Day 4 – Varanasi
After a 14 hour train journey we finally arrive in Varanasi to be greeted by the intense morning heat and a bunch of hassling auto rickshaw drivers who persist in driving us to our hostel. This is a common sight at train stations, and everywhere for that matter, where each driver frantically competes to agree the cheapest price. Our accommodation is only a 15 minute rickshaw ride away to the Zostel Hostel, India’s first chain of hostels on the backpacking scene which is gradually growing. The staff are very helpful and offer various trips to ensure you get a taste of all that Varanasi has to offer.
After catching up on some sleep, we head out into the even bigger chaos that is Varanasi. Despite having a lower population, the roads are insane with no structure, not even paths, so the aim is to walk along with the traffic and attempt to avoid running into cars, rickshaws and even cows!
As you approach the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, the streets become lined with vendors selling all types of things. I notice some older Indian men dressed in orange robes, all with long beards and wearing white face paint. These are in fact holy men known as sadhus in the Hindu religion, spending most of their lives away from everyday society. The ghat is filled with people, as preparations are being made for the nightly ceremony whereby the River Ganges is worshipped. Taking in all of the chaos, we take a moment to reflect that we are in Varanasi, the most holy place in India.
We are recommended by the hostel to try Keshari, a nearby restaurant serving mostly vegetarian dishes. The meal consists of five small dishes containing different curries, rice and of course the necessary chapatti and poppadom. Our first proper Indian platter and it is absolutely divine!
The evening ceremony known as Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire) which takes place each night along the bank of the Ganges is certainly worth a visit to get a taste of the Hindu religion. The performance is lead by a group of priests wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Sun, Fire, and the whole universe.
Day 5 – Varanasi
Another ghat which is certainly worth a visit is the Assi Ghat, around a 2km walk through the busy streets from Zostel Hostel. The area is full of cafes, many of which supporting local charitable causes, so we pay a visit to the Open Hand Cafe, which serves some great breakfast items as well as delicious sweet treats! The cafe is one of two in India, functioning as a fair trade shop which sells handmade products made in the local community, as well as a shoes off cafe where you will be sure to get a good coffee!
We decide to take a rickshaw for the journey back rather than walk amongst Varansi’s traffic. It can often be a slightly less stressful way to enjoy the sites of this holy city and to avoid stepping in cow poo! Due to it’s holiness, the streets of Varanasi are full of roaming cows as they are considered to be extremely sacred creatures in the Hindu religion. It is believed that by honouring this gentle animal, Hindu’s are honouring all other creatures. With this highly regarded status, cows have a pretty good life in India and can do whatever they want. You often see them standing outside shops or homes waiting for food!
Another one of our recommendations is the Brown Bread Bakery, located in the heart of Varanasi’s network of alleys just a short walk from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat so its very easy to become lost. Don’t be fooled by several fake Brown Bread Bakeries which unfortunately exist! The bakery started off in 2006 as the first organic eatery in Varanasi and now offers an amazing selection of cheese and bread all produced by the women empowerment group of the Learn for Life society.
As a Holy City, alcohol is banned on the banks of the river at the ghats and is relatively difficult to get hold of otherwise. However you will find that many places do serve it in a very hush-hush manner for a higher than average price. We did manage on a few occasions to have the odd beer whilst eating, but Varanasi is not really the type of place for late night drinking. The hostel does however have a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a beer up until 11pm, after a day spent exploring the chaotic city streets.
Day 6 – Varanasi
Our hostel offers various trips around the city and today we decide to venture a little further to visit some of the many temples in Varanasi. It’s a great way to see areas which you probably wouldn’t otherwise visit, from the back of a rickshaw. Let’s not forget the typical trip to one of the many local silk shops, which is extremely common in India as the rickshaw drivers often receive commission from the shop owners if their customer decides to purchase anything. By no means feel pressured to buy , as you are under no obligation to do so. Although I did feel slightly guilty for not buying anything after the
shop owner had took out all of his silk samples and talked us through each one! We also pay a visit to the place where the products are made, a small room with an older man intricately making a silk scarf using a foot mechanism made of bamboo. Very impressive and interesting to see that so many of the traditional methods are still used despite the current era of mass manufacturing.
Later in the day we take a boat ride up and down the River Ganges to see the city from a different angle. This only costs 150 INR each and is another trip offered by the hostel, possibly a better option than going with one of the local touts down by the main ghat who prey on tourists and may charge a much higher price! The boat takes us up past Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat where the non-stop burning of corpses takes place. In Hinduism cremation is the most common practise after death, with the ashes being dispersed into a sacred body of water. On the banks of the River Ganges, bodies are washed in the holy waters then wrapped in orange cloth and carried on bamboo to the burning platform. From the boat we are unable to see much however being so close to such a holy procedure is an extremely surreal experience.
Day 7 – Varanasi
After seeing the cremations from a distance we decide to visit the Manikarnika Ghat from the ground to truly understand the Hindu religion, as grim as it may seem to us coming from a culture where we are not used with such customs.
On approach you can instantly feel the heat from the fires, however there is no pungent smell as you would expect because the banyan wood which is used for cremations prevents this. We are befriended by a local man who tells us about the cremation process and that in fact not everyone is cremated, as certain people are considered to be pure and put straight into the River Ganges, such as pregnant women, children and animals. Many of these bodies then float to the other side of the river where the story is that there are tribes living on the banks of the Ganges who eat the flesh as part of their Hindu belief. Our new local friend then takes us through the burning ceremony, which we are slightly unconformable about but he persists and points out the remains of skull in amongst the fire! Walking though the ghat is a little intimidating as you feel as if you are an uninvited guest at a funeral, but it does not seem to be frowned upon as much as you might expect. A visit to this ghat after dark is not advised as it can be dangerous so we were told.
It seems that the so-called friendly local man who only wanted to show us around is actually seeking a donation of money towards the wood used for cremations of those who are unable to afford it once they pass away. When we offer him 40 INR each, between four of us, he isn’t happy , demanding that we give more as this amount will not buy anything. Despite first having asked for a ‘donation’, it’s very strange how he was now asking for an amount of 100 INR each! We decide to give him the 40 INR and leave before the situation escalates. Thankfully as we were in a group we felt like we could say “no” and walk away, however we did hear of others at our hostel who had the same thing happen with some being unlucky and having paid around 200 INR for something that wasn’t exactly official. It’s best to try and avoid these people and say “no” from the start.
After hearing about the wonderful Blue Lassi, it’s top of our list to do before leaving. Here you can sip the amazing yogurt drink topped with a choice of toppings from one of the shops rustic clay pots, whilst watching the constant procession of bodies through the narrow streets as they are taken to the river. It’s tucked away in the depths of the Varanasi alley network but is very popular with visiting tourists, due to their use of traditional methods and recipes! You might also see signs for a Bhang Lassi, which involves the addition of cannabis and possibly more narcotics. As Varanasi is the only city in India where it is legal, proceed with caution if you are planning on trying it, as we heard that it can leave a lasting effect!
That evening we take the night train to Agra, on this occasion swapping the tight fitting three bunk-beds for a more spacious two with a privacy curtain. Despite the slightly higher price, it is certainly a much better choice than our previous journey, and this time we come prepared with plenty of snacks!
Find out what we got up to at our next destination here.
Did you try out Blue Lassi of Varanasi? What did you get up to in the Holy City? We would love to hear about your thoughts & experiences!
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