First up, it’s considered the holiest Hindu city of all seven sacred Hindu cities. Nestled on the Ganges river, Varanasi receives millions of Hindu pilgrims every year who believe the river and city has holy power, which can cleanse them of sin after bathing in the Ganges – and, if one dies in Varanasi, absolve them of the larger cycle of samsara (death and rebirth).
It was also in Varanasi where Rose and I heard Indians using the word “auspicious”. A lot. The reason, we began to piece together, was that the Ganges are considered a holy site to scatter a family’s ashes, but not just willy-nilly, on any old day. Families consult babas (holy men) who interpret the Hindu calendar on their behalf to determine what day would be “auspicious” to deliver their dead loved one to one of the cremation pyres that sit on the edge of the Ganges.
We also learned that many families who couldn’t afford the particular kind of wood used for cremations at the Ganges, took matters into their own hands. After covering their dead in a ceremonial wrap, these families would then tie cinder blocks to it or something else of worthy weight and push it into the river. The hope was that the body would sink.
But what goes down, sometimes come up. Most recently two months ago. In January, 104 bodies surfaced after water had receded. Operation Dead Weight is not always a foolproof plan.
Considering Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, or as Mark Twain described it: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even then legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – the amount of human remains that have settled on its bottom and in its soil is unimaginable.
Yet, it’s all part of daily life. While cremated bodies and other bodies get dropped in at one end of the Ganges, people are busy doing laundry and bathing themselves at the other.
Unfortunately, it’s not merely human remains being tossed into the Ganges here. 300 million litres of untreated sewage also gets tossed in every day. Every day!
Levels of fecal coliform – (which I don’t exactly know what that is, but can put together a decent guess) are off the charts. Apparently a safe level is 500 parts per 100mL. Water tests done near this area have found its 88,000 parts per 100mL.
This leads to the next thing about Varanasi: it’s dirty. Well beyond the reach of a feather duster or vacuum, Varanasi has vintages of grime. Not merely from all the cows, dogs, goats, and people freely roaming the streets and leaving behind souvenirs, but from layers of carbon tattooed into the surrounding stones of the cremation pyres, years of algae caked on steps down to the river, and years of garbage soaked into the streets.
It’s for this reason, backpackers have also referred to Varanasi as “Very Nasty”.
Reading Lonely Planet on our way there, the first words in its description felt ominous: BRACE YOURSELF.
Coming off the train, we did our best. After walking into a sea of rickshaw drivers we gave him the address where we wanted to stay, and off we went.
Little did we know that was as easy as things would get.
Rather than take us to the address we gave him, our rickshaw driver started off by taking us to another hotel, on the other side of town that, coincidence upon coincidence, his friend ran.
After a long explanation that we weren’t interested in his friend’s place, but the address we pointed out to him, he buckled down and tried again. This time taking us to a guesthouse run by his brother.
Eventually, after he got the point that we wanted to go to our guesthouse, he admitted that he didn’t know where it was. Luckily he had a phone on him and called the owner who came to meet us on his bike. Much like a tugboat, the owner led us through traffic on his bike back to his guesthouse.
Rose and I caught our breath, after the two false starts then set out in between one of many cows we’d pass on the street:
In retrospect, the amazing thing was that we left Delhi, because of its crowds. While Varanasi had a population of only 1.5 million vs. Delhi’s 25 million, it didn’t seem to make a difference. Roads were mayhem:
We made our way down to one of the main ghats – (stairs down to the Ganges. 84 in all along the riverbank), where we caught a glimpse of the Ganges for the first time and touts.
A guy came up asking to look at my hand. After our rickshaw driver’s game of misdirection, I felt a bit duped, and was tired of cross-dealing. I wanted someone to be honest.
“No thanks.”, I said
“Come sir. Please. No charge. No cost.”, he insisted
“There’s always a cost”, I said. “No sir. Please give me your hand.”
I gave him my hand, and in an acrobatic swoop that could rival a gymnastics floor routine, he turned to the side, put his hands on my shoulders and said:
As I suspected. But now I felt more foolish that I’d trusted him after having initial doubts.
“Get lost”, I said, angry, storming off down to the next ghats, not wanting to talk with anyone.
Rose caught up and we meandered around for a while, me constantly wanting to stay on the move, because I was still pissed off and wanted to avoid being approached again by someone.
We’d read of a cafe that was in the Old City, which was a labyrinth of alleyways with stores scattered throughout. Up we climbed the stairs to an Old City entrance, where en route, a baba (holy man) sitting on the steps engaged me in conversation.
“You’ve been to India before”, he looked at me.
“No, first time”, I said in a clipped tone – thinking: “Of course. This is his opening line to reel me in, suggesting he knows something about me and my life. Then if the hook catches it would be: “Come to my temple for a ceremony where donations are 10,000Rupees”.
Maybe because he saw I was still frazzled from my earlier encounter, or he got the sense I wasn’t interested in any of his mystical arts for the moment, he said:
“What were you expecting?”, he looked at me laughing.
“I really don’t know. I guess I’ll find out”, I replied.
“It’s India. It’s all here”, he said in return.
I carried on upstairs until five steps later another baba stopped Rose and I in conversation. We’d obviously walked deep into baba turf. He invited us to his temple to learn how to cook vegetarian food, which was not something either of us had in mind, so we cut it short, and headed for this cafe – which in my mind was now taking on more urgency as a place where we’d find calm.
We climbed up steps where we followed signs advertising the cafe, and came upon it. It looked pretty deserted, but the sign was there so we entered. Upstairs there were a few people scattered around but not much life. This cafe was also known to offer boat tours on the Ganges. Something we wanted to do.
