20.05.2012 - 23.05.2012 42 °C
And just like that, our five senses went into complete overdrive. We were in Varanasi, a city that you cannot really prepare for. Grant was actively not looking forward to visiting, but it's one of those places you supposedly can't miss in India. There's no doubt that the place is full-on, but amazingly it turned out to be a really enjoyable place to visit.
Catching an autoriskshaw in Siliguri on the way to the train to Varanasi - the guy two to the right of Grant jumped in to the already full rickshaw and sat on the lap of the guy to Grant's right, resulting in great hilarity
There's so much to say about Varanasi, it is hard to know where to start. We took an autoriskshaw into town from the train station early in the morning when we arrived and found ourselves in what felt like an oven. Temperatures here at this time of year are always over 40 degrees and rarely drop below mid 30s, even at night. We had booked a room with AC in a guesthouse, but now had to find it. Varanasi's back alleys (known as galis), where the guesthouses are located (behind the famous ghats) are like rabbit warrens - narrow, shadowy, unevenly cobbled and packed with people, dogs, monkeys, goats, holy cows and overloaded mopeds squeezing through the masses, horns blaring. It's probably ten degrees cooler in the alleys than out in the glare of the Varanasi sun, but the trade-off is that all manner of people and beasts are also lurking there, avoiding the heat. Then there's the smell - the sweet perfume of incense cannot mask the underlying smell of excrement. The alleyways are covered not only with the litter one comes to expect in India, but with an array of animal turd which you have to carefully step around. As we walk up the alley to our hotel, the smell of animal turd changes to the distinctive aroma of human poo. Welcome to Varanasi!
Shots from the galis of Varanasi, full of life, colour, and smells - not all of them pleasant!
Our guesthouse was relatively clean, and we just about managed to maintain a room temperature of 30 degrees by having the curtains drawn at all times and the ancient AC unit running full blast. The room became a sanctuary for us in the middle of the day when it was just unbearable to walk around the city because of the heat.
Mother Ganga and the ghats of Varanasi
Varanasi is all about the Ganges river - or "Mother Ganga", as it is affectionately known to Indians. The river is believed to have all kinds of healing qualities and has made Varanasi one of India's holiest cities, with a history stretching back 3,000 years. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges to wash away sins in the sacred (and horribly polluted) waters. People come here to die as they believe that doing so in Varanasi will release them from the Hindu re-birth cycle. Bodies are brought here to be cremated on huge public bonfires so the remains can be spread in the river. India is the land of the caste system and a strict hierarchy applies in death as well: paupers are cremated in an electric kiln for a few hundred rupees; a funeral pyre will cost a few thousand rupees, and if you want to burn on top quality sandalwood you will be looking at a bill of around 50,000 rupees.
We took a couple of boat trips out on the river - once at sunrise and then again at sunset - to see the different rituals going on. We would not have swum in that water if you had paid us, but it is powerful to see the devotion of so many pilgrims fulfilling a life-long dream to come here and do it.
Scenes from our boat tours on the Ganges where devout pilgrims brave revoltingly polluted water to clean themselves of sin
It's not just human bodies that are committed to the river - this is a dead cow that crows are beginning to devour. People are bathing a few metres away.
Manikarnika Ghat - the main burning ghat - with its funeral pyres burning around the clock. You will literally need cash to burn if you want to end up here. The houses roundabout are hospices for those waiting to die in the holy city.
Varanasi is the city of touts, and boat trips are the favourite service to peddle. Our general rule with touts is to go with the one that seems "decent" - a very vague test based on a friendly face and a good gut feeling. For our evening boat tour, we met a decent chap who proposed a reasonable price to take us in his boat. However, when he palmed us off to his "brother" rather than taking us himself, Helena made it very clear to him in a public manner that she was unimpressed with his lying. The poor guy looked very sheepish and dropped his price in response. Victory to the tourists!
Half an hour later, it was time for us to be taken on a guilt trip of our own: some guy jumped on to our boat at the burning ghat and told us we could take a photo of the ghat in return for 1,000 rupees. He explained that this money would go to the hospice he allegedly managed. We declined and said we would go without photos, but he persisted: "you are in the centre of karma and you have the chance to do something good - will you not take that chance to improve your karma?". We were not convinced - this dude could have been anyone and playing on guilt to extract money is a fairly low tactic. We're beginning to realise that "karma" translates as "cash" in India. We allowed him to get back off our boat, no doubt to lie in wait for the next hapless tourist craft.
Back on dry land, we enjoyed wandering along the ghats that line the river for several kilometres. You see all sorts going on here apart from the pilgrims bathing and swimming in the river. It is here that you can watch local men and women washing clothes and sheets in the river - right next to a sewage outlet, we were amused to note - and hanging them out to dry. Holy cows and goats kick back beside the river, men sip tea, holy men snooze, touts do their thing and tourists wander. Judging by their smell, certain ghats are reserved unofficially for bodily functions: at one spot we picked our way across streams of urine and tried not to breathe in the smell of a public urinal baking in the intense heat; at another spot nearby we averted our eyes as a guy squatted in full view to take a dump on the upper step of the ghat. It never ceases to amaze us that while showing public affection such as holding hands and kissing between men and women is frowned upon, the sight of someone taking a dump hardly raises any eyebrows. We couldn't help but laugh in another spot where one guy was peeing into a stream running down to the Ganges from the top of the ghats, while another guy a few metres below was cupping his hands and drinking from the same stream!
Snaps from the ghats, where all sorts of activities (and snoozing) are going on - just be grateful you can't smell it!
