I visted Varanasi two weeks back (that’s in the second week of October, 2017 if you’re reading this in the future) with my father, and we spent a few days there just walking around and getting to know the place a bit. I have talked about Varanasi’s excellent food already on this website in Part 1, and as promised at the end of that post, here I am, writing about all the other nice things to do.
Varanasi’s most popular tourist attraction (unless you are a devotee of the temple, or maybe even if you are) is the bank of the Ganga, the sequence of Ghats. A Ghat, from my advanced inference abilities, is a bunch of steps leading into a river. The river bank in Varanasi is split (with no clear division) into more than eighty Ghats, each with its own name and most with their own purpose.
Every evening, my father and I went for a walk along the river, on these Ghats. As the sun began to set, the weather started to cool and life began to pick up along the river. Kids jumped into the water next to buffaloes which were having a soak after a hard day of buffalo-ing. Tea sellers and boatmen patrolled the banks, looking for customers for their respective products. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, people began to gather to watch the spectacle of the Evening Aarthi.
Every evening, an elaborate performance is staged in the form of an Aarthi to the river, probably to thank Her for carrying away the sins of a million people. Ladies sell little leaf bowls with flowers and a diya to light and offer to the river. Toy sellers, tea vendors, and balloon sellers try to make a quick, small buck from the crowd. As the prayers begin, a man walks all around the crowd, dancing and waving a receipt book for donations. Priests sing and pray in all direction, with a steadily increasing fervour and grandeur. Cameras keep flashing as little lamps are replaced with big lamps and the prayers get louder. After about an hour of exhortations to the river, the event winds down, and the people go on to the rest of their night. Presumably the Ganges is happy for another day.
On a different ghat, maybe half a kilometre from the aarthis is Harishchandra Ghat. On some evenings, we couldn’t help but stop here and watch the burning of bodies. The process was probably mundane to the locals and the people working there, but to us, the respectful indifference with which death was handled was fascinating. Corpses followed each other in quick succession. As one burnt, the next was prepared. Unburnt wood was reused from one to the next.
Once, while we saw a man throwing the ashes of the body he had just burned behind him. He tripped as he started walking. As he fumbled for his slippers, the priest yelled out what the whole ritual might be a symbol for: “Don’t look back!”. The words were repeated as he walked up the stairs and away into the city.
The pyre was quickly rebuilt and on it, two bodies were placed side by side. “Orphan bodies,” my father said, “they were probably found with no relatives to burn them.” A kid added kindling as a constable took a selfie with the flame. “It must be because he has to show proof that he was there when the bodies burnt.”
The walks along the Ghats, to conclude this section, were my favourite part of the trip to Varanasi.
Boat Ride in the morning
On the recommendation of a close friend, we went on a sunrise boat trip. To find a boatman, you just need to walk a 100 m along the ghats and someone will ask you if you want a boat ride. We spoke to a few of them — or rather, many of them spoke to us — and settled on a nice man named Krishna.
His primary job is that of a computer repairman, but four years ago he got a boat built for some supplemental income. However these days, boating apparently has become very hard because of how much competition there is. Well built (unsurprisingly since he rows for a living), he was friendly and relaxed. He stays mostly on the boat because his house is too small, what with his mother, wife, and kids all in the same room.
The river was peaceful, except for the motorboats noisily sputtering about. Krishna told us that he would prefer it if the motorboats were banned and only rowboats were allowed. As he took us from Assi Ghat (Ghat Number 80) to Dashashwamedh Ghat (where Brahma, the God himself, apparently not happy with creating the universe, performed a ten-horse sacrifice for some reason), he pointed out to us the significance of the various other ghats: here Sita took a bath, Valmiki wrote the Ramayana here, this is where poor people burn corpses (which is also where Raja Harishchandra worked in the graveyard while his truthfulness was being tested), that is where rich people burn corpses, here the morning aarti happens, the evening aartis happens here, and so on.
Near the end of the ride, Krishna found it very amusing as we were waiting for sunrise that all the boats had lined up facing east and all the tourists had their cameras out, me included.
If you go on a boat ride when in Varanasi (and you should), go at sunrise. A friend told me and I’m telling you. Boat rides later in the day are more crowded and the weather is less forgiving. In the evening, you can see the Aarthis from the boat, but the water is just as crowded as the land at that time.
Also, it was because of Krishna’s recommendation that we ended up having the best lassi ever at Dwarika Lassi in Ramnagar later that day, so the boat ride: completely worth it!
Quite close to Varanasi is Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first lecture (preaching?), a museum of moderately interesting artefacts, and an excavated temple in which you can walk around among the ruins.
Having done the ten days of Vipassana last year, my mind naturally resonates with some of The Buddha’s words. I’m sure there weren’t many people other than me who stood in front of the board above and read the whole lecture. Reading the actual words, they don’t live up to the idea of a philosophical leap that had been built up in my mind. But the words of the first lecture are only the surface. Buddha changed everything for a lot of people when he came on to the scene with his singular focus on a unique (at the time) combination of detachment and compassion.
