Varanasi is the one of the holiest places in India, where in the Ganges Hindu pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins or cremate their loved ones.
Arriving at Varanasi on the Festival of Colours meant that we saw it in a very different way. This festival celebrates the beginning of spring and is known as Holi, one of the most exuberant festivals in Northern India with the Hindus throwing coloured water and powder at anyone within range. Alcohol and bhang (weed) is in great abundance. It can become very boisterous and so our leader to ensure our safety, asked us to stay within our hotel.
From the station the city seemed quite deserted but the evidence of coloured paint was everywhere. It was hard to secure transport to get to our hotel but luckily we managed to get some taxis. Driving along paint was thrown at the taxis leaving smears of pink and blue. The further into the city we drove, the more people there were (all men). Quite a few were obviously drunk/high, having to be supported by their mates or just left in the streets laughing hysterically. Given how much attention we white women attract on a normal day, I could understand our leader's warning.
Our hotel had a roof terraced where they let us to have our own colour party. Changing into ruinable clothes the paint fight began. Our leader had bought us loads of different paints and some water pistols (well a bicycle pump). Within minutes we were covered in a whole range of colours from red to blue, pink, green, yellow etc. It got even messier when buckets of water started to be thrown. We ended up looking like we had been dipped in tie dye. Hair was coloured, faces completely smeared with paint and feet unrecognisable. Absolutely amazing fun and something that I have to repeat back in the UK!
It was only then our lovely leader informed us that the paint could last up to a few weeks, especially on our nails. Dashing to the showers, the truth was clear. I ended up with a pink eye, yellow staining my stomach and the most delightful rainbow coloured feet. This was after 2 showers and a 30 mins of scrubbing. It should be noted that 3 weeks later I still have stained coloured toe nails and one girl in our party cannot get the paint out the front of her hair. Despite this it was a massive highlight of my trip.
Next day we were allowed out to witness the mass of colour in the city. People were still walking around in their paint splatterd clothes. Even the dogs and cows had paint streaks. Masses of people were bathing and washing in the Ganges.
We walked past several burning Ghats where relatives brought their dead to be burned on pyes before their ashes were sprinkled into the Ganges. It was a very sobering experience to see the bodies being brought down or in various stages of burning. Once again only men were present, as it is believed that you should not cry at the funeral. Women considered too emotional tend not to attend.
Varanasi is also (surprisingly) a place for shopping. Here we went to a special tailor who could make a skirt that could be worn in 10 different ways! Gulliable as ever I had to partake!!
Sunset saw a boat trip down the Ganges with musicians. We lit many candles for our wishes and for our loved ones (yet again dear reader I have enriched your life!) then let them float down the river on leaves. This was an amazing sight especially as it got dark. We saw evening prayers being performed on large Ghats, surrounded by hundreds of followers. The sound of the chanting and ringing of bells flowed out across the water, making it a very magical experience.
Varanasi is a large place, but completely embraces you in its magical spiritual existence. You cannot but feel that this is a special place and you have to respect the devotion that occurs here.