It’s old, very old: Varanasi

Varanasi, Benares – it’s truly an ancient city.  3,000 years old, at least.  And you can tell.

Everywhere we’ve been in India has exhibited what feels like a strange mix of modernity and antiquity, both coexisting.  Nowhere has this been more apparent than Varanasi.

We arrived in the city at 1:30am and grabbed a tuk tuk to the limits of the old city.  Vehicles can’t fit in the narrow alleys that line the waterfront.  In general, this is a very good thing.  The motorcycles that tried to squeeze through the crowds were too much.  Unfortunately for us this meant we had to rely on our map and compass to get us to our destination.

After about 20 minutes, we found the guesthouse, woke up the attendant, and eventually settled in our room.  We stayed in the Scindhia Guest House, which has a clean room overlooking the ghat and the Ganges.


Scindhia Ghat, it’s sinking
We gave ourselves 2 full days to explore.  There was a festival to Shiva occurring during our time there, which presented a few “road blocks” and added some confusion for us.  Thousands of Hindu pilgrims dressed in orange lined up to pay homage to Shiva. 

One of many homages to Shiva
Varanasi is the “holiest place to die.”  As we wandered the alleys, a number of times a parade of mourners would walk through carrying the wrapped body of a loved one to the burning ghat. 

A ghat is just steps down to the water.  In the center of the “riverwalk” is the Marnikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat.  We didn’t climb up the pavilion to view the cremation.  What was fascinating were the piles of wood outside, and the seemingly heated negotiations involved in buying the wood for the funeral pyre. 

We tried to take one of the famous boat rides but due to the festival, there was security forbidding the boats from passing in front of the Marnikarnika Ghat and the famous Dasawamedh Ghat (site of the evening aarti).  The aarti is a ritual involving putting burning lamps and offerings onto the water.  


A view of Varanasi from the waterfront
In many ways, Varanasi reminded me of a dirty Venice.  Ten years ago I visited Venice and was frustrated by the lack of street signs. I got lost.  I knew I would eventually find my bearings but I still didn’t like it.  Varanasi is very similar.  It was hard to figure out where we were.  The compass was a godsend.  We were accosted (like usual) by people trying to “help” us or sell us stuff.  But in Varanasi I felt claustrophobic.  That and all the dodging of the cow piles.  After a fresh rain.

I know it’s a special place and I recognize that not everywhere is for me.  I believe Varanasi is a must see if you can fit it into your India itinerary but it’s not a place I would go out of my way to go back to.

Next stop: Calcutta.  This is a city I would return to. 

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