Southern Indian men and women shave their heads when they come on pilgrimage to Varanasi - it's big business on the ghats
Every night, there is a "puja" ceremony at the main ghat known as "Ganga aarti", which we caught on our first night in town. It's a very moving event at which pilgrims sit en masse on the street and chant together as they watch a spectacular ceremony. Pretty much all religions rely on a fixed arsenal of tools: music, communal chanting, dazzling colours and smells, smoke and fire. This ceremony had all of these in spades - great Indian music playing, the crowd chanting and clapping, and seven guys in robes up at the front displaying various types of burning items. There were plenty of other tourists like us there, soaking up the ambiance.
The view from where we sat on the ghat watching the puja
One of seven guys dressed in robes leading the ceremony. The incense sticks smelled nice and the crowd enjoyed the smoke display but was soon itching for more firepower.
Bring on the big guns - incense canisters. Still, the crowd wanted more...
Now that's what I'm talking about - some kind of flaming Christmas tree with a silver snake head attachment. The crowd's fire lust was satisfied
The Golden Temple - a soldier for every pilgrim
Varanasi's other big attraction is the Hindu Golden Temple, which we visited on our last day in town. We have no photos as all belongings have to be left outside and a very thorough, butt-clenching, personal search performed by one of the hundreds of soldiers stationed here before entry. We entered in bare feet an inner part of the old city where we walked on damp white marble slabs and admired the intricate carvings of the Vishwanath Temple. Along with the many other pilgrims we bought a small basket of fresh flowers from one of the many stands selling these and deposited them in front of a bearded holy man sitting in one part of the temple. There is almost one machine gun-touting soldier for every pilgrim here. Security is tight because of religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims: a large mosque sits right behind the Hindu temple, surrounded by ten metre double barbed wire fences with machine gun posts trained upon it. It's how we could imagine Jerusalem feeling, without having been there. It's sad that religious sights are so often marred by extreme tension and overbearing security.
There are so many soldiers with so little to do that they become unofficial tour guides, indicating the way tourists should proceed around the temple. They also have a serious weakness for nice western girls, so Helena managed to sweet talk one of the soldiers into letting us through to the Gyan Kupor Well, a sight that non-Hindus are not normally able to visit.
It was a cool visit but nice to slip the flip-flops back on since you never know what the liquid is underfoot in Varanasi!
Backpackers should play bongos, man
We found ourselves a music guru to give us both a tabla (Indian drum) lesson one afternoon in Varanasi. Suffice it to say, it is a lot harder than you might imagine but we did feel like proper backpackers for an hour as we tapped away at the drums!
Getting into the tabla rhythm in Varanasi
Follow the guidebook!
The Lonely Planet and other such guidebooks are divisive tools among travellers. A listing can make or break a local business, and sometimes you feel like a place that is listed in the guidebook can just rest on its laurels and make lots of money off lazy tourists. However, in Varanasi our Lonely Planet definitely came up trumps in showing us the way to the famous Blue Lassi Shop - a Varanasi institution. We squeezed in to the small shop every day with tens of fellow backpackers and ordered the different lassis (nature, apple, banana, mango...). Two days in a row we had lassi lunches - they were so good.
Scenes from Varanasi's Blue Lassi Shop, home of possibly the best lassi in the world
We should have just followed our guidebook for all our meals but we decided to go off the beaten track one night by trying a restaurant we were given a flyer for that promised live Indian traditional music. It wasn't in the guidebook but what was the worst that could happen? Pretty bad as it turned out. We were the only people in the restaurant. There was no music. Our food took an hour to arrive and was cold. The rice was so overcooked it was like porridge, the potato so undercooked it had a texture like an apple. We of course complained and were referred to not one but two managers (in India there are always at least four people doing a job where one would do). Manager two smugly explained that there was no music as we were not at the restaurant we had received a flyer for; the flyer was for Fuji Ganga restaurant - we were at Fuji Ganga Home's restaurant. This is another feature of india: successful business names and logos are blatantly copied by competitors so that you can never tell which is the original business and which is the fake. Everyone knows of the Western world's critique against India when it comes to not respecting intellectual property rights, but it's becoming obvious to us that nobody is suffering more from this than the Indians themselves.
As far as the food was concerned, manager two explained that the chef was ill so the waiter had had to cook our dinner! With perfect comedy timing, as manager two told us this manager one was busily turning away an Indian family that had come in to the restaurant, explaining that the place was closed as the chef was ill. Closed for them maybe but not closed for gullible white tourists apparently!! The comedy of errors was complete; we paid a reduced bill and returned to our hotel seriously concerned about what food poisoning was in the post from the useless waiter's terrible meal.
How do they do it?!
Once again we have wondered in Varanasi at the incredibly zen attitude of Indian people. They feel the heat just as badly as we do, as they keep telling us and as the sweat on their brows makes clear. It cannot be emphasised enough: Indians live on top of each other in very basic conditions in what is effectively an oven for at least six months of the year. And yet, they remain for the most part so incredibly friendly and helpful not only to us tourists but also to each other.
We have lost count of the number of Indians who have approached us to help with directions or have simply exchanged a smile and an Indian head shake with us. At the Golden Temple, after we had cleared a thorough passport control, one of the soldiers gave a huge smile and shook Grant's hand. When we stopped to buy a bottle of water at a stall one night, the shop keeper's face erupted with joy and he exclaimed in the typically polite Indian manner "you are most welcome at this shop!". When our rickshaw driver almost ran a guy over in the street in Varanasi, the two men simply exchanged a glance and a nod and continued on their respective ways. The British or Swedish option to show road rage, honking the horn, is not really an option as Indian drivers honk their horns with practically the same frequency as they breathe. Either way, we had not expected such politeness, helpfulness and good humour but have quickly got used to it travelling here.