Varanasi……….Did I love it or did I hate it?……Well, I absolutely loved it!
We arrived in what I feel was the most perfect manner possible; slowly gliding down the Ganges to witness the unique spectacle of daily life on the ghats. Just the sight of the magnificent buildings of all shapes and sizes rising up from the water’s edge, viewed from afar, rising up through the haze was enough to convince me that I’d been transported back in time thousands of years.
Varanasi is said to be between 5 & 6 thousand years old, has a population of 3.2 million people, stretches for 7.4 km, 70% of the population are Hindus and there are about 84 ghats (a ghat is a series of steps leading down to the waters edge).
As we passed by the ghats the sights and sounds of activity were laid out before us in every detail.
People bathing, completely submerging themselves then rising up, water glinting in the sun cascading from their heads and faces. Cows walking around everywhere mooing, dogs barking and the slap…. slap ….slap of the Dobhi Wallahs at their work as they swung their washing over their shoulder and bashed it against their stone washing slab. All the while bells rung in the background accompanied by the wonderfully evocative sound of chanting and mantras mingling with the sound of our oars hitting the water and pulling us slowly on deeper into the midst of Varanasi. Many boats full of sightseers, all Indian people, joined us now on our river boat journey, the rows of brightly coloured scarf-covered heads all in a row.
Before burning a body is covered in sandlewood, herbs, camphor, ghee, a basic form of sugar and wood to aid the burning process and disguise the smell of burning flesh. The Master of the Crematorium decides on the charge to levy depending on individual financial circumstances. Bodies of pregnant ladies, babies, sadhus and victims of snakebites, chicken pox and leprosy are not cremated but covered in cloth, weighted down and given a watery burial there in the Holy Ganges River.
Each ghat has it’s own name and function, and the music, chanting and prayers constantly changed as we passed along. Washing hung in neat rows on railings; the bright colours seemed to “shout out” against the white, cream and dark sand coloured buildings. Many were decorated with painted signs both in Hindi and Roman text.
Men soaped their bodies and women soaped their children from head to toe. The bright white soapy streaks contrasting sharply with their brown skin.
There’s no doubt about it Varanasi is dirty, very dirty…….the strong smell of urine regularly assaulting your sense of smell, the cow dung everywhere and dust and mud in every street but the sheer astonishment at what one encounters there seems to take your mind off those unmistakable aromas and for me, if you want excitement and to experience life in all it’s raw glory, Varanasi is the place to be