gave us a spectacular first taste of south Indian cooking. We instantly fell in love with Masala Dosa – a huge rice flour pankacke served with a dry potato curry filling. We also samples Chole Bhatura; Chole meaning chick peas – curried, while Bhatura was a thiner, puffed up more greasy dosa. We topped it all off with a fabulous ice cream coffee. All this only cost us the equivalent of a few pounds too!
Morning Boat Ride On The River Ganges
The next morning we rose before dawn to take a boat ride along the ghats and up the ganges. We booked this through our guest house and were accompanied by most of the other guests staying there. The boatman met us at the guest house and led us to assi ghat just as light was entering the sky. It seems most of the other boats left from the other end of Varanasi so things were relatively quiet as we started to make our way upstream. The guides were quite knowledgeable pointing out the different temples and ghat names as we passed. The early dawn air and haze added another surreal element to the riverside as people began to emerge to bath in the river. At the first burning ghat we saw several people looking through the mud and ashes for valuables that had been burned with the dead. Photography at the burning ghats was forbidden although i grabbed a few shots of the main burning ghat from a distance. It was amazing to see the city come to life and have a hassle free view of all the goings on from the river – a trip well worth making. After the main ghats we soon reached a half sunken temple in the water and headed back.
In the afternoon, after our boat ride, we decided to check out Ramnagar Fort, a little south of Varanasi in the Suburb of Ramnagar. The fort had looked appealing from a distance through the haze. We took a nightmarish tuk-tuk (all the tuk tuk journeys in Varansi are nightmarish) all the way to Ramnagar. When we had arrived through the fumes and heckling we found discriminatory pricing in full swing and were charged 30 times what indians were required to pay to enter. At first we didn’t want to go in, just out of principle, but after braving the roads to get here we decided we might as well take a look. We were herded round a museum and straight away it was apparet that the money taken on the gate was not being put into the upkeep of the place. All the walls were crumbling and the exhibits sat looking dull and gathering dust. There was very little of interest to see, mostly guns and carriages old cars and weapons of war as well as a few stuffed tigers. If that stuff does it for you then fine, but personally I found it sickening. To add insult to injury we were dragged into the temple within the fort by the baba there, who after befriending us and blessing us asked for 150 rupees from each of us rather than the usual 5 or 10 rupees which is usually sufficient After this visit we really begun to feel like we were expected to have endless amounts of money simply based on the fact that we were foreign; a concept that would be unthinkable back in the UK.
We felt better back at the hostel after some delicious home cooked food from our hosts.
On our final day we decided to visit the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Sarnath where the Buddah gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. We expected to find a peaceful place after two more hellish tuk tuk rides, but again our expectations were short-lived. Sarnath was full of shouting street vendors selling buddhist statues and was quite a poverty-stricken little town. First we visited the deer park as Annie desperately needed to find a toilet. After paying the entrance fees we saw some very sorry looking crocodiles and birds in cages – not atall to our liking. We were also hassled by a man to take a boat ride on small pond for a ridiculous price which we had to escape from.
Out side the deer park we looked inside the beautiful Mulagandha Kuri Viharah Temple. Built with donations from the international Buddhist community by the Sri Lankan Mahabodi Socety, the temple contained a beautiful golden buddha statue and Japanese style paintings depicting scenes from the buddhas life. Inside was an air of calm. Out side however we were once again hassled by some children who questioned us about our lives then asked outright for 200 rupees. We of course declined, i had realised by this point that if we gave 10 rupees to each person who asked we’d have no money left at all.
The eating options in Sarnath were very limited and after a disappointing meal we decided to checkout some of the monestaries. As we were walking along the road Annie was slapped, full pelt in the back by two Indians riding a bike at 40km an hour. This was one of the final straws and really lowered our liking of the place.
The Tibetan and Chineese Monasteries were friendly, clean and peaceful places to visit and the Jain temple too was beautiful. The Porter at the Jain temple delighted in explaining the Jain religion and showing us many photographs of famous Jains – Naked of course
Finally we visited the archeological museum which was one of the highlights of our trip to Sarnath. For once we were charged the same price as everyone else to enter. Inside there were relics dating back to the 5th century, ancient stone carvings and statues of Buddha and other deities dating back to an earlier Sarnath, before the decline of Buddhism in India and the re-emergence of Hinduism. Some of the statues could hold your gaze for a long time, the peaceful faces of the Buddhas looking somehow happier than the modern representations.
There was a lot more we could have seen in Sarnath but the streets were not pleasant places to walk around. Worn out, we decided to head back.
I was suffering from the smog and immense traffic pollution in the city and begun to develop a very bad cough, throat and chest while in Varanasi. By the third day thus had become severely painful and was obviously not a cold as Annie never caught it. the 48 train ride south to Goa was made worse with this illness.
We were glad to have experienced Varanasi but didn’t feel like hanging around, perhaps my views of the place would have become less cynical if we had stayed longer but all u could think of was getting to sunny beaches with fresh sea air and a warm sea to float in. With cautious expectations we braved the two day train journey to Goa – sharing a bunk the whole way as tickets were in short supply this close to Diwali.