The early morning sun hung large and low in the sky. Slowly, it rose, shining brightly, casting a dewy glow over the holy river and the ghats. The misty morning air filled with the aroma of sandalwood and jasmine flowers as the ghats erupted into a riot of colour and activity.
One of the best ways to experience Varanasi is to take a early morning boat ride down the Ganges. Varanasi, also called Kashi (city of life) and Benares, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is a holy city for Hindus and pilgrims who come to the holy Ganges river to dip in the belief that it will wash away a lifetime of sins.
We dragged ourselves out of bed early to witness the sunrise on the Ganges. As we turned round the corner from the small, winding alleyways onto the ghats the sunrise blew me away. The sun shone a bright yellowy orange, it hung big and low in the sky. It looked so close as it seemingly rose out of and above the Ganges, glittering and reflecting bright, long, yellow strands on the water and giving the whole scene a mellow, honey hue.
Rowing boats plied the river breaking up the sun’s golden reflection in the water. After haggling for a while we found a boatman and rowed off slowly into the river, keeping close to the shore, with the rising sun behind us. The sunrise really did bathe the whole scene on the ghats in a flattering glow and coupled with the early morning rituals it felt magical and spiritual.
We witnessed people by the river performing a religious Hindu puja ceremony filling the air with smoke and incense and visiting temples and little shrines by the river. All over India you see people doing the Puja every morning in their shrines at home or work and in shops, hotels, cars and taxis. They make offerings to a deity and receive a blessing in return, business often can’t commence until the blessings have been done.
The ghats were a riot of colour as people splashed around taking a holy dip by dunking 3 times in the water to cleanse their sins. The women dipped fully dressed in bright saris and took little silver jugs to collect the Ganga water for later on.
As we rowed along all of life’s rituals played out in front of us by the holy river. Laundry wallahs were washing clothes and bedsheets from nearby hotels by banging them on rocks in the river and then spreading them out to dry across the ghats and on makeshift washing lines.
Buffaloes were herded down to drink and wash in the river while cows and dogs just lounged around. People collected up cow poo and shaped it into patties to dry in the sun and sell as fuel. Goats trot around wearing jumpers and monkeys jumped across the rooftops while children played cricket and flew kites.
People washed fully clothed in the river, saffron clad holy sadhus sat on the ghats talking, meditating or doing yoga.
Boatmen walked up and down touting for business, people hawked postcards, snacks, souvenirs, massages, candles and holy flower garlands.
Tourists strolled along the ghats, snapping photos whilst boats floated by, bursting at the seams trying to squeeze as many people as possible into one boat.
It was fascinating to see all these rituals and spiritual acts played out in front of us. But whilst Varanasi is a holy city, it is also an indiscreet, unapologetic crazy place with other, less spiritually enhancing, activities going on.
We were constantly being hassled to buy something, give money or take a boat ride. Even on the boat we couldn’t escape as the peace was broken by cries of “I have floating market, look at my shop.” He had decked his whole rowing boat out with souvenirs and useless tat and showed us a range of postcards, bracelets, bangles, bindis, shawls, marble elephants, bags, little hand bells, Gandhi Russian dolls, pecking chickens and a jug to keep Ganga water in.
‘Holy’ men would try to put dots on your head and then ask for money, stray dogs chased and fought in packs along the pavement and some of the sadhus and other people were smoking some kinds of drugs.
Sometimes Varanasi was quite disgusting. It upset me to see people throwing rubbish into their holy river and some people would even squat down in front of you on the pavement and go to the toilet in full view! As we walked along the ghats there was even a whole section lined with neat little piles of human poo. Suffice to say it stunk really badly and we hurried past ‘poopy ghat’ as fast as we could.
Varanasi is also an auspicious place to die and be cremated by the river as dying here releases you from the cycle of rebirth (moksha). It’s disrespectful to take photos of the cremation ghats so I’ll just have to describe it. On the cremation ghats huge stacks of wood and piles of sticks lean up against, and are as high as, the buildings. There are big metal scales for weighing out the wood and pricing up the cremation and stalls selling beautiful shiney orange coloured clothes with golden tassles on them to wrap the bodies in.
At the main cremation ghat there were about 20 saffron and gold clad bodies laid out burning on piles of wood. There were so many onlookers lining the steps of the ghats it was hard to tell who was mourning or to weave your way through.
People approached us trying to offer ‘a better view’ (at a price of course) or asking for donations for wood or for the deceased family. We noticed they were only approaching tourists, one guy aggressively demanded 200 Euros for us to walk through. 200 Euros! We don’t even carry that much cash on us in a week so we ignored him and carried on walking.
It was interesting to see the cremation ghats, I had worried that it would be upsetting but you couldn’t really see the bodies once the fires had started however it was unbelievably smokey. As the path was really close to the pyres I could feel the heat from the fires and smoke really got in my lungs, up my nose and made my eyes weep like mad. Despite wrapping my scarf around my head and face I could only stay for a few minutes before it got unbearable.
Like all the ghats, the cremation area was a hubbub of activity and strangely it didn’t seem that sombre. Varanasi really is a unique city that offers up many surprises. A ride or walk down the Ganges is an unforgettable experience that will have your eyes popping out on stalks.
There’s a saying about India “If you haven’t seen 10 surprising things before lunchtime then you must be having a lie in” This is definitely true!