Varanasi: India in Miniature

Varanasi is said to be first places on earth where lightbulb of human civilization first lit up. It is contemporary with cities such as Babylon and Niniveh in Mesopotamia, and Thebes at Nile. While these civilizations have long since disappeared, Varanasi has been continuously habited during all this time, 3-4000 years.

Tourist guides describe Varanasi as India in miniature. Its good and not so good features, concentrated into a single place. Colorful pilgrimers from all around the vast country, worshipping and purifying themselves in Ganges. Ancient city in everyday use, not as a museum. But also, herds of tourists, touts, beggars and drug dealers all part of same picture. Didn’t even count how many times I was offered “hash?” by someone loitering around. And not forgetting random number of cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, and other tail waggers.

March 17 2012 — First day in Varanasi has been incredible, the place overwhelms even the seasoned traveler and its hard to spare superlatives describing it. After dusty sweaty day; dusk surrounds river Ganges, old town, ghats (washing and purification platforms), and all the life that goes on. As orange disk descends behind the buildings, sparrows race lower air, haze blurs the purplish horizon. Another day in the eternal city has come to an end, night ceremonies are awaiting to be started.

My night train from Siliguri (at foothill of Himalayas and Darjeeling) arrived well ahead of schedule. I was lucky to wake up around 1.15am when train motion had stopped. Stepped outside my cabin to ask how many stations still to go, but answer was that it was Varanasi where my train was standing! A miracle that didn’t forget anything behind me, running out of train with my bags, half sleep and unprepared. Finding accommodation at that time is another story, waiting morning at the station simply wasn’t an option. Indian travelers had already camped the floor space, benches and everything. To make things worse, my obvious foreigner appearance attracted pack of touts and tuk-tuk guys. Was surrounded everywhere I stopped and “no thank you” would not be taken for an answer. Circling around the station for a while, finally gave up to one of drivers who took me to his friends hostel. Something one should normally avoid, as you hear true price only at destination.

Anyway, even just one day here, easy to see this is going to be one of highlights of my trip!

@ Varanasi

Laundry is made by the river throughout the day.

March 21 2012 — In short, Varanasi is an ancient maze of buildings, labyrinth of corridors, usually not more than 2-meters wide, full of people, scooters, cows, dogs, chicken, monkeys… After leaving the river front, it can reveal nice surprises like restaurants and shops. Knowing that river is never far away helps with fear of getting lost. Found a nice restaurant that serves personal South Indian favorite, Masala Dosa. Here in North its not so common, been missing it!

Varanasi is for Hindus what Mecca is for Muslims. Legends say it was found by Shiva, supreme God of Hinduism. One should visit least once in a lifetime, and to die here in old age, will release a devout Hindu from the cycle of rebirth. Funerals are taking place in two cremation ghats by the river. Body of deceased and his/her relatives arrive to Varanasi for funeral from all around India. Carrying bodies (wrapped in cloth) to cremation site is yet another surprise unaware traveler can come across here. When cremation fires have burned, ashes are spread to Ganges. Not everyone needs purifying fire in their funeral though. Bodies of children and pregnant women are considered pure and can be buried to river without cremation.

For living Hindu’s, praying and purifying rituals are ongoing by the river throughout the day, but main event is at sunrise, early morning around 6-7am.

Ganges water isn’t warm, noticed it last night when washing my feet and sandal after stepping in a darkness to a “mine” dropped by a passing cow. This morning, woke up at early to see sunrise, and while walking to ghats, cheerful young dog joined me. Spotting nice view by the river, left my camera bag on ground and started taking photos. When finished, saw my camera bag was properly “marked”, and dog disappeared. So another wash at the cool waters was in order. Hindu’s consider every drop of Ganges holy. Pilgrimers fill bottles from the river before starting journey back home. Saw often people washing themselves, including mouth in it.

@ Varanasi

March 24 2012 — Last eve in Varanasi. Went to see sunrise again at morning and can easily understand why this location was chosen millenniums ago for the prayer site. Ganges makes a long curve, and ghats are situated so that pilgrims face directly towards east where sun is coming at morning.

Part am happy and relieved to get going again, Varanasi can be bit overwhelming. Partly sad of leaving this incredible place and nice weather.

@ Varanasi