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krisek Varanasi - A travel report by Krys
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Varanasi,  India - flag India -  Uttar Pradesh
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krisek's travel reports

Varanasi - Crowded, colourful, holy.

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More Indian, from the cliche’ understanding of the Hindi culture, than all the Indian cities I had visited put together, Varanasi made a great impression on me. It was definitely the highlight of the holiday. Totally unforgettable.

Varanasi. Main street.
Varanasi. Main street.
The holy city of Varanasi, arguably the oldest one in the world, was strikingly Indian with the Ganges river flowing through it carrying semi-cremated bodies of the deceased, washing detergents and soap, as people bathe in the river, and flower offerings floating on the surface. I think it is Damascus of Syria, which claims to be the world’s oldest city, which remains constantly populated and active.

As soon as I rolled in slowly to the centre, I was confronted with a picture of a completely overcrowded Indian city suffering from sticky heat and a traffic jam beyond belief. I guess National Geographic Channel might have shown Indian cities like that and, given the status of this city, it certainly could have been Varanasi. A perfect candidate to show how populated India is.

Every now and then, a cycle rickshaw would pass in the street carrying a tourist. Sometimes, a group of inhumanly overweight American girls would stroll examining the colourful robes hanging from the little shops' marquises. The day appeared slow. Not because of the horrific traffic but the overall animation of the street.

Actually, nowhere else in India it felt so hot and humid. Sweat was running down my back giving me the pleasure of wet pants. It is a funny feeling that you know exactly where on your back it will find the way to your underwear, is it not?

The Varanasi side of the river was used almost exclusively by men for bathing and similar rituals, including washing. Women used the other side of the Ganges, which also happened to offer a great beach. Women were shipped in several dozens at a time in large rowing boats from Varanasi to the other bank. And when they finished their business, they were shipped back. This had worked like that for thousands of years.

I came to Varanasi to see the holy platforms (ghats) at the Ganges river used for bathing, washing up, doing laundry and burning bodies of the deceased.

Favourite spots:
Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat
Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat
The Manikarnika Ghat is the main ghat in Varanasi. It was very colourful, extremely busy all the time and mysteriously smoky. My guide called it a ‘burning ghat’. It was one of the few used to cremate the deceased (no photography allowed). It cost 250 rupees per kilogram of fire wood for cremation, and 200 kilograms is usually needed per person. Apparently poor families collected money from families, who could afford to cremate their deceased relatives, each would give for one or two kilograms. Eventually, there’s enough money to pay the one man in Varanasi, who controlled the trade of this special fire wood. The wood allegedly came from 700 kilometres away.

I could not find the ghats on the first day as the old part of Varanasi is a complex system of very narrow and dark alleys making it a medieval labyrinth hard to navigate. At night it was even harder. I saw that many tourists took guides with them, purely as a navigation tool.

What's really great:
Varanasi travelogue picture
The best and almost the only way to see the ghats was from the river. I figured that from the many pictures I had seen of Varanasi. There was absolutely no problem whatsoever to arrange a boat trip. I negotiated one with an impossibly skinny young lad. He charged me 850 rupees for one hour ride.

When I travelled up the river the sun was against me and I could not take good pictures. I soon turned the boat around and floated with the current down with the sun behind me. The light was good although I think I should have taken the boat an hour earlier. The sun was getting too low behind the buildings, which therefore looked dark in their own shadow.

Two small local boys insisted to join me on the boat. I think they might have been brothers of the stick man who gave me the ride. They played a little on board and then fell asleep. Typical!

It was a great ride, really. And I knew that I wanted to make another trip on the Ganges in the morning to see the ghats in a different light.

Varanasi travelogue picture
When I got on the boat in the morning, something rather shocked me. I saw people searching the banks of the Ganges looking for jewellery of the cremated deceased. I was told it was rather easy to find it since many people were being cremated with their jewellery and many of those items could be found on the market later on. How ghastly! I thought.

I also found out that women were not allowed at the main cremation ghat. There were two reasons for that: 1/ they often threw themselves into fire after their husbands and 2/ they cried too much and thus disturbed the soul while it was transferring itself into the nirvana. For the Manikarnika ghat is believed to be the only place in India with direct corridor to nirvana. That is why people would travel miles and miles to cremate their loved ones there.

