Not for the faint-hearted… Varanasi
Our guide from Cox & Kings had dropped us off in the centre of Varanasi as dusk approached. Immediately our senses were assaulted by the noise, smells, heat and humidity of the narrow crowded streets. We followed our guide through the crowds to the main ghat (steps) down to the river, and, suddenly through the mayhem and noise, there it was in front of us – the river Ganges, known locally as ‘The Ganga’. It was a moment to stop and stare at this magical, holy river.
There were sadhus
(holy men) in orange coloured loin clothes and beggars but we didn’t feel threatened in any way. Our guide returned, taking us to a wooden boat, which required us to balance precariously as we crossed other bobbing boats to reach ours.
Our boatman rowed downstream along the line of ghats in the fading light of day until we reached the fires of the burning ghat where the dead were cremated on piles of wood, to which more wealthy relatives added expensive sandalwood, which had a more pleasant smoky smell. No photographs were allowed at the burning ghat, and we headed back upstream, stopping to light two candles and watch them float down the river Ganga in the darkness, which I found rather spiritual. We then joined a throng of other wooden boats at the steps of the main ghat where we had first seen the Ganges.
The Ganga Aarti ceremony
Seven priests, dressed in orange coloured dhotis
then performed the daily Ganga Aarti
or ‘Festival of Lights’ ceremony, which was part of the evening puja
It was an extraordinary experience to be there, the like of which I had never before witnessed. The priests, chanting in unison, were evenly spread about ten metres apart on low, elevated platforms across the front of the ghat, as they chanted and sang, while bells rang and flutes were played. The priests swung bowls of flames in circles around them and then something that looked like a mini pine tree was lit and swung round in a circular motion with more chanting, bells and this time clapping from the huge crowd of spectators, most of whom were Indians.
It was a moving, memorable experience and utterly strange. The ceremony lasted about one hour, ending with the priests blowing conch shells and singing a rhythmic song, which the crowd all knew, joining in the singing and clapping their hands. The burning flames and lights were then extinguished and this extraordinary ceremony was over for another night.
We returned through the hot, sultry streets, sweating profusely in the heat and humidity, avoiding the beggars and wandering cows, as we walked through the mayhem of the throng to reach the relative comfort of our car.
Bathing at Dawn
The following morning, we were collected by our guide at 5.30am to see dawn over the Ganges and the faithful bathing in its waters. The streets were now quieter, as we returned to the main ghat to find another boat. This time we rowed upstream, as thousands of devoted Hindus bathed in the river, believing that by doing so they would be purged of all their sins.
Our boatman took us upstream to another burning ghat where the priests were clearing the area with mattocks, looking for gold jewellery from cremated women, which they were allowed to keep. In fact, tradition dictates they are the only ones allowed to keep this melted ornamentation.
We turned back downstream, seeing the silt and the marks left on buildings by the monsoon floods of the previous month. We went down to the lower burning ghat and watched while bodies wrapped in cloth with some sort of gold foil covering were carried by relatives on ladders made from green bamboo and placed on the waiting piles of wood. More incantations, bells and chanting, but we left before the fires were lit, coming ashore just below the burning ghat.
Our guide led us through narrow alleys, passing people, cows, goats and a snake charmer with sleepy looking cobras. There were many different temples fronting the alleys. At the foot of one such sanctuary, a cross-legged priest continuously read from some ancient holy text.
As we walked round Varanasi, it became quite common to see bodies being taken to one of the burning ghats for cremation. We saw bodies on the roof of a 4x4; on a bus roof rack; on a car; on a cart pulled by an auto-rickshaw; and within the town itself, bodies being carried on the shoulders of chanting, bell-ringing relatives. All the bodies were strapped to bamboo ladders and wrapped in gold coloured foil that looked like a survival blanket.
Varanasi is a fascinating, memorable place, one not to be missed. Logically it would be better to visit during the day and then end with the Ganga Aarti ceremony, as opposed to what we did. But whichever way round you experience it, it is still a magical place. And is it for the faint-hearted? Probably not. If you are after a well-manicured and ordered location, then Varanasi is not for you. But if you seek an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life, then go for it! You will not be disappointed.
Varanasi is included on the Grand Tour of Northern India
group tour. Varanasi can also be included in a tailor-made itinerary; you can either call a Tour Consultant on 020 7873 5000, or fill out a tailor-made enquiry form