I is for India – my favourite country in the entire world to visit – and here’s a few days we spent in Varanasi in November 2016. If I ask you what do you think of, when you think of India, it’s probably the Taj Mahal. But in Varanasi? It’s the Ganges and the Ghats. But first, did you know, just outside Varanasi is Sarnath?
Sarnath is famous for the being the first place where Buddha taught.
So it’s a very holy and revered site, with a super stupa at its heart.
And, unsurprisingly, a major place of learning.
But Varanasi itself centres on the Ganges.
All streets lead there!
Especially at night, when pilgrims, locals and tourists alike swarm to the river for the Aarti ceremony.
Important to reserve your seat early, but you may be sat next to a cow.
In the morning – very early – take in a leisurely boat ride along the Ghats to see life on the riverbank and to see the pilgrims bathing.
Death is as much part of life in Varanasi as anywhere else, but the city is well known for its riverside crematoria. The dead are cremated on the banks of the Ganges and it’s a major aspect of the city. Crematoria smoke frequently fills the sky.
And the wood for burning is piled high
Time for a wander around the old town
There’s also a highly respected university
But, like anywhere in India, all the best pictures are to be found on the street
And by the water
PS Watch the traffic. Some vehicles can be very large!
I don’t think that elephant indicated right.
Gotta love Indian roads
“Knock, knock. Excuse me, but do you have any apples?”
PPS. 1970s snack in the hotel!
If you’d like to find out more about our brilliant few days in Varanasi, here’s the link to the blog that I wrote at the time. Next blog – probably on Tuesday – will be back to the theatre trips, and memories of shows I saw from September 1979 to July 1980.
The 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 ofthe 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.
To 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, which 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.
Varanasi 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.
After 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 sit 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. It’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.
We 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, we 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.
At 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. 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 – it’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.
It 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; 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.
Back 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). In 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.
Our 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.
And 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.
It’s only about 3 and a half hours to drive from Lucknow to Allahabad, still in the company of Sapan and Mr Ashish, and other than a tricky bit of negotiating the level crossing a little before the town of Kunda, all went well. On arrival in this amazing city, we checked into our hotel, the Kanha Shyam. Our travel agents had advised us that hotels in Allahabad were on the sparse and spartan side, and that the Kanha Shyam was the best they could offer. We had a Chamber Room – it was on the top floor and bizarrely had a door that opened out onto the hotel roof – not a roof terrace, but the actual roof itself. It didn’t feel entirely secure, but I’m sure we weren’t in any danger, and it did offer rather spectacular views of the city! The hotel itself had a very enjoyable and atmospheric bar – the Celebrity Bar – which was monopolised by a rather rotund and garrulous gentleman who smelled of whisky and treated everyone in the bar as his long-lost friend. For dinner, we originally tried the Jannat restaurant but it felt uncomfortable being the only diners and having about twenty surly looking waiters hovering around you. We felt much more at home in the Patio lobby café, and whilst there wasn’t a huge selection of meals on offer, they were very good quality.
Our exploration of the city began at the university. Established in 1887, it is the fourth oldest in India and has a very good reputation. Only a small area is open to the public, but we had a good walk around and met a number of the students who were all fascinated to talk to us, including several older men – I don’t think they get many western tourists in Allahabad. There’s something rather Italianate about the architecture, with its warm colours and elegant arches – the clock tower is more campanile than casbah. Outside the university gates, you are definitely in familiar Indian territory: areas of waste land by the side of the road used for dumping rubbish and, amongst the mess, playing cricket.
But the main emphasis of Allahabad is on the river. You’re merrily driving along typical Indian inner-city roads when suddenly the vista opens and your car is leading you down to the water’s edge. The city is sited on the confluence of two holy rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna (and a third, invisible, river, the Saraswati, for good measure.) It’s a focal point both for people from the local area and from all over India, to come and get washed in the river to cleanse their sins. It was relatively quiet on the day we were there – a November Monday – so I think on a busy day it would be somewhat hectic!
Sapan led us on a walk out off the road and on to the sand, although plenty of people just drove their cars across the sand and park as close to the water as possible. Various family units had set up camp, with windbreaks and places to sit, as well as several stalls selling the usual offerings you would make to a God – garlands, and such like – as well as food and drink for the pilgrims. A word of warning: a lady came forward waving a garland at Mrs Chrisparkle, who nodded in approval – by which she meant, yes, that’s a pretty garland – but the lady assumed it meant she was going to buy it. When Mrs C subsequently declined it, the lady got pretty narked. We walked on in a hurry, no harm done, although Sapan cut himself a little chuckle at her schoolgirl error.
Following the water’s edge, we walked for about a quarter of an hour, observing the people and thinking how extremely rickety the boats looked. Eventually Sapan spoke to one of the boatmen and a deal was struck. We clambered on board and my weight made the whole thing seem alarmingly sensitive to movement and avoirdupois. The boatman insisted I sat in one particular position, to keep the balance, and then Sapan and Mrs C had to fill in the spaces around me. Once we were settled, off we went, out into the flowing current of the Yamuna, to its junction with the Ganges.
It wasn’t exactly a serene journey – it was too exciting to be serene. There were so many boats, many of them packed to the rafters with pilgrims, nipping about in all different directions, that you had to keep your wits about you in case of an accidental collision. But our man was very experienced, and we were perfectly safe as he rowed us laboriously to the holiest part of the water’s edge. He got close enough to the shore for us not to get too wet as we disembarked. Obviously Sapan had paid him enough to secure the round trip, so he waited whilst we wandered over to all the people washing in the Ganges.
This was a truly humbling experience. We were the only western tourists there – most tourists only go to Varanasi, as indeed we would the next day. So our presence was quickly noted by everyone, but we felt so welcome and completely at ease as we met and shook hands with so many people, took their photos, posed for photos with them, and just enjoyed each others’ company. It was noticeable that they were nearly all big family groups on a day out: grandparents, parents, children, babies, everyone mucking in together to access the healing waters of the Ganges. There were stretches there where the water was very shallow, so men and boys would walk out quite a long way and form little clusters of people at sea, so that they resembled little islands off the coast. With their colourful clothes, the flags on the boats stretching high into the sky and the myriad of people everywhere, this was a moving and extraordinary sight that I think will stay with me forever.
Our rower had waited patiently and took us back the same way near to where we had parked the car. We had completely lost track of time and when we did get back I was very surprised to see that sunlight was fading fast. We had a brief walk around the parts of Allahabad Fort that you can get into – it was built by Akbar in 1583 and is mainly notable for a pillar that we didn’t see. Back in the city we took a quick trip to All Saints’ Cathedral, built in 1877 for the British population at the time; allegedly it’s the oldest Christian church in Asia. It’s a grand, serious old building; sadly not open when we were there, but we did have the pleasure of meeting the vicar, who had taught our guide Sapan when he was a boy. He was an avuncular old chap, one of those elderly Indian men who love everything about England. Although we couldn’t go in, he did show us his enormous key ring for the church – he had just finished locking up – and it weighed a ton. He was clearly stronger than he looked.
And that was our brief trip to Allahabad. Not many sights, but that time spent on the Ganges was absolutely magic and was probably the highlight of the entire holiday. Back at the Kanha Shyam, we were just left to have a lively evening at the Celebrity bar, trying to hide from the garrulous and drunk old gentleman. We largely succeeded, although he did say something about going to his place for breakfast in the morning. I’m sure his wife wasn’t too disappointed when we didn’t turn up.