Slowly down the Ganges in Varanasi

Varanasi Travel Blog

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After a train ride with a few too many cockroaches - making sleeping uneasy! - we were awoken at 4am to get off at Varanasi.  Following a taxi ride to the hotel, we were lead onto the rooftop restaurant for a breakfast of porridge with banana and honey while looking over sun rise on the Ganges.

some facts on varanasi -

Varanasi is a super holy town, also known as Benares, which is based along the side of the Ganges, Mother India. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating back thousands of years.  The Hindu God Shiva supposedly once lived there making many Hindus want to go there on a pilgrimage. More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit the city each year.  The ganges is holy water to the Hindus of India - Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. In most Hindu families, a vial of water from the Ganga is kept in every house. This is done because it is auspicious to have water of the Holy Ganga in the house, and also if someone is dying, that person will be able to drink its water. Many Hindus believe that the water from the Ganga can cleanse a person's soul of all past sins, and that it can also cure the ill.

however it should be noted that the Ganges water is essentially oxygen-less, and basically septic.  Mainly from fecal matter, which occupies 1.5 million times the amount of water as is safe.  I won't be swimming in there anytime soon...

Add to this the general habit of Indians to throw rubbish anywhere and everywhere, as well as the endless carcasses of dead animals floating around in the water and I really am considering keeping about a foot away at all times! 

So, it was pretty magical to watch the sun rise over this fantastic river - the mother india.  But I was tired so straight after we all had to sleep for a few hours before venturing out into the city.  We found a nice german bakery in the old town and indulged in some cheese!  oh yes.  finally.  We then explored the little alleyways of the old town which are narrow and endless, filled with interesting smells, colours and people.  Outside of these we went down to the Ghats, the water access steps along the river.  There are maybe a fifty or so spanning the stretch of varanasi, probably more.  We sat on one watching everyone bustle around.  Boatmen, children selling flower baskets to float in the water, or postcards, locals washing or hanging around and many holy men dressed in their orange robes. 

I wandered around the Ghats until sunset, up and down, enjoying the magical atmosphere of the community spirit of the crowds surrounding the Ganges.  At the end, the fires were burning at the Ghats where funerals are held.  Hindus carry their dead on a Pyre, with their head showing, and then gather round as the pyre is placed on the burning fires and the flesh melts away.  Only the hips of a woman and the chest of a man remain apparently, and these are promptly thrown into the holy Ganges.  Tasty!  Pregnant women, Lepers, Children and some other types are thrown into the Ganges whole.  Magically, among all of these things lurking in the Ganges, there are also apparently dolphins specific to this river.  I'm not sure how they survive but they have certainly adapted well...

After hanging around the Ghats for the sunset, we went to a lovely restaurant overlooking the river called the Lotus lounge for some dinner and then were exhausted.  I had signed up for the free yoga and meditation class the next day so wanted to be fresh!

The class was really good.  We were up on the rooftop by 6.30am and the sun was rising again.  The waiter seems to also be the teacher!  He rolled out mats and we spent an hour doing some simple but still challenging stretches.  I really enjoyed the yoga, especially with such a magnificant setting, and decided to do it the next morning too.

I kept up the healthy day with a ginger lemon and honey team, popular with all of us on this trip, and then we all headed off to the monkey temple nearby.

The temple isnt called a monkey temple for nothing.  There are about a hundred monkeys hanging around the grounds it seemed.  Mostly parents and babies, they lazed at the side of the pathways in groups, stroking and grooming their little babies and running around us.  It was great fun watching them, they are always so human like its scary.  Add to this the hustle and bustle of a Hindu temple, families all milling around, lots of people chatting and praying.  These temples are a social as well as spiritual thing.  Everyone comes here together to pray, all the locals and many people from other towns who come to see the temples elsewhere.  This is one of the reasons Indians travel so much within their own country.  I met a family who had come down from north of Delhi to see the temple and they were chatting to me for a while about Hanuman - the monkey God.  I tried to establish who came first, the monmkeys to the temple, or the name of the monkey God which then attracted the monkeys - but they didnt understand my point at all!

We left the wonderful temple to go to another German bakery for lunch.   These German bakerys here all give their profits to charity and work with local charities to help within the community.  I helped out with their profits by eating a lovely portuguese warm salad of potato, egg and eggplant with some tomoato, and a dessert of Brownie... yum yum.

For the afternoon we were to go to Saranath, where Buddha gave his first sermon and founded Buddhism.  It was a long jourmey in the heat and the pollution from the road, but Sarnath was pleasantly green and we enjoyed wandering around the parks with temples and a museum of Buddhist statues and artifacts.  Again, lots and lots of beggars.  One kid was holding a baby which could only have been a couple of days old to beg for money.  Always difficult to deal with!

After this I went on a boat ride down the Ganges as the sunset.  It was great - all the chanting, music, prayer from the sides mixed with the rising moon and the views from the water.  We bought an offering from a passing boatmen of flowers and a candle to float on the water and bless yourself - but i made sure i didnt touch the water....!  Particularly stunning were the funeral fires blazing high into the sky.  There were about 10 fires on the side of the river and then the upper castes had some up on a raised platform above as well.  Very dramatic to see at night - with the families of mourners having all of their hair shaved off and wearing white - and not speaking to or touching anyone for 10 days. 

At two of the Ghats there was a nightly prayer ceremony going on so we got off the boat there to watch for a while as the holy men had blazing torches and rang bells the whole time.  Then we had a nice dinner and tried to get home but found, as always in India, there was a religious festival on yet again and another street parade of men greeted us.  So we avoided being groped in the crowd by taking a side street to get past the procession and eventually, after another more family orientated street party further down, made it back to the hotel.

Despite the later than anticipated sleep, I still got up for the yoga seeing as it made me feel so good the day before.  We did some similar stretching and this time we were there at 6am so the sun literally only rose while we were doing the yoga.  Stunning!  Afterwards I walked along the Ghats again - and the life down there was so different - this time people were washing their clothes, washing themselves, bruching their teeth.  There were some people doing yoga or meditating, many holy men chanting and praying, and one guy running after his young puppy.  All sorts of people watching opportunities.  Yet again I wished I could be indian for the day and be more amongst it.  Having white skin excludes you from the fun.  It just attracts curious stares and many many beggars and weirdos.  Hmm...!

After breakfast it was a lazy day of internet, sleeping and packing ready for the overnight train at 4pm to Calcutta, my last stop on this tour before starting the next one in Singapore on Sunday.  I can't believe how quickly India has flown past me.  I will be sad to leave, as its been so fantastic, but I must admit I'm craving somewhere a bit cleaner.  Singapore should do the trick!  The pollution levels in India are appauling.  Sewage everywhere, rubbish everywhere, black rivers and pollution ridden air.  But there is something far more magical mixed in with all the pollution - and I must say that you become even more enchanted once you see beyond these minor visual set backs!  So, on to Calcutta, which should be a fitting end to such an overwhelming trip.  This is British colonial India, and should be interesting to compare with the other places.  It has a Queen Victoria memorial and St Pauls Cathedral apparently.  Looking forward to it!
xxx


tweedcouch says:
plus that river sounds off the hook. CANNONBALL!
Posted on: May 03, 2009
tweedcouch says:
When I saw the size of this blog I never thought I'd make it through the whole thing. It was well worded, funny, informative and really held my attention. Thank you for sharing you're story;it answered a lot of the questions I had. I can't wait to visit this city.
Posted on: May 03, 2009
jacky01245 says:
hi dan wow ganges sound amazing good luck with u next tour. not heard from u lately please stay in touch
mum and nan
Posted on: Nov 03, 2007
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Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85