There are few words to describe the power that the city of Varanasi, India holds. On the surface it is hot, smelly, crowded, loud... but as you wander the labryinth of laneways, and take in the colorful scene along the holy river Ganges, you begin to understand that it is truly a one-of-a-kind type of place, that you can't help but feel incredibly blessed to be able to experience it.
We arrived in Varanasi via a 9am flight from Delhi. We hopped in the awaiting jeep and headed in the direction of town. The entire drive to the old city was an ongoing game of chicken. We began slaloming around every animate object imaginable. Luckily, we had over 12 months of chaotic traffic and insane driving under our belt and were quite used to it, however, poor Kyle looked like she was about to have a heart attack.
The traffic both motor and pedestrian began to thicken as we approached the madness that is Varanasi. Our surroundings were an over-stimulating barrage of interwoven activity. A vegetable stocked push-cart danced in a confluent flow with the tuk-tuk drivers and the wandering cows. Women in the brightest, most beautiful saris walked past with their coal-eyed children on each hip. It truly was a moment to sit back, mouth slightly ajar in amazement - but not too long - for fear of swallowing a Varanasi fly, and let the being, the entity - that is Varanasi envelop you.
We pulled over on the side of yet another busy, chaotic street and were greeted by a huge white smile and a "Welcome to Varanasi, my friends". We were ushered out of the car and onto the 'side walk' where we looked on as our bags were pried from the back seat of the car and carried over head by a 70+ year old man and led down a narrow alley way. We wound our way down and around lane way after lane way feeling completely turned around. We meandered our way around food stalls, henna artist, the ever-present herd of cows, dogs, chickens, this, that and the other, until finally a flight of steps down led us to the very Holy and welcomed sight of the river Ganges. Our hotel, if you want to call it that, sat right on the banks of this holy river. We stepped into the establishment and after taking down our information, we climbed the mountain of steps up to the 4th floor and dumped our bags. After a couple minutes of catching our breath, we climbed the last flight of stairs to the rooftop.
The rooftop opened up to a truly stunning sight. The river wound up to our right and down to our left as far as the eye could see. Below was the daily life of Varanasians, at the epicenter of their livlihood, the mightly River Ganges. We sat up top, taking in the view, in the comfortable sanctuary of the shade and enjoyed a few King Fisher beers as the sun made its way towards the horizon.
While enjoying a game or two of Rummy, a man by the name of Sanjay, who would soon become our best friend, wandered up to our table asking us of our plans in Varanasi. We admitted we had little plan and he took it upon himself to make one for us. After a much-needed siesta, we met up with our man Sanjay and walked together down to a near-by ghat to board a row boat and take in the sunset and nightly ceremony on the water.
The walk to the boat was an experience in and of itself. We happened to be in Varanasi at a very special time. Once every 12 years the Holy Men of India descend on the banks of the Ganges here in Varanasi to celebrate two very important Indian holidays. We made our way through the Holy Men camp, where we witnessed men (and a few women) dressed in either orange robes or nothing at all, some were painted in white or blue colored chalk and all were meditating or smoking or bathing or just visiting with one another. It was an impressive sight and one I will not soon forget.
We eventually made our way to the river and found Raj who was the man at the helms of our row boat. He paddled us up and down and across the river and back, explaining the history, religion, culture, and spiritual-significance of the river. He loved his city and was immensely proud to give us all the information he could recite. The sun set over the old fort and huge ashram and we took photo after photo until the sun sank behind the buildings and the painted sky began to turn gray and dark blue.
As the evening was upon us, our man Raj rowed us down to the far ghat to observe the true essence of Varanasi. Here on the banks of the Ganges, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, bodies of friends and family members are respected, celebrated, burned, and then scattered right here where we sat. We watched on in a shy, uncomfortably- voyeuristic sort of fashion as loved ones wept and prepared the bodies for cremation. They build a massive wood bed and set the body on top. After walking around the body 5 times to symbolize the 5 elements they hold sacred (Water, Fire, Earth, Wind, and Spirit) they set the body ablaze. The body burns for a total of three hours, when the ashes are collected, and another body is prepared for cremation. It was a pretty incredible sight.
After we saw as much as we cared to, we paddled down the river a bit farther to take in the nightly ceremony and celebration to the River Ganges. At one of the main river ghats a dancing, music, light show extravaganza was about to take place. The ceremony included a ton of repetitive arm movements with various instruments such as feathered dusters and candleholders. The hour-long ceremony finished rather unceremoniously, but was very interesting to witness nonetheless. Back at the hotel, we made our way up to the rooftop bar for drinks and dinner. By 10:00 pm we were all pretty zapped from a long, full-on day. We were ready to call it a night.
