I wake up in Kolkata at 2:30 am to go to the Howrah station to start for Varanasi. Varanasi, formerly Benares, is located on the left bank of the Ganges. It is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. I asked the Varanasi hotel manager if they could pick me up at the station because it is difficult to find in Varanasi and cars do not have access to the city center.
I arrive in the city at late night! Varanasi is a very lively city. There are lots of vendors in the streets, colorful facades, sacred cows on every street corner, goats, wandering monkeys. Each scene of life seems to be a painting of India as we imagine it in the scene from a Bollywood movie! It's a whirlwind! Luckily I asked the hotel to pick me up.
A rickshaw sent by our guest house awaits us and leads us, through the monster traffic jams into the old town. A guy called by the driver then loads our bags on his head and guides us through the maze of little streets filled with people to the guest-house. It is sometimes difficult to follow as the crowd is compact in places!
We finally arrive in a dark alley. The hotel is nice and the room has a small balcony with views of the Ganges. The guy at the hotel told me to pay attention while going to the balcony because the monkeys sometimes try to enter the rooms!
Today is Diwali! We have breakfast with coffee, scrambled eggs and lassi on the terrace. After breakfast we go to the city looking for a temple that my father visited four years ago. As as a clue I only have a photo of the interior. We finally find the temple in question with the help of the inhabitants. Its name is Kedareshwar. Inside, a priest makes us offer offerings and recite prayers around the different deities.
Then we go in search of the Durga temple. We visit other areas of Varanasi which are a little quieter than the one where our hotel is located. The streets are even more colorful and it's beautiful! We pass in front of Anand Bagh, a small park. We go back to our neighborhood to go to lunch.
We go through the alleys, and as we are here during Diwali there are a lot of people on the streets. We climbed to the viewpoint that is installed just above where the eternal fire remains in Varanasi. We return to see the stalls with the wood stacked, ready to be sold. We continue the tour, now we see the beautiful Nepali mandir that is near there.
In the afternoon we go to the ATM to withdraw money. In the bank they are preparing the decorations for Diwali. Next we go to visit the Varanasi University in an auto rickshaw. The university is huge! The park in which are the buildings of the university is very nice. There are large avenues with trees all along! It's so quiet and clean here. I feel good compared to the hustle and bustle of Varanasi!
We wanted to visit the museum but it is closed because of the Diwali festival. After that we decide to go to see the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We had to go barefoot and leave our bags in lockers outside. Everything is forbidden inside the temple except money. A priest must accompany us and of course we have to make donations for the temple. There are hundreds of people waiting to pray there.
Then we stop to drink a chai served in a small earthenware pot. We leave to go to lunch and order a thali! In the afternoon I wanted to attend a yoga class but the same is not possible because of the Diwali festival. So we go for a walk. For Diwali I see a lot of people in the shops that usually are empty. People buy a lot of decorations and offerings.
And we walk through the ghats, watching scenes of daily life. We go back through the alleys of the Bengali neighborhood, where we see a kali puja pandal. We continue walking, with its stalls and alleys. We had to be careful with the firecrackers in Diwali. Children do not hesitate in throwing firecrackers in the middle of the street, when we pass by.
We go back down to the ghats. It is a very photogenic city. We go south, towards the Assi ghat, one of the largest and most important. We go and eat right there on the Assi Ghat at the restaurant. The biryani was very good and abundant, we could not finish. When we finished eating, we walked back to our hotel through the ghats.
In the evening we come across the Ganga Aarti. When we arrive at the Dasashwamedh Ghat, we are in front of a huge fair. We see a lot of boats, sadhus, pseudo gurus and seers who want to put a red dot on the forehead, pilgrims and tourists of all kinds and lots of cow dung everywhere!
The ceremony is celebrated by priests who pray to honor the river. There is music, priests sing (pilgrims too) and perform a whole bunch of rituals with smoky and inflamed objects. We go down to the shore to see the ceremony closer. It's pretty with all those floating candles and boats that sail on the Ganges. In the end the priests distribute sweets to the devotees.
We put a little candle in the water in the Ganges. After the ceremony, we walk a little in the streets. Diwali has begun in Varanasi! We see the rangolis at the entrance of the houses, courtyards, shrines and other buildings. Intended to show warm hospitality, rangoli is drawn on the ground with rice flour as a sign of welcome and to repel evil spirits. Colored powders are also used to form geometric shapes.
