Venturing Into Varanasi, India
Varanasi, an ancient city full of sensory experiences from a time gone by and whilst full of amazing wonder, it certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. From the hectic back streets, enchanting alleyways and Ganges River you’ll soon find yourself sipping chai tea, whilst watching burning ceremonies of the dead. Unsure wether appropriate or not to order the popcorn and snacks on sale. Many a pilgrim venture here for it’s the heart and soul of a seemingly never ending list of gods, believes and religious heritage dating back before time itself. My first experience was one of a spontaneous nature and perhaps the most surreal of my life to date.
20 hours on the road, 2 buses, barely a wink of sleep, an overstayed visa and the usual border control antics. The trip to Varanasi (India) form Pokhara (Nepal) was anything but luxurious. Landing at 2am myself and 2 other backpackers arrived, without a bed to lay our head. The city that night was what I would describe as a ghost town, almost silent with a low lying fog. Like a mix of a post armageddon film, in a bare metropolis, with a Stephen King kind of mist. Hanging low on the ancient stones of an urban terrain.
Making our way off the main street we ventured through a maze of seemingly never ending alleyways. The only sign of life was the odd group of youths, sitting round crudely made street fires with a few holy cows, desiring the close proximity of heat on a still cold night. Along with the occasional group of guards, appearing suddenly at arms reach by dark narrow corners. Uniformed in fairy fashionable winter robes and seemingly unaware of our presence, they sat without a care. Their surprisingly large rifles locked and loaded yet casually propped against the stone wall to their side. We began rapping on steel doors in the hope of refuge in an unfamiliar city.
Our hopes quickly fading, the hostels and guest houses seemed as alluring as the misty alleyways themselves. We strolled in a sleepy bewilderment of what unfolded before our eyes and then it appeared. Down a wide staircase of yellow stone, the still and dark water of the Ganges. A few row boats sat docked bobbing gently amiss the fog. My first sight of the Ganges!
In complete awe we sat speechless on the lower steps as the city began to wake. Not another soul in sight, apart from the occasional wild dog. A couple of the holiest of holy men appeared from the mist, bare foot and in partial hanging robes. The first to purify themselves with a morning cleanse in the Ganges. Our jaws hung wide open in amazement. Not only due to the fact that they were cleaning themselves in the dark green murky water but we found ourselves a little pre-occupied. Putting on our second layer of baggy hipster pants, common with your average traveller, due to a cold air that god himself would despair. The holy men seemingly unaffected in what was clearly their morning ritual from many years past.
Excited to capture the spontaneity of the moment my camera gear was out, abandoning the fact that several heavy packs along with all my belongs, sat in the darkness of a strange city. Unfortunately, in the quiet empty silence, my presence was anything but discreet and I was met with extremely disapproving glares - heckles being thrown in my direction. I quickly came to my senses, put the camera away, secured my luggage and instead, embraced the moment before me. Sensing that our presence and stares were not entirely welcome we began to stroll up river to see what else we could find. Our refuge had suddenly become the rivers edge.
Passing under the shadow of an overhanging stone structure with both ancient and beautiful architecture. A somewhat eerie scene unfolded as a group of Sadhu’s, with their oranges robes, began to rise from a stone ledge. Of what seemed their usual nightly resting place consisting of bed mats along side a dying wood fire. Smoke appeared but not from the fire itself, rather their morning chillums as they peacefully puffed and passed from the hashish pipe of old. We passed the narrow passage as stealthy as possible not wanted to disturb their morning ritual while watching from the corner of our eyes. Coming to the following bend our noses began picking up the scent of burning wood with a barbecue flavour in the air. What unfolded was anything but a barbecue, rather the burning ceremonies of the dead.
Running on a 24 hour basis the public burning pits were alive and churning like the clockwork of a factory from the industrial age. The locals stood and passed by completely unaffected as if having a morning stroll through their local park. We quickly tiptoed up a few stairs, keeping our relative distance we found shelter in a covered cafe. Propped up by bamboo sticks with crudely hung tarps, surrounding a cauldron of steaming chai tea.
We watched from a wooden bench as they covered the dead in silk blankets, carting them about on bamboo stretchers. First to be cleansed in the river followed by the open iron fire pits. Workers strolled here and there, in a style of routine workmanship tossing logs, spraying fires and collecting ashes. We sipped our hot teas, faces gleaming by the burning caldron, eyes watering from the smoky fires. Noses picking up that unfamiliar stench of burning human flesh. Welcome to Varanasi!