Varanasi, India – First Impressions

It’s a long dusty drive into Varanasi from the airport. One of those what-am-I-doing-here moments. Of all the places on our India itinerary, Varanasi was the destination I was most eager to see but I’m now beginning to wonder if my romantic notions were just a fantasy.

Guide books talk of a magical place, bathed in Hinduism with photo ops around every bend of the mighty Ganges River, where the river is the central focus of this holiest of holy cities in India. Funny, they don’t mention the dirt. Mud really, washed up along the steps of the Ghats during the monsoon season. As much as 4-5 feet thick. Everything else is covered in a layer of dust, residue of the drying mud I suppose.

We arrive at the Ganges View Hotel at around 1:30 in the afternoon. A pleasant place to escape the dirt and the mid afternoon sun, with clean serviceable rooms and a tranquil terrace overlooking Assi Ghat.

Walk to Dasawamedh Ghat

Emerging from the hotel at just before 5pm we walked north along the Ghats, some unearthed from the piles of mud and some not. As the sun makes its descent more and more locals and tourists make their way to the river, many heading north to Dasawamedh Ghat where the evening ganga aarti ceremony takes place. Still, at this hour, the sky dim with haze I can’t quite get past the dirt and poverty of the area. Touts continuously ask if we want a boat, a popular way to view the river. Children run up wanting us to buy flower-rimmed floating candles to place in the river.

The closer we get to Dasawamedh Ghat the more people and colors we encounter – fabulous fabrics, bright marigolds and other flowers. Indians and foreigners fill the Ghat and the river below waiting for the sun to set and the evening performance to begin.

Continuing on from the Ghat we head into the old city. The day before Dussehra (posting coming) the market area is particularly lively, decked with lights and packed with stalls of a full range of colorful dry goods.

Back at Dasawamedh Gaht the evening ritual begins at 6:30pm. 30 minutes of repetitive chanting, bell ringing and rotating vessels of fire. Unless you get one of the center boat spots, many of the boats end up way off to one side, you are better off viewing the performance as well as people watching from land.

Harishchandra Ghat

Walking back to the hotel we cross Harishchandra Ghat, known for cremation ceremonies. Out of respect for the dead and their families pictures are not allowed. Fires are built along a mud clad section of the Ghat, like bon fires at the beach. The massive logs are neatly arranged in stacks about 2-3 feet high. The body, wrapped in gold cloth and other fabrics, is then carried out on a stretcher and dunked in the river before being placed on the large logs. Smaller logs and branches are placed on top. A priest circles the body several times with a switch in his hand which he then uses to light the logs beneath the body. Several fires in various stages of completion may be going at any one time. By morning all that was left were the ashes surrounded by dogs taking advantage of the warm earth.

October 23, 2012

For links to all the posts in this series see the Northern India page.

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