In the morning after a small sleep-in, we met up on the rooftop for breakfast before our day of temple-hopping. We met our man Sanjay down in the lobby around 10am and set out on foot through the lane ways of Varanasi. On foot we passed spice shops, fabric stores, crumbled down old estates and temples. We passed the holy Banyan tree which, legend has it, houses a God within its exposed roots.
Soon the lane way opened up and we found ourselves once again on the side of another busy, traffic-manic road. We piled into an awaiting tuk-tuk and started into the current of flowing traffic. We stopped at two Hindu temples. We looked on and read the english translation of the Hindu scriptures as we walked barefoot on the cool, white marble floor of the temples. In the second temple we visited we paid an extra 25 cents to tour the 'It's a Small World' inspired diorama-esque puppet show of different Hindi tales.
Our third stop was at the sweeping Hindi University. We drove through the lush campus, stopping at another temple, before making another stop at the University's art museum. The gardens of the museum were rather impressive compared to the very little greenspace we have been used to so far in our Indian visit. We paid our several dollars and slowly made our way past the rock art exhibit, the paintings, the pottery, the famous (and very ancient) sculptures. We spent about 45 minutes in total wandering the halls of the museum until our rumbling tummies brought us back to the tuk-tuk and requesting our driver to find some roadside eatery for us to enjoy.
Fueled up on curry, samosas, and naan for the crew (and a bananas and almonds for my ailing tummy) we were back in the tuk-tuk for another stop at the monkey temple, which was much more local. We received looks of 'what exactly are you doing here?' for a few minutes and then decided we best push on to our last stop. We were pretty templed-out by the 4th stop. Our last stop of the day was to the silk district. We looked through the houses set up with antique looms where 5th-6th generation silk makers were weaving intricate patterns on saris, pashminas, and blankets. We sipped chai as the store owners showed us nearly every piece they had in their shop. We left the shop loaded up on chai and silk and headed back to our hotel.
At this point of the afternoon we were hot, tired, and ready for some a/c reprieve. After a nice afternoon nap, like clockwork, we met up on the rooftop for a very necessary happy hour session. Playing cards and drinking lager... that is the life of a traveler with downtime.
It was 7pm when we met again for dinner. We had our man Sanjay walk us the 45 minutes down the river to our dinner choice for the night. We decided one night off of a strict Indian cuisine was in order, due to our slightly off tummies. We dined on salads and wood fired pizzas. It was heaven. Sanjay even stayed with us and we discussed our plans in Nepal. As luck would have it, Sanjay is originally from Nepal and organizes trekking tours. Of course he does! After dinner we walked back to our hotel and finished up the night as we so often do... one last beer on the rooftop bar. By 10pm, once again, we were ready to call it a night.
In the morning, we were up with the sun. We enjoyed our sunset rowboat cruise with Raj so much that we decided why the take in a sunrise cruise as well, and we're glad we did. The morning lifestyle on the river Ganges was something to witness. Locals gathered in droves to bathe and wash clothes. The mundane minutiae of these people's lives were something of a beautiful spectacle. We snapped endless photos. You really can't take a bad photo, India is so damn photogenic.
We wrapped up our river time and thanked Raj for his efforts. We made our way up to the rooftop for another Varanasi breakfast. Today we had plans to take it eeeeeaasssy. We asked Sanjay his opinion on where we could find a nice hotel pool to hang our by for the day. We got ready, got our stuff together and found the nearest tuk-tuk to take us to a pool. 40 minutes of chaotic madhouse traffic and we were poolside, King Fisher in hand. The rest of the day was spent in and out of the pool, playing cards, eating Indian food and having a very welcomed relaxing day in a city of mayhem.
Back in our neighborhood we had a few errands to take care of. First on our list was henna. Becky, Kyle and I stopped by a henna shop where two girls proceeded to henna us up. Within thirty minutes we were marked up with beautiful flowers and several intricate designs of browns, blacks, and reds. Next, it was one more trip to the silk shop. There was one more gift to buy for loved ones back home.
After our to-do's were taken care of it was time for one last rooftop session. We chatted with the hotel staff, Sanjay, played cards, and sipped on King Fishers until it was time to head to bed. In the morning, we were up and at-em by 6:30am. It was back to the airport for a trip out to Rajasthan.
Thank you Varanasi, for your noise, your confrontation, your wisdom, your spirit. This is a place that stays with you, it changes you, and you are forever blessed and indebted for having experienced such polarizing and unworldly beauty.