I really don’t know why we were going to Varanasi. Definitely not to meet the sadhus or find out the meaning of the life in the ancient city at the banks of Ganges. At some point I even started to doubt, if we should go there. But it was on the way to Kolkata and we had in our minds that we would go there.
In Latvian there is quite popular song that starts with lines “I got on a train to Varanasi…” And so did we. We had booked train tickets the previous day using Clear Trip app. There were no tatkal tickets left in 3AC. We booked the more expensive 2AC. It was a night train from Agra. The night passed by smoothly. In the morning there was a lot of fog, that delayed our arrival for 3 hours. Once we arrived in the station we were happy that we had booked a flight from Varanasi to Kolkata using the mobile app. The station was crowded. Crowded as we had seen never before. We had to squeeze our selves in between others to get in the flow that was crossing the bridge over the rails. There was no way back, just moving forward, hoping that we will get to the main station square.
Some of the train stations in India have prepaid taxi and tuk-tuk service. Varanasi is one of those cities. We were happy that we did not have to bargain about the price to the guest house, as we knew it was quite far away. The system might work daily, but not on the day when Prime Ministers of India and Japan were visiting the city. It was the exact day we arrived in the town. The taxi drivers claimed that most of the streets have been closed and they would have to make a huge detour for taking us to Assi Ghat. They were asking more than double of the price we would normally pay for prepaid taxi. They kept on repeating how they can take us to a “better guest house” very close, very cheap. We were not ready to give in. Seeing that it might take a while to get a cheaper ride, we tried or luck with rickshaw men. The price was still higher that we would have to pay normally, but it was at least closer to the one we had in our minds.
The advantage of using rickshaw is that you can actually see the city. You are much higher than cars and tuk-tuks and you have 360 degree view around you. Down sides – it takes awfully long to get somewhere, there is no protection against road dust and other vehicles. But we were not in a rush. We enjoyed our long and slow journey to Assi Ghat. We saw many posters with PM Modi, at least the story about Prime Ministers was not made up (for a moment we thought that it might be another scheme how to trick tourists).
Pleasant stay at Kedar Guest House
We chose to stay in Kedar Guest House because it had good reviews and it was located in rather calm area still close to river. We needed some peace to recover from Agra failures. We paid for the room a little bit more than we usually did in India, as we wanted to have our own bathroom (cheaper rooms with shared bathroom are available too). After staying there for 4 nights we absolutely did not regret our choice. The family running the guest house was one of the best hosts we have had in India. There are 3 types of Guest Houses – those who don’t really care; those who care, but will not go the extra mile; and those who will take care that you are as satisfied as possible. Kedar Guest House belongs to the last category. They made sure that we have all we need in the room (without hesitation they offered to change a room, because of some inconveniences in the first one), made sure we have all the information we need about city and transport. They gave us good tips about local shops, restaurants, post office. They served us tasty, tasty breakfast. But what I liked the most about our stay – we had very nice conversations about the local life and traditions in India.
Walking along the Ghats
Varanasi turned out to be different than I had imagined. What I did see positively surprised me. Perhaps the timing was right – it was not the Varanasi season. Around Christmas period most of the tourists go to Goa or Kerala. Then Varanasi is hustle free zone. Well, not quite so, but it actually felt rather calm. Local men were still offering us a boat ride every 10 meters that we walk on the banks of Ganges (and the city stretches far along the river). There were still vendors and beggars approaching us more often than we would wish. And as a rule, if an Indian starts a conversation with you on a street, eventually it will lead to an invitation to his silk or whatever shop or it will be a request for donation for this or that cause. Maybe we had got used to it, but it still seemed to be very calm.
We walked the ghats every day. The most fascinating were boys and adult men playing with kites. They are everywhere and it is impossible not to be trapped by the invisible strings that are stretching across the ghats. Every afternoon, after school boys were coming to the river to fly the kites with their friends or fathers. It definitely added some extra charm to the city.
Few times we did pass the burning ghats. Varanasi is the only place in India where burning of dead bodies takes place in a public space. The burning never stops. The burning ghats are partly enclosed by fortresses of huge piles of wood that is sold to burn the corpses. Unlike written in guides, no-one tried to charge us for watching the burning ceremonies. Photography is not allowed and we respected it (except for this one sneaky shot). As everywhere in the world, the funeral consist of row of rituals. We saw few of those.