Rose asked the manager how much for boat tour, and the guy mulled it over, ran back to consult with someone and came back with a price that seemed higher than was quoted in guidebooks. We agreed to look elsewhere and left the spot.
As we plotted our next move in the alleyway, I don’t know who saw it first, but there it was: a sign for the same cafe, on the right side of the street, which looked a lot more done up and of much higher quality than the one we just left.
We poked our heads in, and sure enough this was the REAL cafe tipped off by the guidebook which, had we read further down in the paragraph of its review, would have understood that another cafe had stolen the name and was doing its best to live off its glory across the street.
Nice. Well, we found it. And we ordered some food and looked out across the rooftops overlooking the Ganges. Kids were playing with kites, monkeys were hop scotching across roofs looking for food while other people were hanging laundry. In comparison to street level, it was serene.
After our meal I spoke with the organizer of the boat trips, who was a 10 year old kid – and we arranged for a sunset trip along the Ganges:
Rose and I knew what we were getting into: water that could send us to hospital, and the off chance that we’d see a body part floating by. I say this cavalierly as if it was all fine and good, something I was prepared for – but truth be told, I wasn’t.
I flinched every time the oar came back with dribbles of water that flecked against my leg or head, and I kept my eyes ahead, in case someone floated up for air right next to me. While I had my eyes in the distance of the water, I noticed something that looked like a periscope coming towards us of our right.
A python was swimming towards us right in time with our boat, and I thought might crawl up the side and crawl back over on its way to shore. As the crucial moment came, the python dipped its head underwater and chose to swim below rather than over us. A small victory.
Now the oarsmen moved us closer to one of the main cremation pyres, and our eyes started to sting from the smoke and oil in the air. As we approached, it was clear that this wasn’t a passing fancy or a hobby, but a full time, industrial cremation practice with fires alight 24 hours a day, which, I later learned, burned upwards of 32,000 corpses a year.
After having seen a snake pass us by and a burning pyres ahead, I drew on my own mythology and began to feel like we were on the River Styx. Our oarsmen, slowly taking us across to the Underworld.
We didn’t stay at the cremation ghat long. I was fine looking at it from a distance, where I could see families preparing a body for the flames, while a cow meandered over a burnt pit, and another cremation worker shovelled embers and ashes into the Ganges.
We’d heard all kinds of stories from other travellers who had distinguished body parts in the mix, which really wasn’t something I was seeking.
On our tour back we witnessed other ghats in light, which were an interesting site.
And nearby, we noticed others being set up for a nightly Hindu ritual. We popped out and had a closer look:
Crowds began to form and we watched for a few minutes:
before setting off into the dark to find our way back to our guesthouse for a proper sleep. But not before coming upon some street food.
I’m not sure what it was, but it was good – and more importantly didn’t put up any protest later on that night.
We also found another dish, which after speaking with a local who was eating it explained that it was a seasonal dish, specific to Varanasi called Malaiyo.
Basically heated milk with slivers of pistachio on top. Like the street food it also proved to be an ally for our digestion.
After some anxious moments walking completely dark streets looking for our guesthouse, it turned up and we turned in for the night.
After a good breakfast, Rose and I set out, determined to get the most out the Old City, which we’d felt fairly overwhelmed by the day before. This time our aim was a lassi shop that Michaela and Shari from our Nepal trek had recommended we try: a place they’d been three months earlier.
We wound our way back into the street maze, wandering into all kinds of places we’d never seen before, an electronics quarter followed by a food quarter and eventually, after a good hour of wandering aimlessly we spotted it, Blue Lassi.
It’s a well known stop for travellers, and as we waited we chatted with other people who had found their way. Waiting for our lassis, we heard a drum beat getting closer and closer. Then we saw a group passing with a body wrapped in its ceremonial dress on its way down through the alleway, headed for a funeral pyre. Western cafes might have TVs as a distraction while you enjoy your coffee, Varanasi has bodies filtering by as you eat.
Before we left, we also found this:
Michaela and Shari’s sign off for their time here. And, I agree with them, it was a good lassi. But Rose and I weren’t satisfied yet, as we saw another lassi shop across the street, which for the sake of comparison, we’d be foolish not to try.
We made our way over, split another lassi and I thought for the price it was probably better. This time around, rather than bodies passing as our backdrop, there was a cow. An injured cow. It had obviously stumbled somewhere and it’s hoof was bleeding, and undoubtedly because of the pain, was limping into an intersection of one of the alleyways. Since motorbikes, bicycles, bodies carried on stretchers, people carrying retail supplies on their heads all pass through here, we witnessed a massive bottleneck as this cow held up Varanasi’s flow:
Once the coast was clear, and we’d finished our lassi, we decided to head out to catch our train. Rose also admitted she was feeling claustrophobic between all the alleyways and got that sudden suffocating feeling of wanting to get out. We meandered, once again, muddling our way through trying to find the right alley that would take us down to the ghats from which we knew how to find our way.
Now guess where we popped out?
a) The main ghat near our guesthouse
b) where the hell is this?
c) the cremation ghat
d) a cow pen
If you said c), you’re the big winner.
We came right out on top of huge slabs of wood, now within 50 feet of the big flames burning up the bodies below. Rather than linger and absorb the scene as I noticed other backpackers were doing, we bolted, and chose to hear the wild stories from others instead of seeing things first hand.
After zinging back to our guesthouse with the help of a rickshaw driver who actually knew the address, we grabbed our gear and set off on to the train station to catch another overnight train.
This time to Agra: home of the Taj Mahal and other big things – and we did it in style, on 2nd AC class which came with sheets, temperature control, and to round out the trifecta, a flatulent bunkmate.
Overall, a winning percentage.