India in Miniature: Varanasi

Journal entry of visit to Varanasi, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images)

Varanasi is said to be first places on earth where light-bulb of human civilisation lit up. It is contemporary with cities such as Babylon, Niniveh and Thebes. While these civilisations have long since disappeared, Varanasi has been continuously inhabited during all this time, 3-4000 years. Travel guides describe Varanasi as India in miniature. Its good and not so good features, all compressed into one place. Colourful pilgrimages from all around the vast country, worshipping and purifying themselves in the holy river Ganges. But also, herds of tourists, touts, beggars and drug dealers. And not forgetting numerous cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, and other tail-waggers.

March 17 — First day in Varanasi has been incredible, the place overwhelms even after several months in India and its hard to spare superlatives describing it. After dusty sweaty day; dusk surrounds the river, 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 stopped. Stepped outside my cabin to ask how many stations still to go for Varanasi, and thats actually where my train was standing! A miracle that didn’t forget anything in my cabin, while rushing out of train half asleep and unprepared. Finding accommodation at that time is another story, waiting morning at the station simply wasn’t an option. Local travelers had already camped the floor space, benches and everything. I was also surrounded by hotel touts and tuk-tuk driveres that seem to wait in the station at all hours. Circling around the station for a while, finally gave up to one of drivers who took me to hostel owned by his pal. Anyway, even just one day here, easy to see this is going to be one of highlights of my trip! @ Varanasi


OMG.

March 21 — 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, 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 funeral from all around India. Carrying bodies (wrapped in cloth) to cremation site is yet another surprise unaware traveller 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! Praying and purifying rituals are ongoing by the river throughout the day, but main event is the sunrise 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 promptly “marked”, and dog disappeared. So another wash at the cool waters was needed. 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 washing their teeth in it. @ Varanasi


Prayer rituals at night time are spectacle of their own.


Ganges makes a long curve, and ghats are situated so that pilgrims face directly towards east where sun is coming at morning. Its easy to see why location was chosen for the prayer site all those millennias ago.

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