While strolling in the streets, a family invite us to come in their house to see their pretty rangoli. All the streets, and all the shops are decorated with candles, garlands of light. It's beautiful! The temples are of course not left out. Not very hungry after the big thali this afternoon, we take lassi. The tradition being to buy sweets, we buy some!
The contrast between the festive evening and the beauty of the illuminated streets, is striking. The owner of the hotel invite us at 9 pm on the terrace! And there we see fireworks all around. The hotel employees bought lots of small lights and lanterns so that we all participate together in the festivities! It's a unique moment!
The alarm sounds again at 4:30 in the morning, but we do not care. Today we have the boat ride at dawn on the Ganges. Instead of looking for the boat, we decided to hire the tour through the hotel, for a duration of an hour and a half. They told us that at 5 o'clock, we should be at the hotel reception.
And at that time we were leaving two Canadians, a couple from Taiwan and we reach the ghat, to ride our boat, to navigate the Ganges, in silence. First we go to the Manikarnika Ghat, where we can see the lit pyres, as life and death take their course. Then we turn around and go to the Assi Ghat, passing through all the other ghats.
The bustle, begins to seize the ghats. We are spectators of life, of those scenes we have seen before on the Discovery Channel. And we see a different, magical sunrise. The fog dissipates and the sun appears.
At 7 o'clock in the morning or so, we finish the walk by the sacred river. We have seen the ritual of death, but also that of life in the river, of the ablutions, of how people wash their teeth, how they wash their clothes. We see the joy of the people when dipping themselves into the Ganges.
The jetty is five minutes from the hotel. We go to the room, clean up a bit. In Varanasi it's quite hot, with humidity. Then we went up to the terrace for our breakfast with coffee, tea, omelette and pancake. We go back to the Manikarnika ghat. We climb to the same place yesterday and we remain absorbed for a while.
We continue as we want to travel now to the ghats that are farther north, which are much calmer. We get to a point where we cannot go as clothes are spread on the floor to dry. So we turn around and retrace the path.
We are now in search of the restaurant as the walk has awakened our hunger. So we reach one that is more than 100 years old, a charming place with walls full of photographs of people who have passed by. We drink lassis. While we were there, we saw two processions passing through the street towards the main crematorium.
We also eat pakoras with onion and mashed potatoes, biryani, and plain naan. And we go back to the ghats, again in the direction of Assi Ghat, looking at everything. We see kids playing cricket, while others play cards.
It begins to get dark. Today we want to see the Ganga Aarti in another smaller ghat with fewer people than in yesterday. We reach the Kedar Ghat. Here, there was only one priest. It is true that there were few people and I could tell that it was more authentic, more genuine.
We were just a handful of tourists, but we liked more than yesterday, which was more showy and entertaining. This was too solemn and ceremonial. And we returned to have a lassi. And as it is the Diwali, we see many firecrackers and rockets.
At 4:30 the alarm goes off. It's our last day in Varanasi and we want to take advantage of it. When we prepared the trip, on one of the days in Varanasi we had planned to go to visit Sarnath, one of the four holy cities of Buddhism, which is about half an hour away. But having missed a day because of the train delay, we prefer to discard this visit and continue to enjoy Varanasi.
We go silently for the ghats. It is not even 5 o'clock in the morning and there is already a lot of people. We want to see the Aarti ceremony that is celebrated at sunrise on the Assi Ghat and there we go. The truth is that it is very beautiful, with the songs, the Ganges in the background, and everything looks like a postcard.
At the end of the ceremony, the songs begin and after these, a yoga class to which anyone can join. When we had enough, we went back through the ghats one more time. We passed again through the Harishchandra Ghat.
And we advance, slowly, as if wanting to record all the images in our eyes. We have enjoyed every walk through the ghats, every ceremony, and every puja. Varanasi has loved us, despite what it cost us to arrive. Despite having lost one day, we have found a fascinating city.
As we have time, we approach to book the car to the airport. We bought some last memories and returned to eat at our hotel, with some pakoras, noodles, and plain naan. We spend time at the hotel until the transfer time. The taxi driver arrived and accompanied us to the parking lot where he had the car without helping us with a backpack.
In just under an hour we arrived at the airport and in less than an hour and forty-five minutes, I land in Delhi. We hired a prepaid taxi, to take us to the Paharganj area, where our hotel was. We dined right there a chicken sandwich, a pizza and go to sleep. The trip is coming to an end.