Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Varanasi - The Holiest of Ancient Cities

We were unsure about whether to go to Varanasi, we heard it was an 'experience' albeit maybe not always the most pleasant. We ended up with a few extra days and thought it would be a shame to come this far and not visit the holiest and oldest city in India. We caught the night train from Agra and arrived the next morning and stayed in the Azure guesthouse, about a 10 minute walk from the ghats. Our room was definitely the brightest room we have ever stayed in and the friendly family made this a pleasant base away from the old city to explore Varanasi, although the walk to the water is not ideal

The town itself before the old part is pretty ugly, VERY polluted, one of the few places where I wanted to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf in order to not breath too much of the dirty air.

When we arrived at the ghats and walk down to the river ganges, however,
it felt like a completely different place, the sun shining (behind the smog) the cows and local people were out having a wash in the river, or a spiritual cleanse, depending on which way you (or they?) look at it. Yogis and holy men walk around in loin cloths asking for spare change. Little children sell anything and everything. There was quite a large amount of tourists but it didn't take away the authenticity of the place.

Who would've known that cows loved water this much. Seeing men bath and wash each and every cow meticulously was a sight to behold.

The winding maze of alleyways in the old city were a safe haven from the busy main roads in the newer part of the city, and a whole lot more interesting. Great little cafes and jewellery shops lined the sides of the alleyways.

The mish mash of old buildings, the explosion of colour all along the river front and of course the mother ganga herself all came together to make Varanasi one of those impossibly photogenic locations.

We had some great food whilst we were there also. Although not always local food I'm afraid, we went to the famous Brown Bread Bakery, and unsurprisingly, had some delicious proper brown bread and even a little cheese fondue, it had been a looong time! We also had some great food at the dolphin cafe which had a prime view over the river and the ghats.

The extraordinary thing a lot of tourists come to experience are the burning ghats. Ghats play an important role in the ritual process of burning bodies. Hindus believe if they die in Varanasi they will seek salvation, therefore a lot of people come here if they know they are going to die. The proximity of death throughout the city is one of those surreal sensations that really gives the holy ancient city its intriguing character that has enthralled Westerners for centuries. Varanasi is a very important place to Hindus, if they can afford it and are capable they will make the trip with their family to the banks of the mother ganga before the end.  The burnng ghats is where they put dead bodies on tops of logs with more wood on top of them and well burn them to ashes on the banks of the river open to the world. The body is covered in a white cloth covering their face, however once the flames lick over the body there is no hiding the process. Camera discretion is obviously vital around these 2 ghats and as such I have no photos from the area. It's an experience unlike any other, one that is quite unsettling and very hard to describe. It's also not the sort of place to get disrespectful to those mourning by pointing our cameras and clicking away at the burning bodies of the deceased and as such I don't
have any proper photos of these ghats but these photos from a distance capture the scene. Also notice how the ghats are the neighbourhood drying rack and washing machine even if clothes end up scented with the smoke of burning bodies.

Varanasi had a profusion of great street art all along the ghats some religious, some politically motivated and some just plain awesomely random. We've chosen a small selection here, but once we (finally) finish this blog, we might get round to making a whole post on street art from around Asia as there was just so much.

 Want people to use your urinals, well paint them on to the walls.
There was even some Instagram worthy 'self help' graffiti. 

Every night come sun down along the riverfront funeral rites are performed by holy men. Music is blared, families mourn, tourists gape opened mouth and point their cameras at the commotion. There is fire, lots of it. Candles are waved, prayers are called, petals are thrown and it is all decorated with a flash flood of colour.

During our time in Varanasi we were also lucky enough to coincide with the celebration day for the God of Knowledge and Arts Saraswati. This meant that all the schools of the area came together with huge wooden and papier mache idols of the God to take out and throw in to the river. Something like this in India doesn't occur without maximum excitement, the kids chanted, threw paint, crowded on to boats to toss the idols. It was all mad but completely jovial and i'm sure they partied well in to the night.

Varanasi was actually a little different from what we expected. As it was at the end of our 2 months in India, the cities notorious hassle and pollution really didn't affect us as much as if we'd headed here for a baptism of fire. The river front was also quite beautiful, pretty bizarre and just so quintessentially Indian it was the perfect destination to end our tour of India.

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