Although we only stayed in Varanasi for one night, we crammed a lot in.
In the early evening, we walked down a long, pedestrianised street where people sat around, many of them poorly dressed in orange robes. We were told they were trainee monks who had come down from the mountains due to the cold, for food and shelter and that in addition, over 50,000 pilgrims would flood the city from the following day (14 January) for a month as it was an auspicious time.
At the Ganges, we witnessed Ganga Aarti, a nightly Hindu ceremony. After buying a floating candle for 20 rupees, we boarded a rowing boat and headed off along with lots of others to witness the ritual from the river. This involved lots of chanting, incense, burning oils etc. and although I tried to capture the moment, the motion of the river and boys hopping from boat to boat, resulted in many blurred photographs!
The following morning we started at 6.30am and having walked down to the river from our hotel, we were rowed past all the 85 ghats and the two cremation ghats where ceremonies were taking place. The sun had just come up and was lighting the river scene beautifully. People were starting to wash both themselves and their clothes whilst dhobi wallahs washed hotel sheets and laid them out on the steps of the ghats to dry.
Back on dry land, we walked through narrow lanes full of all manner of rubbish and debris. Near the cremation ghat, a man was having his head shaved, a custom for the chief mourner who would light the pyre, and we saw huge piles of wood for sale with weighing scales. We entered a street full of small shops selling aromatherapy oils, chai, trinkets, the red and gold ceremonial cremation clothing for the departed and the wooden bamboo ‘ladders’ they carried the bodies on.
After breakfast, we strolled along the river banks fascinated by the amount of activity taking place, including the laundry being hung up to dry. We then drove to Banaras University, built in 1916 and India’s largest residential university with 30,000 students (both from India and worldwide) and 20,000 staff. We drove around the campus and visited the Shree Vishwanath temple but unfortunately the library, we could have visited, was closed due to a national holiday.
We drove onwards to the Monkey God Temple where offerings of various types were sold from stalls lining the entrance, but It wasn’t particularly interesting although we enjoyed watching the monkeys outside playing around and sliding down poles from the roof like firemen.
Heading out of town, we passed long lines of pilgrims arriving in the city, who caused chaos, as due to a lack of pavements, they walked on the road. Our destination was Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon. We visited a number of temples: Sarnath Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, the Japanese Temple, Dhamek Stupa (thought to be so uninteresting to the Muslims they left it largely intact) and Wat Thai Sarnath Temple.
At Sarnath’s main site, we wandered around the well-maintained brick red monastery ruins and the stupor although the Jain temple was cordoned off. There was a park at the back with spotted deer, but we declined the offer of buying carrots to feed them. There were lots of courting couples around and people just strolling in the grounds and the sunshine.
There is no doubt about it: Varanasi is noisy, dirty and crowded but yet it remains India’s spiritual capital and therefore is well worth including on an itinerary (but not for long!).