Our train, having caught up a fair bit with its timetables, pulled into Varanasi at around 6am. I wasn’t sure what we were getting into having heard all sorts about this place from how incredible it was to how disgusting and creepy it could be. We battled the local taxi hordes to jump in our Ola cab (they are always cheaper and easier) and he took us to our hostel. With 2 days until Diwali, there were flowers being sold absolutely everywhere for people to decorate with, even at the early hour, so it took a little longer than anticipated but that didn’t matter.
After an essential nap, we went for a little walk around town to get our bearings and more importantly some lunch. With directions from the hostel to a decent restaurant we navigated the now heaving roads – the holiest city in a country of over 1 billion people attracts quite a few people for one of the main religious festivals of the year unsurprisingly – and found some tasty food. We then headed down to the ghats, which is where we got a feel for the town for real. The people who had described how disgusting it is were not wrong! Rubbish, animals, dust, dirt, spit, people and poo were among the various things all over the streets in varying quantities.
The ghats themselves (steps on the banks of the River Ganges used for accessing the river) were fairly empty though were very picturesque with all the boats tied up and even a few people bathing in the holy but filthy river! They made for a nice stroll before we headed to a tea shop where we were treated to a lesson in masala tea which was well worth the visit.
The hostel was fairly new and it offered very cheap walking tours so we hopped on the evening tour which was excellent. The manager took us on a stroll through the tiny streets of the old town followed by a walk along the ghats, explaining the significance of each one. This culminated in the burning ghat – the reason Varanasi is so famous – where deceased Hindus are cremated by the Ganges before having their ashes spread across it. It was fascinating to see the process and be so close at hand, we were no more than 10 meters away from the funeral pyres.
The fires burn 24 hours a day, every single day of the year and still cannot keep up with demand, such is the religious importance of this place. Only the male relatives are allowed to watch (which they have to do until the fire has burnt out) as the women are deemed too likely to start crying, a big no-no! The staff then sift the ashes for any gold which is melted down and sold to support the nearby hospices before spreading them onto the ‘mother’ river.
Having watched for a while, we moved on to the nightly ceremony which was packed with people absolutely everywhere, including all the boats in the river. We watched this for a while before heading home to bed.
The next day was Diwali, and we spent the day on another walking tour, this time of the key temples in the city. While less interesting than the evening tour, it was still informative and was good to learn a bit more about Hinduism, something I haven’t known anything about since stopping R.S. at school aged 13.
The evening was when it all kicked off though. The entire hostel decamped to one of the boats on the river where we had dinner, drove up and down the side of the city and watched the increasing number of fireworks being set off. It was a health & safety officers nightmare – kids as young as 5 were literally shooting fireworks at each other and having a great time doing so! After we had churned up and down we returned to the hostel and watched from the rooftop as everyone in the city combined to put on a fireworks show that spread across miles of skyline, unlike anything I’d seen before. It went on all night and was constant – as soon as one family ran out of bangers the next family got their show going. How the dogs that live all over the city managed I will never know!
With Diwali over, it was time to leave India and head to Nepal. Varanasi was India in a nutshell for me – dirty, disturbing and fascinating all in equal measure. It was my second favourite place in India (behind Hampi) just for how interesting it was.