Described as Hinduism’s holiest city, and one of the oldest consistently inhabited settlements on the planet, Varanasi (formerly known as Benares or Kashi) is situated on India’s northern plains about 800km east of the nation’s capital, Delhi.
The main attraction here is culture and spirituality, and my wife and I set off bracing ourselves for a dramatic, eye-opening experience.
But no amount of research or expectation could quite prepare you for the riot of colour, sounds, smells and press of humanity, particularly around the Old City and the famous ghats, as the steps leading down to the waters of the holy Ganges are known.
Here people live out spiritual highs and crushing lows in public and you cannot fail to be moved. As we tried to absorb the scenes at the easy-to-access Dasaswamedh Ghat, a woman and close friends were mourning the loss of her beloved at the riverside, while men bathed and prayed a few metres away. The burning ghats were busy with cremations further up the river and boat operators scoured the crowds for tourist trade.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is a comfortable starting point for the first-timer in Varanasi, far easier to get to than some other ghats, which, due to a rabbit-warren of narrow alleyways, are inaccessible to vehicles.
It was also here that an enterprising young fellow from the “college of knowledge – no school” skillfully attached himself to us, offering his services as a free guide, “just walking and talking”, before taking us to his father’s shop for the mandatory purchase of a shawl and a few items of clothing.
We knew this was a convoluted sales pitch, yet it was worth every rupee as we gained some local understanding of what was going on in this madcap town. “College”, we discovered, was fluent not only in English and Japanese, but when he found out we were from South Africa, burst into a joyful, sing-song Afrikaans that would have passed in Krugersdorp.
We heard Varanasi described in various ways. Our guide likened it to a giant hospice, others said it was a place where religious souls go to die, as it is said that being cremated in Varanasi ends the cycle of reincarnation and guarantees a place in heaven, or divinity.
Other than being a sacred locality in Hindu terms and a lure for pilgrims, it’s also known as a centre of learning and many international students attend the Banaras Hindu University. One thing is certain, masses of people press into the streets of the Old City and more distant ghats, with the colourful drapes of holy men of various persuasions prevalent.
Something visitors need to steel themselves for are the grubby streets (many dirt roads) complicated by the prevalence of cows and their waste. It can be rough going as the temperature constantly tops 30°C.
The cows are also not strictly herbivores, as they rummage through the rubbish left at the roadside and sometimes right outside shops. Be prepared to be approached by merchants, vendors, beggars and taxi operators (tuk tuk and rickshaw), all dead set on extracting some precious currency from your moneybelt. While much patience is required, if you can remain calm and open to the surrounding environment, a cultural experience I often heard described as a “mind trip” will be your reward.
We found Varanasi an emotionally draining experience. Perhaps it was the in-your-face poverty, maybe the skinny, flea-infested dogs running around everywhere, or the seriousness of the priests, sadhus, monks and others practising their beliefs and going about their daily rituals.
As we departed for our next destination, I was heard to mutter, “never again”. Yet I feel I have unfinished business with the city and am already secretly plotting how to return one day.
Tips if you go
Location of accommodation is important in Varanasi. We were happy to be at Assi Ghat. Although there is more action elsewhere, access to the river is excellent here.
If you want to be in the Old City area, Ganpati Guest House is highly recommended and has magnificent views of the river. There are quality hotels in the Cantonment area, including the Gateway and Hotel Surya, where we enjoyed an excellent meal. Palace on Ganges is a good hotel in the Assi Ghat area.
Dry town: If you enjoy a beer or two in the evening, you’re going to have to look hard to quench your thirst here. Consult your guide book for the few places that serve alcohol.
Internal flights to Varanasi from Delhi take about an hour-and-a-half; the trip from the airport to Varanasi Old City area is about 50 minutes by car.
Run by an American woman, Aum Café near Assi Ghat is a welcome refuge from the chaos. We ate comforting foods such as flapjacks with syrup and cream, and even got a pot of rooibos tea to spirit away any feelings of homesickness.
Aum Café soaks all veggies in purified water, then in an iodine solution, so you can eat to your heart’s content, knowing you will not have tummy trouble. They can also arrange ayurvedic massages of note at around R100 an hour.
Expect tight security at the airports in India. Keep flight details and passports at hand at all times. The military is often on duty to assist as the country continues to take extra precautions following the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.
History and culture: According to www.varanasicity.com the Ganges is said to have its origins in the tresses of Lord Shiva and, in Varanasi, it expands to become the Ganges commonly pictured today. The city has been a centre of learning and civilisation for more than 3 000 years. With Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10km away, Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu renaissance. Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to gods, Indian arts and crafts have all flourished for centuries. Also a pilgrimage place for Jains, the city is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar.
Draining as you go with the flow