Sarnath was quite hot, and we were bamboozled by a guide. I didn’t really care because I’ve accepted gullibility as once of my character flaws, but my father was pretty irritated. The guide had said he would show us around the town and that he knew all the cool things, but it turns out he didn’t come with us into the museum or into the excavated temple, which are really the only places that you actually need a guide for.
However, he did tell us stories of his family. They were apparently zamindars (landlords) who were stripped of most of their land decades ago when the Indian government got rid of the regressive zamindari system (of course, his family wasn’t evil like that at all), and now they subsist with a few farms and side jobs such as being an unofficial guide. He also told us that global warming was due to human intervention.
I was impressed with this at first, but then he went on to say that by human intervention, he meant the nuclear missiles that “the leader of North Korea” had just launched into the sky. These missiles had clearly split the sky and the suns warmth was reaching us more directly, which was obviously the cause of an unusually long and hot Summer in Uttar Pradesh. I guess it’s better than Climate Change denial, because he did say in conclusion humans need to stop meddling with nature.
If you’re in Sarnath and feel like you need a guide for history, get one from the tourist office rather than a guy who approaches you at an auto stand. However, if you want some not-necessarily-historically-accurate stories, and don’t mind getting a wee bit cheated, go with the unofficial guys. They’re just as cool, and know more than they know.
The Buddhist stupas and the open air museum (which houses an excavated temple) were quite nice. The guide, of course, took us to a shop where there was a lot of pressure to buy woven apparel, but they were shut down instantly by my already irritated father.
Worth a visit? Yes! You can leave in the morning and get back to Varanasi by lunch if you’re so inclined.
I couldn’t really find a place to put these things because they’re relatively small, so here are the “Other Things”.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
One of the most important temples for religious Hindu people; we couldn’t come all the way to Varanasi and not go there, my father said. The temple is very important to Hindus, so there are all the usual suspects: shopkeepers pestering you leave your footwear and buy flowers and offerings, people offering to take you to a secret location where the crowd is thinner, policeman checking everybody, no photography, and an unmistakeable smell of religion.
The architecture of the temple seems nice enough, but the throng of people is just too much. I wonder what people get out of being pushed and shoved through the line, catching a darshan (more like just a glimpse) of their dear god for half a second, fighting to just make their offering before being shoved on again. Unless money is involved of course, because if you pay (and come really early in the morning), you can even get alone-time with God.
Does a weight lift from their chest? Does the tension of their child’s marriage ease a little? Do they breathe easier about their spouse’s inability to keep a job, at least for a moment before they again suffocate in the push to the exit?
There are a few levels of transport in Varanasi: cycle rickshaw, electric rickshaw, auto-rickshaw (shared and reserved), and taxi. The drivers in all of these were quite chatty, each happy to give their opinion on the city.
The driver of our first taxi was a big fan of the Prime Minister. He told us Varanasi had improved significantly ever since Modi came to power. He had been faking votes for BJP since he was young, he told us. He was a Rajput, and he said the only caste that had a chance of standing up to them were the Yadavs. Uttar Pradesh had a bad run with low-caste parties leading the state. “How can I vote for a party that cohorts with Muslims?”, he asked us without expecting or waiting for an answer. Now, finally, that a Hindu party was in power, he felt good about the future. Varanasi was cleaner than he had ever seen it, and development was happening much faster than ever before.
The taxi driver on the way back to the airport told us that all of this cleanliness was just a facade and nothing has actually changed. All the cleaning was just because Japan’s Prime Minister was visiting. All the construction projects were doing more damage than good. He said he had expected much more when Modi was elected, but now was extremely disappointed.
Epilogue and Travel Details ￼
The days I spent in Varanasi played back in my head (I was mostly imagining this blog post) as I sat in my seat on the plane, listening to Rushing by Midival Panditz, a very good song for contemplation. The days were all so vivid and clear in my head, and it was clearly because of the city: it’s colourful, noisy, forceful, and most importantly, full of culture and character. I am not religious, but the air of spirituality was inescapable.
Varanasi is a decently big city, so all the options to get here: planes, trains, buses, and automobiles. I flew in on a 1.25 hour flight from Delhi while my father flew in from Bangalore with a stopover in Hyderabad
Staying options abound. All budget levels are represented in the choices available. We stayed in a hostel called Hostel LaVie because I wanted my father to experience hostel life, which turned out to be quite an unremarkable five days.
I strongly recommend staying close to the Ghats. Choose one with a view of the river, or even better, a Ghat.
Oh man. Read all about the food here. There are pizza restaurants, cafes, and bakeries as well, if you feel like eating those things. We went to nice, friendly cafe called Om Cafe once.