Varanasi – The holiest city in the world
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with history that dates back to 3000 years BC. It is also the holiest city in Hinduism with pilgrims traveling here from all over the world. In 2011 Varanasi had 1.2 million citizens, but was still only the 30th biggest city in India!
In 2009 me and four friends visited India for two weeks. We started in Delhi and then headed to Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra. The last spot on our trip was Varanasi where we spent a couple of days. The whole trip left us and me with a lot of impressions, but I think Varanasi was the most interesting place with its unique traditions and location by the sacred river of Ganges.
Like many other cities in India it is really crowded. The roads are full of people, bikes, cars, tuk-tuks and animals. Many streets are narrow and every once in a while there is a cow in the middle of it that you have to pass to get to your hostel.
The river Ganges
The 2506 km long river of Ganges floats through the city and is along with the city considered sacred. Along the riverside of Ganges there are several ghats used by the people. A ghat is a series of steps that leads down to the river to make it possible for both bathers and pilgrims to reach the sacred water of Ganges.
The best way to see the ghats are from the water. One morning we headed out on a tour in a small boat around sunrise. We saw how the city woke up and the people doing their morning routines. Ganges is actually used for everything; bathing, swimming, praying and burying your loved ones. Not to mention that it is also where everything from the town sewage ends up…
The tour was very nice and the morning light made the atmosphere very good.
As Varanasi and Ganges are so sacred, many Hindu people make the last trip of their life to Varanasi just to be able to die there. When someone dies their families wrap them in sheets and decorate it with flowers and then run through the city down to a burning ghat by Ganges. Here the body is cremated and then spread in the Ganges. Burning the body means that their soul are being cleansed. For those who don’t need cleansing (like children and pregnant women) the bodies are just buried in the river with the help of rocks. Sometimes the bodies can float and wash up of the beach on the other side of the river though.
I remember that we experienced a run to a burning ghat during the trip. We were standing at a market buying some fruit and all of a sudden people come yelling and running down the street. A very different and special experience, but in a way beautiful too. Out of respect I of course didn’t take any photos of this, but I still remember it vividly, the memory from that is still very strong.
Exploring the other side
We spent around 3 days in Varanasi just hanging out and seeing the town. One day we took a tuk-tuk across the river to the other side. Here aren’t any ghats, but some boats and some temples just by the river bank.
The city is very alive here as well in the suburb. We walked around for a bit and talked to some kids and saw the countryside.
After walking for a while on a street parallel to the river we ended up in a plantation. I don’t remember how we resonated at this time, but anyhow we ended up walking through some high grass. I remember we stomped our way through so we would scare any potential snakes… At last we reached the very dry beach and had a view over Varanasi and Ganges. Lucky us when we reached the river there was a fisherman and his son that we could pay to give us a ride across the river again. Very exciting! It was inevitable for us to dip our toes in the river though…
What else did we do?
We spent a lot of time in the hostel in between our small excursions. We usually sat on the hostel terrace and played cards and relaxed. This is also where we had most of our meals. The winning meal for me was mashed potatoes. Yup. I’ve always been a bit picky when it comes to food, so you can just imagine how hard it was for me to eat in India. But, it didn’t matter if I liked the food or not, my stomach didn’t. After almost two weeks with only Indian food it was really nice when we finally found a nice Italian place. It felt like a real hippie place. We sat on the floor on the roof eating pizza and drinking beer. Pretty awesome actually! We also found a nice Lebanese place that had a nice atmosphere, good falafel and terrific lemonade! :)
Another thing we did in Varanasi was to go to the movies. Here we watched a real Bollywood movie! We saw Aladdin in an empty and very cold salon. The movie theater was inside a mall and we bought popcorn when we got there. But, when we reached the theater we had to buy new ones cause you couldn’t bring those popcorn inside… Well, the movie was fun actually, even though it was in Hindu and some parts English. The theme song was very catchy and I actually bought a pirate copy of it a couple of days later in New Delhi as a memory. On our way to the movies we took a ride on a cycle rickshaw. I remember feeling so bad for the guy who had to work so hard to pull us 7 people from one place to another.
Visiting Varanasi was really special, and I don’t think I ever will visit any other place with this special tradition and history again. At the time of the trip I don’t think I appreciated it very much. Mostly because I honestly felt sick the whole trip, my stomach wasn’t used to the bacterial flora I guess (or was it the malaria pills?). I think I had about one day the whole trip that I felt great. I was never stuck in bed, but felt weird every day. But now afterwards I really appreciate the experiences we had, and it has been quite fun to relive it all over again writing this post.