I already knew where i was going to stay in Varanassi, Yogi Lodge. I was able to get a rickshaw with minimal hassle and was soon on my way. The hostel was situated a 5 minute walk away from the main entrance to the Ganges and the Ghats, in an arear known as Godaulia. Hidden within a maze of alleyways and surrounded by buildings, that to the western eye, looked very similair to one another. I would get heavily lost on two seperate occasions in the next few days.
As soon as i entered the guesthouse i was shown a room that would be mine for RS150 per night (just short of 2 pound). A double room that usually went for the price of RS200 was given to me cheaper still. However when it came to checking out, i paid the full rate. Apparently i had never been offered this rate and after an initial debate over the cost, i proceeded to pay the full amount. I could've argued all evening over the difference but i would've missed my train. Plus my argument over a bill that should've been RS650 and not RS800, wouldn't have been aided by the fact i only two RS500 notes to pay with. Making out that you cannot afford the asking price and only having notes that equate to more than the asked amount, is not helpful when bartering over price.
But the hostel was superb and the family that ran it were a fantastic group who would help in anyway possible to ensure you had a pleasant stay. The food may have taken time to come, sometimes upto 1 hour for one dish, but it was of reasonable price and tasted bloody great. Curry for breakfast is the way forward, i have seen the light! The second day was when i realised the Yogi Lodge i was staying in wasn't the Yogi Lodge mentioned in the 'Rough Guide' but an imposter. But what was offered was exactly the same as what was mentioned in the guide and the rooms cheaper. So i was only too happy to have found Yogi Lodge's cheaper sibling and as i found out when reading the guesthouse comment book...........this seemed to be the general consensus; 'not where we thought we were but amazing nonetheless', 'an unexpected bonus to where we thought we were going', 'i dare say you didn't intend for this 'Yggi Lodge' but enjoy the original at cheaper rates!' etc etc. I wasn't alone in my thoughts of the place and after breakfast booked myself in for a tour of the city. Not so much of a 'tour' as more of transport to each spot and great information from the gent taking you places, Mr Baia, the man who seemed to everything and everyone and would do all he could to help you.
The tour was to take in Varanassi's sites other than the Ghats that run the city's course of the Ganges (known as Ganga by the locals). In found that i'd arrived a day before Dep Diwali, one of the city's largest festivals that (as far as i'm aware) only takes place in Varanassi. It's a festival worshiping the God of the Ganges, incorporating vast acknowledgment of life and death, the lighting of fireworks and burning of the dead. The burning of the dead happens most evenings, before the bodies are put to rest in the Ganges. It's believed that anyone who dies in Varanassi attains instant enlightment. Thus widows and the elderly come to Varanassi to live out their final days, finding shelter in the temples.
The tour took in the Bharat Mata, the Durga Temple and Hindu University, Ramagar Fort and a silk factory; Varanassi is famous for its silk production. The Durga Temple's rife with monkeys and is know amongst travellers as 'The Monkey Temple'. They're everywhere and do stare at you questionably, whilst you interrupt their business. As i found out, they can also be pretty agressive and are easily irritated; one male didn't take too kindly to me photographing his family and (with friends in tow) chased after me , screeching all the way.
After a look around the sites, Mr Baia took me to the silk fcatory. I suspected he was a tout, (as is the case with many rikshaw drivers and hotel workers) as he took me to the 'best' silk factory in Varanassi that happened to be owned by his friend. But i was happy to view the goods and if the prices were ok, Mr Baia was more than entitled to share of my spendings. So i sat for an hour, was served numerous cups of Chai and shown everything the shop had to offer. It turned out the prices were pretty reasonable and so a few gifts were picked up. The evening didn't entail much and after another hours wait for some delicious food (i thought Indian cooking was supposed to be quick?!) i got an early night to make up for the night prior and be ready for exploring the Ghats the following day.
I decided to walk from Asi Ghat to Mir Ghat, a walk of about 3km that took in most of Varanassi's Ghat's and a decent stretch of the Ganges river. The western bank of the Ganges is laiden with stone steps, the Ghats, all different from one another in appearance and scale. They each hold a special place in the religious geography of the city. For example, Asi Ghat is where pilgrims bathe before worshiping a large shrine beneath a tree nearby. Walking along the Ghats, i got to see the Ganges in its many uses. Regarded as the elixir of life, bringing purity to the living and salvation to the dead, it brings so much more to the population of India and the public of Varanassi. Strew along the bank and Ghats of the Ganges, are bathers washing themselves in the river's holy water. large groups of women wash their family's clothes in the river and the lay the cloth to dry on the steps. Human sewage flowing straight into the river (better than down the street) and people using it to transport goods, the Ganges has many uses.
I settled down on the steps to watch life go by. I found myself engrossed in a game of cricket the youngsters were playing and wasn't aware how attentively i was pursuing the play, until a local lad sat at my side and snapped me out of it. 'You're home country friend?' he enquired. 'England, i live in Cambridge' i replied. He asked me my name, age etc and the interrogation continued down this line for a few minutes. I have no problems speaking to locals and answering questions, in fact i enjoy talking to them, but when the questions are constantly the same, i start to think i should print a list off to give to people. After we finished the initial questions he began asking me peculiar questions, probing questions that made it seem like he was coming onto me. The last two questions made it abundantly clear, 'are you interested in me? Would you like to be with me?' I declined his offer and made my excuses for leaving. I knew the Ganges offered a lot but i never expected it to offer me a local lad.
Whilst sat on the bank, near s***ala Shrine (very aptly named considering the river's content), i watched the locals bathe in the Ganges and noticed a Westerner in there with them. I went over what i've read and been told were the reasons not to swim in the Ganges, it's scummy with effluent, not just with chemicals and human body parts but the level of heavy metals that are dumped upstream by nearby factories. But i was here at the Ghats faced with an opportunity that few have and one i may not get again. So i stripped down to my boxers, placed my things to one side and waded into the Ganges. It was an experience. Rising out of the river and thinking about the millions upon millions of people who have done the same, was fantastic. Seeing the colours of the drying clothes laying on the Ghats, the locals performing yoga on the steps, others praying, it was brilliant. But then i remembered what i was in, not the Ganges, but what constitutes the Ganges today. So i got out, smelling a lot worse and a lot dirtier than before but a great thing to say i've done.
The evenign was superb and with the festival happening on the banks, a few of us rented a boat to see Dep Diwali in its entirety. I don't know a lot about the story behind Dep Diwali but it's clear it's not purely about death. However it's strange (and kind of enlightening) to see death as a celebration of life in the way that people of Hindi faith do; and others i know. The music, dancing, singing and fireworks all adding to a very upbeat atmosphere, a complete contrast to the ways of home and the West. The celebratory features seeming to be in complete contrast tot he nearby, open fires burning the dead. And on this night there were many, i'd think at least as many as 30m and easily more. It was certainly a night i'll remember and an unexpected bonus of my time in Varanassi. The view of burning bodies is one i'll never forget.