HIMALAYAN TALES #6: VARANASI
001. Varanasi, one of the oldest and most historically rich cities of India. A city of Holy men, Mother Ganga, winding alleys, delicious curries, animals of all varieties and hell of a lot of poop. After our eventful journey, arriving in Varanasi felt like a bit of slap in the face. However, after a couple of days of rest we had readjusted our sleep-deprived mindsets and began to see magic hidden between the chaos.
002. The city of Varanasi is something so unique that I still find hard to put into words to describe. The winding alleys are full of animals, scooters, people and colour! Huge cows, endless dogs, goats and monkeys are EVERYWHERE in Varanasi and as a result so is a hell of a lot of poop (not just of the animal variety either....). Darting around the brightly painted alleys and getting lost is almost half the fun of the city. When you need a breath of (literal) fresh air Mother Ganga and the ghats provide. The river is the centre of life for many people in Varanasi and there is a quiet sense of calmness if you just sit and watch day-to-day life unfolding. Realistically though, walking along the river touts will offer you a boat ride or try to sell you something relentlessly. I suggest heading more towards the Assi Ghat end of the river for a quieter atmosphere that's slightly less tourist-centred.
003. While in Varanasi we stayed in a lovely place called Singh Guesthouse. It was an affordable, clean little oasis from the craziness outside with a big green garden, multiple rooftops and tasty cheap breakfast. The Indian food in Varanasi was SO GOOD! We were spoilt for choice with super cheap and tasty pure 100% veg restaurants. Our favourite one was called Ashok, which was the cheapest by far and always had locals dining in too. Niyita and Shree also get honourable mentions because of their generous (and delicious) thali sizes too.
004. While on the topic of food I may as well mention hash- you can get it almost everywhere in Varanasi. You might even come across bhang lassi or special lassi at one of the many lassi stores around town. It is essentially a dairy based shake laced with THC (or bhang in Indian terms). If you're not into edibles there are always countless touts down to sell you a good time along the banks of the Ganges too, more towards Assi Ghat end. Heck, you might even start talking to one of the holy Babas and light up a chillum with him because they are high all the time man (and not just in the spiritual sense). I'm not here to condone or condemn anything- merely just educate!
005. The cremation ghats of Varanasi are one of key points for any visitor to the city. There are two cremation spots along the river- Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Bodies are burned here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Before the body even arrives at the Holy Ganga, it is washed and coated with ghee (purified butter). It takes 6-7 hours to burn one single body and a large amount of wood that the family must buy for the cremation. The bodies of men are wrapped in white and women are wrapped in red. Pure bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, leprosy sufferers, holy Hindu men and victims of cobra bites, are sunk directly into the river intact. We had a lovely in-depth conversation with a local Indian one night who talked us through everything that goes into the cremation ceremonies and left with a more wholesome understanding of how it all worked.
006. The comfortable feeling of acceptance and almost nonchalance about death was something I found refreshing coming from a Western culture where death is so traumatic and closed-off from everything. It felt really beautiful and moving to see death represented and dealt with so openly. The fact is that death is the only thing in life ever really guaranteed. Without death life in this body would be infinite. Death is a tool, something that should serve as a reminder to just LIVE. I think the confronting but humbling way that Hinduism deals with death on the banks the Ganga opens up so many thought provoking doors and I am very grateful to have experienced something that really blew me out of my Western-trained-mind.
007. Also, just so I don't end on a too-serious note... that goat munching on our banana peels was the FUNNIEST animal we crossed paths with in all of India and I almost always end up in tears looking at its little face. ENJOY!