Today we headed to Varanasi, the cultural and religious center of India. Our driver described it as ‘the Hindu Mecca’, although 35% of city is occupied by Muslims.
After a long, relaxing breakfast, and a one hour flight delay, we headed to Delhi International Airport and caught our flight to Varanasi. The Air India flight was just over an hour and they still managed to serve us a full meal. Things are different in India. When we landed we met our driver and headed to the Gateway Hotel, about 25 minutes from the airport. The hotel is very nice and the staff is excellent.
We arrived at 225pm with just 5 minutes to spare before our taxi picked us up for our first tour of Varanasi. We met our guide, Anchal, at the center of the city which was busier than I could have imagined. Varanasi is a holy city, and has many cows roaming the streets (or often just lying in the middle of them). Cows, bikes, motorcycles, cars, and people are everywhere.
We wandered through a few temples and markets before we stopped at the colorful flower market. Our arrival coincided with two festivals – the end of a 9-day Hindu festival and the begginning of a one day Muslim festival. The flower market was very busy due to this.
We learned about the festivals, and a lot about the Hindu religion and the significance that the Ganges and Varanasi hold in Hinduism before heading out on the river. We also visited a Mosque that overlooked the Ganges from one of the Ghats, and watched dozens of kids fly kites from the cities rooftops.
Next came the river. Our guide Anchal accompanied us on our private row boat and we set sail. We first went north and saw some beautiful ghats, while learning about what we were going to visit further south at the cremation center, the Manikarnika ghat. Here’s a look at some of our favorite pictures on the river.
Visiting the Manikarnika ghat was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was almost an out of body experience. When we arrived we could smell and see the tall fires, reaching over a dozen feet high with at least 8 fires burning at once. Manikarnika is considered a sacred place in Varanasi, as those cremated here are said to escape the cycle of reincarnation. We watched as bodies were brought down the stairs to the Ganges by male family members, washed (cleansed of their sins), laid on wood, covered in wood along with clarified butter, and set on fire. It was overwhelming, beautiful, and shocking all at once. An ever present reminder that death awaits all of us, even as we watched from ‘the city of life’ as Varanasi is known. The ghat operates 24/7, roughly 200 bodies per day pass through the ghat.
To respect those families who lost loved ones, I won’t be posting photos from the Manikarnika ghat.
As the sun went from setting to completely down, we left the ghat in silence. Amanda and I were both still processing what we’d just witnessed.
We floated down the river to another area full of life – the opposite of where we’d been. Every night priests put on a big show to thank the river for providing the city with life. The show includes 5 priests dancing, singing, chanting, spreading incense and wielding fire. Boats were backed up 10 rows deep on the river to watch, and there were thousands on the land watching as well. It was tough to get pictures with the lighting, but we got a few after we left our boat for land.
After the show we followed the crowds out to the marketplace where we shopped for a bit, but mostly just tried not to die walking though traffic. The sheer number of people in such a small area is mind boggling. Our driver told us in a 30km area there are over 3 million people.
We returned to the hotel exhausted around 10pm. We had a couple of beers at the bar and actually managed to stay awake until 11pm. The latest we’ve stayed up so far. Tomorrow we’re up at 5am for our 530am city tour, another early start.