After another overnight train from Khajuraho we arrived bright and early in Varanasi. Found on the banks of the river Ganges, the lonely planet warned us that it would be the most intense place we visited it – and they were absolutely right.
After freshening up at our guest house and grabbing a bite to eat in their restaurant overlooking the Ganges we headed out into the town. One of the main reasons to visit Varanasi is that is a very spiritual place and the riverbank is scattered with ghats. These ghats are all used for different things such as ceremonies, cremations, prayer or for people to improve heir karma buy giving to beggars. While we werent there for spiritual reasons we were still interested in the ghats so we decided to check them out.
There are a lot of good things about visitng in the low season – cheaper accommodation and less tourists at each monument. There are also many downsides – mostly weather related and we found the same in Varanasi. Due to the monsoon the ganges river was too high to wander the path inbetween all the Ghats. It was also too high to get a boat ride down the river which was disappointing. This meant we had to try and find our way to each Ghat using a completely rubbish map and our own sense of direction. When you are two tourists with a map it is quite easy to be picked on by touts for shops and restaurants and Varanasi was no different. We “befriended” a young man who assured us that he wasnt a guide amd didnt want any money and even though we knew there would be a twist somewhere we followed him in and out of the windy streets along the river bank to the Ghats and listening to him talk about India. He was pretty interesting guy, preaching to us about how life is about love not money, his dreams of livng in New York and discussing the bollywood movie we had seen. Of course we had to stop off in his ‘uncles’ shop to look at his goods but it was a small price to pay for an enjoyable guide.
He showed us to the nightly ceremony held at one of the largest Ghats where young men preform songs and prayers with fires, drums and music. It was interesting viewing but I found it more interesting to watch those people who had come for spiritual reasons enjoy the experience. As we wandered through the main market to get a tuk tuk I stated to understand why Varanasi was so intense. If anyone has ever done christmas shopping on Oxford Street – imagine those crowds, plus cows, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk tuks and bicycles all on the same footpath. It was mental – even compared to Delhi and Agra.
The next day we decided to get out of Varanasi a little and explore a nearby town if Sarnath. Sarnath is home to many different temples from different countries – including Japanese and Thailand. We spent the afternoon wandering through these temples and even stumbled across ruins of a monestry and a monument to where buddha gave his first speech. It was such a hot day (easily about 38 – 40 degrees) our progress was often stopped sitting under a tree and cool off.
On our way back into town we go dropped off at the river once more. We were given pretty shady instructions on how to get to where we wanted to go so of course we got lost. At first it was kind of fun, just wandering and exploring, but then we somehow picked us up another ‘guide’ even though we told him we were fine. He wouldn’t leave us alone and kept taking us further into a labryinth of streets so we were even more lost. He lead us to the main burning Ghat were people go to be cremated. It wasnt something that I was dying to see but since James wanted to go we followed him up onto a building to overlook a ceremony.
The building was a hospice type place where the old and homeless go to die, believing the spirit of the Ganges will atone their karma. The man who ran it explained what they did and then explain the cremation ceremony. It was quite a process with many differet rules for each person but overall not much different to how we would cremate someone. I was pretty wary of the hospice owner as he kept requesting money to help the homeless and talking about how it would help our karma. In the end he basically blocked the doorway to the exit and hassled us until we gave him money. Luckily for us we didnt have much on us and we got away with only givng a few pounds. We then got ‘blessed’ by an old lady and apparently we arent going to get sick again.
Our guide then tried to take us to his shop. By this stage I was fairly fed up and hot and tired and cranky at being potentially ripped off (again) I was just about ready to scream. Then I stepped in cow dung and I really did scream. I made the guide take us to a recommended restaurant where we could cool off and have a yummy meal. After a rant to James with a few choice swear words I was feeling much better and ready to face it again. We went outside and followed the waiters directions to the main street when out of no where our ‘guide’ found us and tried to get us to go to his shop. Since I had been so rude earlier I got the guilts and went to look but was still cranky that I had to, but as James had reminded me – thats just how this place works. It is especially frustrating for me, a shopaholic, who ends up buying something at nearly every store.
Overall Varanasi was an interesting place to visit, but the best part about it was getting to leave.