While we had a drink in one of the small, narrow streets of old town, we saw a procession quickly passing by. The dead was covered with a shiny cloth, carried on a litter. The men were rapidly chanting a mantra. Once the procession has reached the river, the body is dipped in the river for the last purification with the holy water. A man, who is the closest relative to the dead, gets his hair shaved off. He is usually wearing white clothes. It is also the person who sets the fire to the wood stocked around corpse. After the body has turned into ashes the chest bone of man and hip bone of woman is thrown into the Ganges. Cremation is executed only, if the person has died in a natural way. A body of a child or a pregnant women is simply thrown in the river with stone tied to it.
Usually funeral ceremonies are very emotional for me. But this time I felt very peaceful. It might be due to the fact that we were never standing very close to the fire, nor we stayed too long to watch the full process (it takes about 3 hours).
While life and death on the bank of the river is taking place some what calmly, the busyness of the city is exposed in the small streets of the old town and on the roads of the rest of the city. For a visitor it might seem that Varanasi is as big as it stretches along the river, but actually it is only a small part of it. The real city is huge and it is challenge to cross it with or without Prime ministers in Town.
Christmas shopping in Varanasi
We tested it twice. For a longer time we had in our minds that we would like to send some small gifts to our families. The initial plan was to do it from Kolkata. But as the time was flying by and we had decided to stay there only for 2 nights, it had to be done from Varanasi. Part one of the plan – find the gifts. We took advice from our hosts in Kedar Guest House. We had 2 things in mind – silk (Varanasi’s speciality) and spices. Finding the recommended spice shop was quite an adventure, that involved a lot of asking around to locals. We were looking for shop run by a muslim man who did not speak any English. The shop was also located in a house, not on a street. We were following a hand drawn map. We had 2 keywords – family name of the shopkeeper and the name of a public school, that was close by. To find the shop that was “not very far”, took us about 1,5 hours. In the end two friendly and curious young muslim men took us to the right place.
Mr Nazaret was sitting in the middle of the shop, giving orders to his helpers. It turned out that he new enough English to decode the spices we were looking for and suggested a few extra. He found our visit very amusing. We were glad that we had finally found the right place. A real hidden gem.
Sending the gifts
The second part of the plan – another visit to the post office was to send parcels. We knew that we had to be there on time, we knew how our packages should be packed and what kind of documents we need. What we did not know was the intensity of the traffic in Varanasi in the middle of the day. Our European experience was that the most of the traffic is in the morning from 7:30 to 9:30 and for early evenings from 16:00 to 19:30. Not in India. There is almost no traffic in the morning. The busy hours start around noon and so not stop until 8 pm or later. So it was a very bad timing, when we decided to make our way to the post office at 1 pm. Tuk-tuks and taxis would not even go that direction.
We had 2 hours left to reach the post office before they would stop accepting parcels. We hoped that a rickshaw might do the trick, but it did not. We were stuck in the traffic jam, almost not moving at all. Our rickshaw man did not speak any English and somewhere half way it turned out that he did not even really know the road… After an hour we gave up and just asked him to take us to the closest ghat. He did not understand us, but he took us to the direction we were pointing at. Completely lost in the city, our rickshaw man gave up and we gave up too. We just got off and trusted our selves to google maps and a crazy man, who insisted to take us to water. Unfortunately those were the small, narrow, twisted and busy streets of old town that we had to get through. We did not really want the help of the man who kept on following us, knowing that he will want “a gift” (aka money) for his “service”. We were looking for the right way and at the same time trying to get rid of the following man. That was quite a stressful afternoon, but somehow we managed to do both.
Ironically enough, the next day, when we went to the main post office in the morning to send our parcels, we realised that it was very close to the place we had got of the rickshaw the day before. Later that morning we even met the same crazy man, who followed us. But this time we used the ignoring tactics. At it luckily worked.
Later that day we did meet Canadian Erica again who met earlier in Rishikesh. Our initial plan was to watch the ceremony at Assi Ghat, but by the time we got there, it apparently was already finished. So went to went eat somewhere close. Erica had recently made a motorcycle trip around Rishikesh for a couple of days. Hearing her adventurous stories made us think we are rather conservative travelers.