When in India, you have to travel by train at least once, it is said. Varanasi was pretty much my last chance, and the owner of Madonna Hotel in Delhi had once again been overwhelmingly helpful.
His driver, Puri, was stepping on it like crazy, visibly panicking through the jammed streets of Old Delhi that afternoon. I kept reassuring him that if I missed the train, I wouldn’t blame him, and that I would explain to his boss that it wasn’t his fault. The idea of me explaining anything to his boss about missing that train, didn’t seem to calm him in any way.
We actually made it, just a few minutes before departure time, and with the help of a professional train station guide/luggage carrier slightly reminescent of the one described in Shantaram, I found my way to my seat ..on 3rd class!!
I had specifically said that under no circumstance would I want to take a train in India on anything less than 1st class with A/C. Reassurances that my ticket was on the upper echelon of 3rd class, in a sleeper compartment with A/C didn’t make the prospect of that trip sound any brighter.
As a “gora”, I was obviously a rather exotic element on 3rd class. My next-seat neighbour, a medical student who kept repeating that his only reason for travelling on 3rd class was that there were no flights available, kept coming up with dozens of business proposals involving politicians and top academics whom he claimed to know.
Most Indians tend to warn foreigners against travelling to Varanasi. Allegedly, there’s nothing exciting there, or anything worthwhile seeing but a bunch of religious fanatics. I had already heard that so many times, I was actually fearing I might be wasting my time.
Arriving at the Hotel India in Varanasi certainly wasn’t an encouraging first encounter. Being told to sit down and wait for 1h30 by hotel personnel, busy doing nothing, wasn’t my first desire after a rather unwilling night train ride on 3rd class. No one should be blamed for not speaking perfect English in their own country. My impression of the hotel might still have improved had the receptionist known the difference between “sit” and “please have a seat, sir”!
When I finally got the room, facts such as the shower only having cold water and the toilet not flushing, came too late to worsen my impression of the hotel, as it was already at rock bottom. The fact that the room didn’t have windows was actually quite convenient, as all I needed was some sleep. The two functional light bulbs, occasionally flashing between the semi-permanent power cuts, kept me from noticing the dirtiness of the room, at least before I got some desperately needed sleep!
An advantage of staying in a crappy hotel is you get a reason not to spend time there, and to go out and explore instead.
The city of Varanasi, a.k.a Benares, lacks gigantic palaces and monumental sites, and has a far calmer atmosphere than most other Indian cities I’ve visited. Being an intensely religious place, it has plenty of small temples that are jealously guarded from any tourist who might even think about taking pictures. Strict security measures ensure no camera, and in many places not even a mobile phone is allowed into the temples. Some temples not surrounded by walls, even have guards preventing you from shooting pictures from the street.
After a first sightseeing round, I almost started believing claims of Varanasi hardly being worth the visit. I was about to be surprised!
Quickly after sunset, the Ganges river turns into a spectacular scenery of religious ceremonies. Some sections of the river bank are dedicated to burials, where families gather to watch the bodies of their beloved ones being burnt before the ashes are spread out in the river.
Numerous religious temples dot the river, and any cruise along its waters will inevitably be accompanied the sound of hundreds of drums and religious chants.
By the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire) ceremony, is a vibrant show of fire, drums and incense. Trust the river to be thoroughly crowded with boats full of visitors wanting to catch this spectacular experience.
Just next to the Ghat, is a rooftop restaurant on top of a hotel called the Dolphin. The place is far from luxurious, but offers a decent dinner with a view to the ghat and to the river.
By sunrise, locals and visitors alike once again flock around the banks of the Ganges river for the morning ceremony.
In the same waters where the ashes from fire burials were being disposed of a few hours earlier, thousands of people now gather to bathe.
The Ganges river is sacred in the Hindu religion, and to the faithful, the immersion in its waters, cleans the spirit and washes away sins.
While medical and religious experts may disagree about the benefits of these activities, the beauty of the sunrise is beyond dispute. The river is again teeming with wooden boats, carrying visitors from near and far, wishing to experience the holy city at its best.
Besides the two ceremonies, most sights of Varanasi are in the temples. In most cases, pictures are strictly not allowed. A key attraction is the Golden Temple (Kashi Vishwanath). Visitors are thoroughly searched, and all cameras and phones with a camera feature must be left behind in a locker by the entrance. Non-Hindus cannot enter the last gate, though, and can only get a glimse of the domes above the walls.
Many of the other temples are also closed to non-Hindus, and cameras are generally frowned upon. I did manage to get a nice shot of the Durga Mandir Temple, though, from a spot on the outside where no guard was around to chase visitors away!
The Sanskrit University is a key cultural institution in Varanasi, and mentioned as an important site to visit by most tourist guides. Founded by the British colonialists in 1791 to preserve knowledge about the Sanskrit language and philosopy, the University features some beautiful old buildings, as well as a couple of temples. Noting spectacular, but a pretty sight.
The inevitable conclusion of any guided tour in any place in India, is a visit the shop of some alleged family member of the guide. Almost equally assured are the stories and pictures of some world celebrity who once shopped there. Count on long-lasting stories of the unique quality of the handicrafts, and how much “their” celebrity bought. Throughout my trip to India, I passed by shops allegedly visited by George W. Bush, Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn, to mention a few.
Unfortunately, I had a plane to catch. At least, that was what I told the guide’s “brother”, who desperately tried to prevent me from leaving his shop that I had more or less been coerced into visiting.
As I left for the airport, the road was crowded by old cars heading towards the city and the river, with cloth-wrapped bodies strapped to the roofs. The evening ceremony was in the offing, and the millennia-old tradition of fire burials by the Ganges river was about to be repeated through another night.