Varanasi is the epitome of India many people think of before they touch the soil: it is dirty, crowded, loud, noisy and crazy. When I arrived from an overnight train from Khajuraho, the tuktuk drivers proceeded to harass my friends and I; when we finally got a good deal on a pair of tuktuks (it took a lot of haggling), we passed through narrow streets littered with trash, which was also where skinny cows seemed to loiter around.
It was the Indian city that I despised most, but it was also the place where I felt most connected to the culture and the people that surrounded me.
I was fortunate to have stayed at Zostel Varanasi, where they offered both sunset and sunrise tours over the Ganges river at a very reasonable price.
I have been forewarned of the difficult boatmen around the Ganges; I was glad I skipped the haggling part. For 150 rupees for each tour, I was sold into watching the sunset over the Ganges and waking up ridiculously early for the sunrise.
The sunset tour organised by Zostel was very organised. The boatman picked us all up to the hostel and we were directed to his boat after a twenty-minute walk through the centre into the ghats.
Shortly after 5 pm, we began the tour. Our guide spoke very little English, but he was keen to point out the different happenings along the Ganges river. The sights, smells and different scenes along the ghats are the reason many travel to Varanasi.
The water is thought to contain 3000 times more chalice bacteria than mineral drinking water, but this has not prevented the local families from swimming in the river. Parents were patiently waiting for their kids at Chousat Ghat as children tried to master their butterflies.
As we reached Babua Pandey Ghat, we saw hoarded of people gathered by the steps, along with loud cheering and batting: it can only be a cricket match on the ghat. There were plenty of spectators, referees and passers-by with the hope of not getting hit by the ball.
In contrast, Raja Ghat next door was awfully quiet in comparison. I spotted a Western guy writing on a journal; it was the perfect place for travel journalling actually, a peaceful setting with serene surrounds.
As the boat manoeuvred, we were surprised by the number of people sitting in a line at Lalita Ghat. The temple nearby offered free food to those in need at around 5 pm, just in time for dinner.
We then approached the infamous cremation ghat, Manikarnika. I avoided taking pictures: it was disgustingly voyeuristic to do so. This was when I felt the hairs on my arm stand up a little. We were witnessing live cremations. It was a deeply personal area of Varanasi (and the whole India) for many people. I cannot even imagine the emotional and physical stress felt by family members that gathered around this ghat, not forgetting the stress exerted by the hordes of boats taking a sneak peak of their loved ones’ dying moments.
After that rather sombre moment, we preceded towards the ‘celebration’ ghat where sacrifices, blessings and offerings were a-plenty for Mother Ganga. Personally, I did not enjoy this part of the ride. Everyone was joyful, but I cannot help thinking about the live cremations I saw twenty minutes go. Plus, I found it rather displeasing when I found that if you were Western or white, you were automatically prioritised to make offerings in front of the Indian crowds that gathered – prioritised over Indian families whose pilgrimage to Varanasi may well be a once-in-a-life trip.
We dined shortly after the boat ride, gearing for an early bedtime as we were to repeat it again in the early hours of the morning, minus the celebrations. The sunrise ride proved to be more pleasant – the conditions were better for photographs, and the ghats were less crowded and busy.
The boat tour was insightful, saddening and frustrating. This was Varanasi all over. But it remains to be the city that capture the dreamers, creatives and artists who visit India for the first time, or the fifth time. It was a soulful yet solemn city to visit for obvious reasons – a city which should be on everyone’s bucket list.
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Thank you Zostel Varanasi and your helpful leaflet – I would have been lost without it! As usual, views are my own.