Swimming and cremations- the spiritual capital of India
29.04.2010 - 30.04.2010 42 °C
"You haven't been to India if you haven't seen Varanasi" we would hear people repeat over and over, so even though it had originally been a question mark on our itinerary, Varanasi it was, and what an experience!
One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, and possibly one of the most overwhelming to visit. The holy Ganga river is visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, who come here to wash away a lifetime of sins, whilst its banks are lined with burning corpses as cremations take place daily. The Hindus also believe that if you die in Varanasi, then you will be set free from the continual cycle of reincarnation and become a liberate soul.
After a bad night's sleep, we woke up at the crack of dawn for an early morning boat ride along the river Ganga and the 'ghats', where death and life are inextricably linked. It's quite something to see hundreds upon hundreds of people splashing away in a river only yards away from burning corpses. Coming from a western culture where death is neatly packaged as far away from our view as possible, it's quite unnerving being confronted with it such an public way. It felt somehow voyueristic, as if we shouldn't be there. However, we were assured by the locals that with many cremations daily, it was a natural part of the cycle of life and as long as we didn't take photos, we were welcome to be there....and what an insight into Hindu culture!
Where we stayed:
Shanti Guest House - 250 rs/tight. Shabby sheek this is not! Most of the budget accommodation is in the old town by the Ghats. Like Agra, whilst the benefit is that location wise you are in the thick of it, it again means that you are in the thick of dark, narrow alley ways, open sewers, rubbish, interrupted occasionally with the odd cow. The staff were a little moody, the food was 'western Indian' (think ragu curry) but the view is incredible and it's a stone's throw away from the action. It'll do for one night on a budget but I'd rather have stayed in hotel Surya where we used the pool (see below - approx 850rs for a double)
Where (and where not) to eat:
We didn't have much luck finding good food in Varanasi (with the exception of hotel Surya - see below). The food in Shanti Guest House was poor, and we followed our guide book's recommendation of the Brown Bread Bakery, only to be sorely disappointed. The vast menu promised everything, inluding a cheese list that would rival that of France's top establishments - from Camembert to Vacherin - it looked amazing. It was so hot that cheese was out of the question anway but what we did order was quite honestly rancid. The seating was obviously used as bedding for the staff (we found an unwanted surprise shall I say) and the room smelt of urine. Sorry Brown Bread Bakery but I will not be recommending you to anyone.
What to do:
Get up at the crack of dawn (5am) and take a boat trip down the Ganga to watch the bathers and cremations. It's easiest to get a good deal in a group and should cost 50rs an hour per person. Sunset is another good time to go. DO NOT be tempted to take a dip yourself. The river is very polluted!
After your boat trip, escape the heat with a swimming pool day pass at one of the more expensive hotels. We went to hotel Surya which had a lovely pool and great food. In hindsight, whilst it's an auto rickshaw ride from the Ghats, it's pretty amazing value for money and once you've paid for your pool pass, we may as well have paid for a room there.