Burning Up in Banaras
Hi everyone, Charlotte here!
I’m writing this on the rooftop of our hostel in Varanasi (sometimes called Banaras) which is a little oasis of calm away from the craziness that this city entails! Since David has been here before, I’m going to write a little about my first experience of Varanasi.
I don’t think that you can ever really be prepared for this city. Sure, I read loads of guidebooks, and watched travel documentaries, and was warned by several people that Varanasi is a challenging place to visit, but I thought – forewarned is forearmed right? Nope. The city is a full-on assault on your senses as soon as you step off the train. Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers pounce as you exit the station, and you’re soon off on a mad dash through the traffic, horns blaring right and left. Our hostel is in one of the many maze-like tiny streets that back onto the Ganges, so our tuk-tuk driver could only get us so far before we had to navigate alone. I didn’t realise that even walking down the street would be difficult – everyone is hollering (over the relentless sound of horns) to get your attention, to get you to buy a shawl or a rickshaw ride or eat in their cafe. Not to mention that you really don’t want to take your eyes off the ground for more than a few seconds at a time in case you step in one of the many presents left by the freely roaming cows, dogs and goats. All this means that stopping to consult your phone for directions is fairly impossible! Added to the fact that we had been up since 4.30am in order to make the border crossing from Nepal, and didn’t arrive in Varanasi until around 10pm, you can see why I was finding the whole thing a bit much.
Having said all that, nothing really prepares you for the good bits of Varanasi either, all the surprising ways in which it shows just how magical it can be. You arrive knowing that it is a sacred place, but when you’re here you can somehow feel that fact. After a blissful night sleep (a hostel bunk is incredibly welcome after a 7 hour overcrowded train journey without a proper seat!) I had my first glimpse of the Ganges just minutes from our front door. Despite the fact that the river is incredibly polluted, Hindus believe that the water is sacred and pure, and so a dip here will clear their sins. There’s almost a carnival atmosphere down by the water, with whole families washing, bathing, playing and splashing. We took a leisurely walk along the ghats, until we came to Manikarnika Ghat – otherwise known as the burning ghat. This is the place where Hindus come to cremate their dead and give the ashes to the river Ganges. They believe that if cremated here, their souls will find salvation and they will break the cycle of reincarnation and be admitted to paradise (moksha). We were able to see part of a cremation take place, as well as viewing the holy fire which has been burning for 3500 years. I didn’t find the spectacle gruesome in any way, which I was surprised at, but the families present did not seem sad – they were happy that their loved ones where being laid to rest in this holy place and they believed that they were sending them to their final resting place in paradise.
In the evening, we walked along to Dashashwamedh to witness the Ganga Aarti, a ceremony which takes place every evening. Whole families had turned out to watch the spectacle and there was almost a party atmosphere, despite the significance of the Aarti. A group of priests perform the ritual, which is a commitment to Lord Shiva and involves lots of fire displays, chanting and singing.
All this had made us pretty hungry, and we had heard that there was somewhere close by which was famous for its amazing dosas. I’m not sure how we managed to find it in the winding alleyways behind the ghats, but it was definitely worth the search! Dosas are a kind of giant pancake, usually rolled and stuffed with a variety of fillings. The Dosa Cafe, a tiny place with only three tables and a friendly host, specialises in these yummy parcels. I had a cheese masala dosa, and David had a potato and spinach dosa, which he claims was the best dosa he’s ever tasted! We liked them so much that we went back for lunch today – I ordered a chilli onion and tomato dosa and my mouth is still on fire!
We’ve also sorted our next leg of the journey, we’ve booked onto an overnight train tomorrow evening which will take us onto Agra and the Taj Mahal. It will be my first sleeper train and I can’t wait!