A Walk Around Varanasi - Travel to the Heart of Spiritual India
Maybe I was not ready for Varanasi. Perhaps it was the radical change after traveling through large cities such as Calcutta or Delhi which caused the commotion. Perhaps it was because despite the fact that pages and pages have been written about this city, it has always been difficult for its authors to describe the incoherent feeling of walking through its streets.
I loved and hated Varanasi for its permanent contrasts and its ability to take things and emotions to the extreme. Benares has traditionally been known for Varanasi, a name composed of the Varuna and Assi rivers, which converge on the Ganges, a river that represents Shiva. It is said that Benares is the oldest inhabited city in the world.
This city is contemporary to mythological cities such as Babylon, Nineveh or Jericho. It is part of that circle of living cities among Rome, Jerusalem and Athens. The American novelist Mark Twain said that Benares is older than history, older than traditions, older even than legends, and it seems twice as old as all together.
Located on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, it is considered the spiritual capital of India. It is one of the seven holy cities, so it receives a vortex of pilgrims from every corner of the country.
1 Day in Varanasi
It was time to leave Rishikesh and head to Varanasi. We had been told that traveling by train was more practical and convenient than doing it by bus. So, happy and excited, we headed to Haridwar where we would start our train journey. We did not separate from our backpacks at any time. We even slept hugging them in our uncomfortable bunk beds, constantly visited by flies, mosquitoes and other insects attracted by the fluorescents that illuminated the wagon.
We had a compartment with nice people, a mother with her son, a single girl, a boy alone and an executive. He is that character, with his briefcase, all the time belching, rubbing his feet and chewing paan. Although the train was full of people, the air conditioning was so high that it was even cold. All the time vendors were selling chai, coffee, cookies, water and various trinkets.
The 20 hours planned became more than 30. We took it with good humor, especially after listening astonished to a guy who had traveled on the same train as us. They told us that they had been pursued by a cobra when a snake charmer, after having voluntarily made a brief performance in the car in which they were traveling, proceeded to charge for the show.
The guy refused and the charmer, angry, decided to threaten them by bringing them his elusive show companion. The guy fled running from wagon to wagon, pursued by the charmer and his serpent, until they managed to sway him. But the epic of this traveler would not end here. While he was sleeping, he sat with his backpack tied at his feet.
Some skillful baggage thief managed to get one of the bundles. So the poor boy, once arrived in Varanasi, had no choice but to go to the police station to make the complaint. In short, after listening carefully to the rugged journey of the boy, on the one hand the empathy made us feel sad for him.
But on the other hand we realized that the 30 hours of train and the experience of sleeping on a bunk embracing our backpacks and surrounded by a multitude of insects, it had been nothing more than a routine to which we should accustom ourselves if we were once again thinking of using the train to travel through this amazing country.
We arrived in Varanasi well into the night. New city, darkness and more than 20 hours of uncomfortable train journey made us choose the easiest way, a hostel near the station. We got a double room at a hostel for 400 rupees. We had a private bathroom with hot water, a large enough bed, a television with a wide assortment of films taken from the Bollywood factory. The enormous tiredness accumulated at that time of night made us not think too much.
2 Days in Varanasi
This morning we left the room, again with our backpacks on our backs and we started looking for a new accommodation. This time it was much more adjusted to our budget. A night of luxury had been more than enough for our bodies and our pocket to return to reality.
The Old City would be the old town of Varanasi. In it are the majority of gates or entrances of the city to the Ganges, the sacred river of India. In some of them are the crematoria, places in which the corpses of those believers who want their souls to be purified are cremated so that, after death, they can reincarnate in a better life.
The Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats are the main crematoria. In the Panchganga ghat, five sacred rivers converge. This fact motivates Varanasi to be a favorite place of pilgrimage. There are countless believers from all over the country who spend their lives working for, once dead, to be able to pay for the transfer of their bodies to the crematoriums of Varanasi, so that they may be incinerated and their souls purified.
The remains of the incinerated body, wrapped in a kind of aluminum foil, will be discharged, logically, into the river. The new hostel did not seem at all bad. A magnificent terrace was the meeting place of an immense number of travelers of all nationalities who, of course, made a stop in the sacred city of India par excellence.
The terrace, in addition, had a view of the river and some old stairs gave access to a shore quite close to one of the main crematoria. The smell of the city in general, and that of the surroundings of the hostel in particular, was quite peculiar. The room was quite basic. It has a tiny bed and bathroom. There was no shower. If we wanted to refresh ourselves, we had to use the community showers.
The price of the double room was 150 rupees. A price that made our pocket very happy. But after spending one night our mosquito net, which faithfully accompanied us on our trip, became a landing platform for an innumerable variety of insects. So we decided that maybe we had to look for a third option.