Apart from ghats, there were many temples in the city, but I only visited a few, mainly those by the river.

Varanasi travelogue picture
When I stepped into the Hotel Lara India (€18) my rather big and comfortable room was not ready. So I sat down in their restaurant by the window, ordered beer, some traditional Indian dish for lunch and watched people in the busy street below. So far I was happy.

The air conditioning did not work in my room for the whole afternoon as Varanasi was cut off from power. The hotel provided however fans, which got power from big truck batteries, which happened to be piled up right outside my room. First, I did not know what they were for, but then when the chamber-boy, officially known as floor boy, explained the lack of breeze in my room, I understood. How funny, I thought, that the idea of power generator fuelled by petrol was not popular in Varanasi. I noticed many people transporting similar large vehicle batteries around in the town.

Varanasi travelogue picture
Little did I know that I arrived in Varanasi on the third day of the festival of the ten arms goddess Durga. My randomly met guide on the street placed me right in the front row of the spectacle. Young guys performed a ritual involving blowing a horn, dancing, burning incense, lifting bras containers filled with fire and throwing flowers into the river. It was very interesting indeed.

Then, the incredibly packed streets full of worshipers, onlookers and idiots on motorbikes turned into rivers of crowd carrying the statues of the goddess Durga along the alleys. Music played and magicians chanted. There were mainly drums that broke the air filled with holy smoke. I felt lucky to experience the festival. It filled the city with fabulous spectacle, spirit of joy and celebration, and made my short stay unforgettable.

There was no shortage of little clubs and cafes in Varanasi and one could party all night. I did not. I was in a discovery mode and wanted to be up early the next morning.

Varanasi travelogue picture
The moon was very strong. It was not even full. Yet its light reflected in the holy waters of the Ganges, which seriously surprised me. As the evening went by and I sipped my beer high on the terrace of the Dolphin restaurant, located above the A Palace On River Rashmi Guesthouse, the little candles started to appear on the surface of the river. They kept floating one by one, like in the movies. It was a perfect place to finish up the day of exploring Varanasi. I think there were a few places like the Dolphin, and although I was happy with my Lara India Hotel, I did wish I had stayed in some of the high guesthouses offering river views and their restaurants and bars on the top, the perfect observation and chill out zones.

Varanasi travelogue picture
Allegedly the best lassi in the state of Uttar Pradesh was served in Ramnagar, at the front of the vast and magnificent maharaja’s palace. The vendor was using only milk, as opposed to many others who blended water in, and the drink was so thick that it was served with a wooden flat stick so the lassi could actually be eaten. It was lovely I have to say. I was a little concerned about my gut since the drink was served in a ceramic unpainted upside down cone, and I had no idea how clean it was. Well, I could only just sit back, relax and wait what was going to happen. My stomach has never been too sensitive anyway and the little open-air bar was situated right at the main gate of the maharaja's palace was a lovely place to pause in the morning.

I ate in two restaurants in Varanasi: Lara India (€5 main dish with a drink) and the Dolphin (€8 main dish with a couple of beers). Both were very good. Lara India catered mainly for the locals, though. The Dolphin had mixed clientelle.

Other recommendations:
Ramnagar. One of the entrances to the maharaja's palace.
Ramnagar. One of the entrances to the maharaja's palace.
The last palace of the maharaja of Varanasi, which was located at the other side of the river, in Ramnagat, is a real treat. The maharaja palace in Ramnagar is best viewed in the setting sun, from the Ganges and not in the morning when I came. I quickly regretted not having gone there the day before when I had a chance. The sun was shining directly into my eyes and I could not appreciate the view. The front of the palace looked great though. It was superbly decorated and its appearance resembled maharaja palaces from fantasy films and fairy-tales.

The taxi rides in Varanasi can be even five times more expensive than in the rest of the country, and the traffic can be really, really bad. So when taking a taxi, it is a good idea to double the time it would normally take for the distance between the centre and the airport...

Published on Monday June 9th, 2008

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Sat, Jun 14 2008 - 01:56 AM rating by akhila

Another fascinating report of a beautiful place that brings back nostalgic memories of decades ago. Banaras atmosphere is truly captured in your pictures.
best regards,

Mon, Jun 09 2008 - 01:06 PM rating by eirekay

Great report! From the searching for jewelry of the recently cremated to the lassi and the traffic, you captured it all!

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