The ghats of Varanasi

This guest house may have more charm than I needed -I slept well, but it was super noisy with people coming and going outside since the crack of dawn!
My only plan for the morning was to walk around Varanasi and get a feel for the place, so I took my sweet time with breakfast before going out to a warm and sunny morning.

Some background on Varanasi: also known as Benares or Banaras, it is the holiest city in India, believed to be the home of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer. It is also one of the most ancient cities in the world. Its most notable features are its ghats, which are the stone steps that descend from the city and into the Ganges. The whole length of the river’s West bank is made of different ghats, each one with its own name and purpose.
Some are bathing ghats, where people (well, I only saw men) dip or swim into the Ganges to receive its blessing. It goes without saying that I don’t want to touch a single drop of that water -I’m on the record as saying you’ll dissolve if you fall into the Seine and this is way worse!

Others are burning ghats, meaning the banks of the river are used to cremate bodies. Varanasi being a holy city, it is believed that dying or being cremated here is also a blessing. There is a lot of tourism around seeing these ghats and attending some of the cremations, but it feels ghoulish to me so I don’t want any part of it. Thankfully, in all my walk I only happened upon one cremation; I pressed my step and kept my distance.
The night before I’d been reading up on what to do in the city, and honestly the reading left me a bit intimidated: I saw websites and people commenting that Varanasi is harder to walk through than other Indian cities, that you’ll be accosted by hawkers and guides the whole time, that you must power through and ignore everybody… 

Well, I’m happy to say that my experience was nothing like that: sure, there are some souvenir peddlers and would-be guides here and there, but at least this morning they were way fewer than in Agra or Delhi. As I walked down, I began to relax when I realized that I was mostly left to my own devices. Only once did a particularly relentless postcard seller start walking besides me, even though I couldn’t have been less inviting (I was wearing my mask-sunglasses-hat combo!). Eventually I did a trick I learned from a YouTuber: openly avoid the person, as in turn around and walk away, or walk around them, making a show of dodging them; nobody wants to be ran away from, and anyway it’s not worth the effort to chase after you.
So I walked down the entire length of the old city bank, from Dashashwamed Ghat down to Assi Ghat. It can be done all in one walk: from the map it wasn’t clear to me whether the ghats are all connected (they are) or whether you have to go into the inner streets sometimes (you don’t, and that’s a good thing because they’re a very many steps above!). The one-way walk took me about an hour, at a very leisurely pace. Some ghats were busier than others, mostly with Indians bathing, praying, or just going about their business, although there were several fellow tourists walking too.

After I got to Assi Ghat, the biggest of them all but also rather featureless, I turned around and made my way back, but this time through the city. This was a bit stressful, again not because anybody bothered me (the tuk-tuk drivers didn’t pay me any attention) but because the road was packed with people, carts, cows, scooters and rickshaws, and avoiding any one of those things often pushed me further onto the road and into all the other things!

Still, though, I was thrilled to see that this route took me past a Fabindia: I’d clocked these shops in all my previous stays, and wanted to check one out before leaving. It’s a chain selling Indian crafts, mostly textiles, and unlike the low-quality pashminas you can buy at the bazaars these are beautiful, well-crafted items that make excellent omiyage… as some people reading this will soon find out! I even got a gorgeous filigreed tea mug for myself; I once said I had too many mugs, but I stopped fighting it. I’ll just get rid of the old ones!
After I reached the old city, I armed myself with Google Maps and jumped into the maze of narrow alleyways. As I suspected, even with my phone it was difficult to chart a route; I don’t want to imagine what I’d do without it! I eventually made my way to Bona Cafe, which is a guest house but also a good Korean restaurant that came recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. To take a break from the curry, I had a great serving of vegetarian glass noodles that came with soup, rice and kimchi.

Getting back to the hotel from there was the hardest bit; the closer I got, the narrower the streets became, and the more they veered away from my chosen direction. Eventually I had to admit I was well and truly lost, even with my phone, one of those cases where the map and the reality just don’t match. My recourse was to go downhill, towards the river, because at least I knew for a fact that if I could go back to the ghats I’d be able to get back into the hotel directly from there. 


Unfortunately, after some confusion, when I finally managed to hit the river it was right in the middle of Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, which is exactly where I didn’t want to go. Sure enough, I was immediately pounced upon by a couple of guides wanting to show me good viewpoints to see cremations, and it wasn’t easy to shake them off when I genuinely didn’t know which way to go. Ugh! I just walked on past them and onto the next ghat, and in two minutes I saw my hotel’s big sign. I was very happy to put my feet up.

For the evening, I had booked myself on a boat ride to see the ganga aarti ceremony. You see, there are two types of boat tours that are the “must do” thing in Varanasi, one of them is to see the dawn from the river, the other to see the evening ceremony. By all accounts dawn rides are very popular, but 1) baby doesn’t get up at 4AM, and 2) I seriously doubt you can see any kind of sunrise with all this smog, so night time it is for me!

The ganga aarti is a Hindu ceremony that takes place every single day at dusk, which right now means at 18:00. People gather on the ghats in prayer to honor the Ganga (the river) as a source of life. These ceremonies take place in every ghat and are public, so if you come to Varanasi, you’ll have a chance to see them, but on the ghats it can get very crowded because the faithful go in droves even before the tourists, hence the popularity of the boats.
I got on a rowboat with a guide and he rowed a very short distance to the next ghat over, where he parked the boat along with dozens of other, larger boats to see the ceremony from the water.
Now, the ceremony itself isn’t terribly spectacular: people chant and pray, ring bells, and then several men come out and perform a ritual by waving incense and candles around. It is all the same interesting to see, especially in the moment, although not even in the water we can be free of touts: kids skipped from one boat to the next selling marigold offerings to deposit into the river, or chai, or snacks. At one point an alleged priest walked over and dabbed a blessing on my forehead before I could decline, and waved the donation box in front of me; I dropped the smallest change I had.

We were there for about an hour. It was warm outside, and the air was fragrant with incense, but it did nevertheless feel a bit long. Then the boats started dispersing before the ceremony was fully over -which I think is a very good move indeed- and we returned to the hotel. People returning from the ganga aarti is what causes the rush hour that I walked through last night!
I kind of saw everything I wanted in Varanasi today, so for tomorrow I booked myself on a half-day tour to Sarnath, one of the holy sites of Buddhism. Onwards!

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