We spent about twenty minutes walking through medieval alleys full of cows, strange sanctuaries, sadhus, shit and puddles until we found the Hotel. Our inseparable Lonely Planet took us to the guest house. At 200 rupees we got the double room with bathroom and window. The shower was again shared with the neighbors, but the place was clean and both us and our beloved mosquito net rested without too many surprises.
After a well-deserved nap in the hostel we went to see the ghats, the stairs that lead to the Ganges, from which people carry out their ablutions. Once comfortably established, the time had come to thoroughly investigate the river, the city, and its crematoria. Strolling through the narrow streets of Varanasi is a real spectacle.
The cows for some reason that I do not know, are especially fat. The dead are taken in cots to the crematoria. Friends and family, between chants, transport the body wrapped in a kind of aluminum foil in the direction of the Ganges.
There are eyes everywhere. Children, old people, merchants, monkeys, cows, all observe me, although there is nothing to object, because I also observe them. We all look at each other, and we cannot help it. We continue walking. Some girls painted me with bright powders and asked me for money. I give them a couple of rupees. A man tried to convince us to take us by boat, then another, and another, and another, and another, and many at the same time.
We wanted to walk calmly, something that was impossible here. Varanasi, with all due respect, reminds me of a traveling circus. Every time we turn a corner we find a new show. We went to the hotel for dinner and there were the few with a bottle of whiskey. At one point we were attacked by a bug. I just hoped not to find one of these in the room.
3 Days in Varanasi
We had hired a boat at the hotel to sail at sunrise over the Ganges. The driver of this one did not wake up until eight o'clock and at that time it had already dawned. He did not understand why we no longer wanted his services and we went again to the Ganges. We were tired of being chased trying to sell things and we went to the other shore to see what was there.
We find ourselves with the antithesis of the other shore. There were no houses, no people, no buffalo, no cows but only a desert and silent esplanade. We met some dogs that lived in herds and a man who planted chitos in the middle of the sand. We sat down to enjoy the silence, I had forgotten it.
When we went to cross it again to return to the bustle, we saw the herd of dogs devouring something wrapped in cloth. On return, we take the breakfast and we go to sleep a little. Then, we walk in the neighboring streets at the hotel but on the side of the interior of the city rather than the river.
We went around the city. It was difficult to walk because of the amount of people there were. I saw an altar with a dead monkey surrounded by candles and flowers. I missed it because I would be gawking at any multicolored store.
We insisted on visiting the Kashi Vishwanath. We entered, but without cameras or backpacks or anything. We then went to visit the Banaras Hindu university campus, one of the largest campuses in India. Here we met a singing student who took us through the universities.
Then we were totally duped by some fantastic vendors. They did it so well that we could not resist and bought some pieces of fabric from the popular Varanasi silk. We were walking down an alley when suddenly a commission agent from the many silk factories in the city appeared out of nowhere and convinced us to agree to visit his factory.
We started with a guided tour inside a building that was a factory and housing. So we were presented to each member of the innumerable family that owns the business. After the interesting tour we went to a room full of silks of all colors where we were invited to sit on comfortable pillows, and where they offered us a good shawl.
It must be recognized that the quality and beauty of Varanasi silk is indisputable. It has a special and soft touch, striking colors and elaborate drawings. One does not have to be an expert to understand why these pieces of silk are rightly among the most recognized in the world.
After some arduous negotiations we ended up buying a few quilts and some handkerchiefs for a price that did not seem very expensive. We left the building with the feeling of having been completely duped, but also with the satisfaction of having bought a few pieces of the coveted Indian silk at a price that did not seem totally exorbitant.
We hired a boat and went downstream to look closely at the crematoria and the sunset. It was a beautiful image, which thanks to superstitions, was completed with lighted candles and flowers, which appeared in the Ganges . After ascending the sacred river, we stopped in front of the Dashashwamedh ghat where a ceremony was going to be held.
It was a moving image. Thousands of people gathered around dozens of priests. The evening Aarti, songs, lights, prayers and the devotion made the hairs stand on end. We return along the Assi Ghat, near where we live. To return to our guest-house, we pass each time in front of one of the doors of the Golden Temple.
At the restaurant in the guesthouse we finish the evening with excellent dishes and a biryani. After this nice dinner, we went to sleep.
4 Days in Varanasi
Today, it's raining and we leave the old town in the slush. Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, there will be Shivaratri which will attract a crowd of pilgrims, and they begin to arrive today. There is already a lot of people.
A porter guides us as we arrived to the place where we can take the rickshaw that takes us to the station. We take the night train to Calcutta which leave at 16:55.