Writing about vibrant Varanasi has been surprisingly difficult. My memories of this extraordinary place were so jumbled, more a feeling than a narrative. After struggling with this concept, I decided that Varanasi, with its colourful collage of life and confusing lanes, is the inspiration for the structure of this piece. Let’s call it a maze of memory, full of highlights and with the narrative of our journey in India running through it.
Varanasi (or Benares) is one of the longest continually inhabited cities on earth. The Ganges is Hinduism’s most holy river, worshipped as the goddess Ganga. It is the lifeblood, and source of life for millions of Indians. Varanasi is built upon its banks and as such, is the holiest of cities for Hindus. It’s ghats step up to a maze of small lanes lined with shops, restaurants and guest houses. Prepare to get lost! There are markets full of bright fabrics, glittering bindis and delicious food. Cows wander the streets freely, creating new and exciting traffic jams. Tuk tuks are only allowed up to a gated entrance and so their distinctive puttering is replaced by pedicabs.
Getting a guesthouse right on the river was an absolute must for me. Why visit somewhere with a glorious river and miss out on it? Especially as the Ganges is undoubtedly the heart of Varanasi!
The guesthouse is quite large, with rooms from simple budget doubles to slightly fancier offerings. The whole property is set around a courtyard which is a welcome respite from the heat. The restaurant serves food all day with a menu full of backpacker favourites. Their hot honey and lemon was to die for and I partook in quite a few during our visit.
Our room was very basic but comfortable. We were based on the side of the building and so we could still see the river from our room which was nice.
We arrived, pretty tired from getting lost in the warren of streets on the way, and decided to indulge in some comfort food. I spotted macaroni cheese on the menu, and although I wasn’t expecting a dish like Grandma used to make, I ordered it with optimism. When it arrived, my heart sunk! Half of it was made of onion (my food nemesis). The whole dish was thus rendered inedible and I was counting the minutes until dinner.
In the evening, I discovered that the downside to a riverside dwelling, was the insects that swarmed every artificial light along the riverbank. We had to dive through a huge cloud of mosquitoes to get to our bedroom. It was terrifying for a mosquito magnet like me.
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Do You Know Goldie Hawn!?
Goldie Hawn, an American actress, once visited Varanasi. Apparently, during her visit she visited every shop in the greater Varanasi area! I lost track of how many cafe proprietors, tailors and shop keepers proudly sport a photo of her pretty blond visage in their establishment. The whole thing ended up being a little surreal.
Now Varanasi isn’t the Masai Mara but we did see two little critters worth noting.
The first was a frog…or toad that was just outside our guesthouse door. It was nice to have a little reminder that the river is still just about alive and kicking.
The second is a little more unsavoury. This is the biggest bug I have ever come across! I’m not sure it if is a cockroach or it just looked like one. I saw it sloping along the high street and followed it in fascination for about three minutes. It was HUGE! The foot in the picture is a full-grown lady with feet around a UK size 5.
After keeping our attention for so long, this unfortunate creature, in a stroke of serious bad luck, was squashed by a motorbike. I think I’ll leave the picture of that to your imagination.
The Boat Ride
Varanasi rises early. To catch it at its best, you need to be up with sun. It is a classic Varanasi experience to hire a boat and travel along the Ganges to see the life of the city along the ghats.
Our boatman started by fighting hard against the current to get upstream, then we drifted slowly back towards our starting point. Hundreds of people made their way down the stone steps of the ghats to immerse themselves. Old men stood with their dhotis floating around them. Young boys laughed and fished. On the breeze, the singing of the Hare Krishna worshippers drowned out the constant whine of motorbikes in the city. It was incredibly relaxing, despite the busy scenes.
Here you can see people washing themselves in the river. The water is also used for laundry, for spiritual cleansing, and most alarmingly, as a dumping ground for industrial run off. Mercury levels in the river are dangerously high, which affects the wildlife in the water, as well as the humans who visit it every day. We put our feet in. but steered clear of any seafood on the menu.
The Burning Ghats
For Hindus passing away in Varanasi is considered to be the best end a person can have. Dying here breaks the cycle of birth, death and rebirth central to their faith. Two ghats in the city are dedicated to the cremation of those who have passed away. These public spaces are set up with pyres onto which, the bodies are placed, wrapped in cloth. The caste system is still in operation here, the higher up the steps you are, the higher your caste.
We walked over to the burning ghat in the evening and stood in amazement as funerals took place. It was darkly fascinating. Whilst we stood in the glow, a young lad approached us. He told us that he worked in the hospice/rest home and that was customary to leave a donation with him. He had lots of pluck, but no luck!
Squeamish? Don’t read the rest of this paragraph!
As the fires crackled, there were occasional pops and sizzles of fat. The smell of the burning fabric and wood lessened the meaty aroma but it was still definitely discernible. It was the spine, blackened and bobbing in the water next to our boat the following morning that told us what happens to the remains when the fire is put out.
To complete this patchwork of memories there was:
- The small restaurant where the tabla and sitar player performed a raga for the entirety of our dinner.
- The small, spiced twists of pastry that we picked up from a corner shop and are still by far the best train snack I’ve ever had.
- And finally, the pedicab driver that took us to the wrong shop (instead of the government silk shop). You can only assume he was looking for a cut of commission but as the prices were so much higher, we didn’t buy anything. We learnt all about silk worms though, so you know…every cloud!
Varanasi is a magical place. Honestly. It’s inspiring to see the faith that surrounds the river, the vibrancy of the town and sipping honey and lemon with the sun glittering on the water is one of my favourite memories of India.