Varanasi

Varanasi Travel Blog

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The Yogi Lodge

Varanasi, also known as Kashi (the ‘city of light’) or as Benares, is situated on the west bank of the Ganges and is India’s holiest Hindu city with a spiritual legacy that goes back 3,000 years. Sanctified by Shiva’s presence and the sacred Ganges, the 90 or so ghats along the river define the life and identity of Varanasi. Lined with temples and shrines they reverberate with the endless cycle of Hindu religious practice--from daily rituals like bathing and washing clothes to profound rites of passage.

We wanted to stay in the Old Town section of Varanasi near the ghats but 3 of the first guest houses we checked were booked so we ended up at the Yogi Lodge, about a 10 minute walk from the river.

Mother cow outside our door
The Yogi Lodge is roughly $5 a night and is virtually identical to the $40 a night room I stayed in my first night in Delhi. It comes with a rock hard bed, a sometimes-hot shower, decent enough food, beer--which is usually either unavailable or available off-menu in holey cities--and a nice rooftop patio with a view of the city. It’s located down a long, narrow alley, no more than 8 ft wide paved in large stones, flanked by 3 and 4 story buildings and then down another equally long, narrow alley. At the end of the second alley you come to the Yogi Lodge and outside the front door is a cow and her new born calf, property of the family just across the alley. This may sound charming, which at first it is, but you soon realize that two cows urinating all day on a stone walk soon begins to smell.
mother cow's two week old calf
Between that wafting into the lobby of the guest house and several of the employees snorting and spitting first thing in the morning, breakfast can be a real challenge to keep down.

While waiting my turn to check in I noticed an abbreviated, kind of Cliff’s Notes, version of Autobiography of a Yogi on the counter. I’d recently read the book in preparation for this trip and took this as a good sign. As I filled out the registration book I came to a part where it asked for my date of arrival in India. I paused and started counting back the days to when I landed in Delhi.  Rej, the front desk manager, immediately said, you arrived in Delhi on March 11. I slowly looked up from the book and stared at him as if I’d just witnessed my second spiritual sign. He smiled and said, it’s right there on your passport, see the stamp? It says “Delhi - March 11”.

one of the reasons our hotel lobby smells

One is awakened in Varanasi by any number of things: cows mooing, fruit and vegetable vendors yelling, bells ringing for morning devotionals--all seemingly just outside--and monkeys screeching as they crawl across the grates of your open bedroom window. The monkey thing can be a little unnerving when your head is only two feet away. I’m hoping there isn’t a monkey with really long arms.

Saturday, Bhai, our tour guide took us to three Hindu temples. One is almost 800 years old. It’s an outdoor temple surrounded by high, red walls and is still used everyday by devout Hindus. As we sat and watched the procession of people going up to the altar you couldn’t help but feel the thousands of spirits of those who had done the same thing over the last 8 centuries.

monkeys outside our windows
As we were leaving we received an orange mark on our forehead at the point of the third eye, and a braided necklace signifying family and luck. Next we went to the Monkey Temple, also close to 800 years old and still actively used on a daily basis, including by Bhai. The name of the temple is self evident as there are dozens of monkeys running around all over the grounds.

Sunday morning a group of us gathered before sunrise to take a boat tour on the Ganges to view the ghats from a different perspective. Walking through the old section of the city to get to the ghats is like stepping back into Medieval times. The alleys, similar to those by our hotel, are flanked by homes and shops that are more than 500 years old.

Although there are more than 700 temples in Varanasi, none are more sacred than the river itself.

funeral pyre at night (from a distance)
The Ganges is worshiped as a living goddess with the power to cleanse all earthly sins. Daily baths in her waters are advised by Hindu scriptures to prepare for the souls final journey to liberation. However, in another sense the river is also one of the most polluted in the world with levels of fecal coliform 3,000 times higher than considered safe. Dozens of large sewer pipes dump raw sewage into the river for hundreds of miles. Yet people won’t hesitate not only to take a bath and wash clothes in the river but drink from it.

The multi-colored, row boats, all lined up for tourists, are almost 30 feet long, 8 feet wide, and sit only a foot in the water. We shoved off with two little boys on board selling offerings of flowers and diyas--leaf bowls filled with marigolds and a candle.

The sight at sunrise of hundreds of burning diyas floating down the Ganges can be very beautiful and moving.

The main ghat in Varansi is the Dasahvamedha Ghat and is the city’s holiest spot. It’s also the ghat used in virtually every Varanasi postcard. Rows of priests sit under bamboo parasols ready to perform ritual prayers for the pilgrims that swarm here. Daily prayers, or Aarti, at dawn and dusk, serve as salutations to the river. Oil lamps are offered and bells rung while sacred mantras are chanted.

After lunch Katie, Christine and I walked the ghats almost from one end to the other, continually being confronted by hawkers of every stripe; haircuts, shaves, boat tours, you name it, and stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, one of only two burning ghats used for funeral ceremonies.

Funeral pyres burn day and night at this cremation ghat while bodies wrapped in shrouds lie on bamboo stretchers, or biers, awaiting their turn. We watched a continual procession of bodies arriving and the entire ceremony lasts only about 45 minutes to an hour with 3 or 4 going on at the same time. A family must purchase the materials used in the ceremony including the logs, kindling, ghee (clarified butter which is poured on the pyre) and the fire itself at a cost of 3,000 rupees. For 1,000 rupees a family can use the electric crematorium. It was an amazing sight to say the least.  Cows and water buffalo moving about everywhere, dogs barking, goats munching on garbage, kids flying kites, hawkers selling their wares, and body after body being placed on the funeral pyres and set afire.
 

Get togethers on the hotel’s rooftop at night are such a great way to relax after a long day of site seeing. Last night we shared who knows how many beers with people from Germany, Norway, and England and talked about the usual; cultural differences, politics--I’ve yet to hear anything but high praise and sincere thanks for Obama being elected--and travel experiences--where've you been? how long are you staying? where're you headed after this?  It's an amazing journey for everyone.

merk says:
Talk about cultural filters, When I first read this post I thought you wrote how 90 GNATS defined life on the Ganges. That was a real head scratcher for me until I realized it was ghats. Good for a morning chuckle.
Posted on: Mar 24, 2009
jbm12940 says:
A picture of a cow peeing - I guess you can never take the 13 year old boy out of the man.
Posted on: Mar 23, 2009
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The Yogi Lodge
The Yogi Lodge
Mother cow outside our door
Mother cow outside our door
mother cows two week old calf
mother cow's two week old calf
one of the reasons our hotel lobby…
one of the reasons our hotel lobb…
monkeys outside our windows
monkeys outside our windows
funeral pyre at night (from a dist…
funeral pyre at night (from a dis…
Ghat
Ghat
funeral pyre
funeral pyre
my gecko friend in my bathroom
my gecko friend in my bathroom
my room
my room
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85