India – Varanasi

Rush hour in VaranasiThe next morning we were back on the road for the relatively short journey to Varanasi; once more we were with our guide Sapan, with whom we got on famously, and our skilful driver Mr Ashish, who smiled a lot. The journey was uneventful apart from some friendly encounters with a few elephants. I was pleased to get the picture ofDo you have any apples, perchance?the elephant in the rear view windscreen – it suggested a lazier type of rush hour – but when another just sidled up to have a chat with Mr Ashish, it was too good an opportunity to miss, and the happy elephant enjoyed a few apples through the window whilst we snapped away with our cameras.

Sarnath - Wheel of lawTo make the best use of time in our next two days, when we were on the outskirts of Varanasi we started off by visiting Sarnath. This is a very sacred and significant site in Buddhism, for this was where the Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. An attractive path leads up to an impressive gateway which opens up to the complex as a whole. The highlight is the fifth century Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath - Dhamekh Stupawhich dominates the skyline – its position is meant to be where the Buddha gave his sermons. You can also see the Wheel of Law, and many people spent a long time there reading the translations and literally spinning the wheels. Buddhist monks sat on the grass with their learned books; we didn’t do that, but instead enjoyed close inspections of the carvings on the stupa. It’s a serene, spiritual place; there were many visitors but even so it felt quiet and sacred.

bar snacksVaranasi itself is a vibrant, hectic, haphazard sort of place; full of shops that opened all day and night – or so it seemed to me – as you wandered down to the Ghats and back. We stayed at the Taj Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi, which was comfortable without being exceedingly grand. The Princep Bar is quite small but makes a pleasant port of call en route to the restaurant, to which you can gain access through a door at the back of the bar. Firmly entrenched in the 1970s, their bar snacks include cheese, pineapple and glacé cherries on a stick, the like of which haven’t been seen since Abigail’s Party. We stayed in an executive suite which was functional and a good size. We had a nice bedroom and a slightly austere living room. There was nothing about this hotel that made you feel really special, like some Indian hotels do. But we had absolutely no complaints.

Guests at AartiAfter we checked in, on our first evening Sapan walked us down to the Ghats to experience the famous Aarti ceremony. This ceremony takes place every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat, and people take their seats early to witness it. Many people watch it from a boat out on the water, but Sapan had secured us a roof terrace over a shop, and we soon realised we had a very privileged position. Hawkers sell drinks and food, well-to-do locals have their servants bring chairs for them to sitAarti in full swing on which they position halfway down the steps to the Ghat. India being India, of course, the grand locals still had to contend with the occasional cow that came and sat down right in front of them. When the ceremony finally got underway, there were six platforms, jutting out into the water under flickering lights, where novice priests sang mantras, blew conch horns, rang bells, and lit incense and flaming torches. Aarti with fireIt’s a fascinating sight, and I would imagine if it was your religion you would be able to understand all kinds of finer points about what the priests were doing. After it was all over, everyone made their way back up the steps and along that major shopping road to the city centre. We returned to the Taj Gateway for dinner and I enjoyed the most scrummy Vegetarian Thali.

Morning boat rideWe couldn’t stay up late because we had an early morning start for a boat trip along the Ghats to see what the locals got up to at the crack of dawn. We returned back to the same Dashashwamedh Ghat, now much less busy than it had been the night before; Sapan established on which boat the three of us would venture, and it was a question of hopping from boat to boat to boat to boat before finally settling on le bateau juste. It was remarkably chilly first thing in the morning, so wrapped up in our fleeces, Ghatswe were rowed down the river and watched as the morning worshippers came to wash themselves in the holy Ganges. Past Munshi Ghat, Rana Mahal Ghat, Chousati Ghat, Babua Pandey Ghat, Raja Ghat, Mansarowar Ghat; individually the Ghats are not particularly attractive, but the cumulative effect of seeing them all is fascinating, and of course seeing how alive they are with people, even at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

Keda GhatAt the red lined steps of Keda Ghat, we turned around and retraced our steps. Sunrise was taking hold of Varanasi and absolutely stunning it was too – you couldn’t decide which direction to look in, as each was more beautiful than the last. We went past Dashashwamedh Ghat again and continued in the opposite direction until we reached the funeral pyres of Manikarnika Ghat.Manikarnika Ghat We were a little alarmed at the prospect of visiting this Ghat, but there’s really no need. For the locals, death is very much part of life and, although it’s an honour for a family member to be involved in preparing the body for cremation, and to take it down to the Ghat and actually burn it, it’s also a very commonplace sight. Bodies are cremated here on a continuous basis – Boatswainit’s almost a conveyor belt of the dead. There is no smell, and you simply observe the final journey on earth of the dead from a respectful distance; you are not allowed to take photos too close. A remarkably peaceful and strangely unshocking experience.

Old VaranasiIt was at this point that we disembarked our boat and accompanied Sapan on a walking tour of old Varanasi town. We explored extremely narrow lanes where you have to dodge not only other pedestrians but also plenty of motorbikes, a considerable number of cows – and you have to be careful, obviously, what you step into. Hindu temples, mosques, a school;Narrow lanes deceptively spacious townhouses, elegant front doors, intricate shrines; they’re all there. It’s hard to linger and take photographs because if you stop, someone else is bound to walk/drive/moo straight into you. The overwhelming assault on the senses is typical of why I love India so much.

UniversityBack inside the comfort of our car, it was time for a quick drive to visit the Benares Hindu University, another highly regarded establishment. I was fascinated to see endless hoardings encouraging the students not to engage in ragging. In the United Kingdom we think of Rag Week as being a bit of fun (and somewhat outdated). TempleIn India, and particularly at this university, they have taken the practice a little further and some students have been killed because of stupid and dangerous pranks; or have taken their own lives due to bullying. The University is also the home to the Shree Vishwanath Temple. It’s very beautiful, very crowded, and you’re not allowed to take photographs.

Bharat Mata TempleOur final stop-off was at the Bharat Mata Temple. This was constructed in 1936 and has one of those wonderful Indian signs outside welcoming you in painful English: “Relevent (sic) visitors are requested with folded hands to take off their shoes down below the stair outside the temple in deefrance (sic) to the founder’s holy sentiments only there after take trouble to enter the same”. However, once you get inside you find virtually all holy sentiments have been removed to create an homage to Mother India. The centre contains a fascinating relief map of the country, and it’s fun spotting where you are and where you’ve been. The brainchild of Shiv Prasad Gupta, and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, it’s certainly a Hindu temple with a difference.

Shopping streetsAnd that concluded our two days in Varanasi, and our five days being looked after by Sapan – who was fantastic. We saw Mr Ashish one more time, the next day, as he drove us to Varanasi airport for the next stage of our adventure – the flight to Khajuraho.

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