The railways in India are the ideal way to travel since flights are expensive or unavailable, and the trains allow you to view the scenery along the way. Our overnight train carriage had rows and rows of bunk beds, stacked three high and two across in each section. It was packed with Indian families, businessmen, and people our age. When it was too dark to gaze out the window, we made our beds with the starchy stained sheets, popped in our ear plugs, put our eye masks down, and prayed for a little bit of sleep in the uncomfortably hot and crowded train car.
We lurched to a stop at 11:30am, two hours late, and were immediately dumped into the hectic environment that is Varanasi. The auto rickshaw was just big enough to squeeze both of us and our backpacks inside, and just small enough to navigate the unimaginably small, winding, cobblestone streets. Our guesthouse was near impossible to find as it was located down a narrow alleyway only wide enough to walk down without a single sign indicating its location. We booked online and had been somewhat skeptical of the price at $6 a night, and I could see why. There was no reception area, so we walked into a gloomy cement room that looked like someone’s storage room and called out to see if anyone was home. The owner hurried down the stairs and showed us to our room on the roof, with no AC, bathroom, TV, towels, mirrors, etc. It was a bare cement cell with one bed in the middle and a mosquito net dangling above. There were two shared toilets, one being a squatty potty, and the other a broken western style built in a cubby underneath the stairs. The showers had one temperature of icy cold and it was clear they hadn’t been cleaned in ages. After this experience I refuse to stay anywhere for less than $10 a night.
The only good thing about the guesthouse was its location, about one hundred meters away from Assi Ghat on the Ganges River. The main attraction in Varanasi is the strip of land along the Ganges that is broken into many “ghats” or piers with staircases leading right into the water below. Many of the ghats have specific purposes, such as worship at a riverside temple, cremation ceremonies on wooden funeral pyres, or celebration at illuminated stages. Assi Ghat was full of people swimming, playing music, and gathering together. There was even a snake charmer playing flute to a lethal-looking cobra in a basket. His long beard, painted face, and white turban fit every applicable stereotype.
As the sun went down and the heat became more bearable, we went on a row boat tour of the river past all the ghats, alive with nocturnal activity. Women beat clothes against slabs of stone in the water, men carried dead loved ones to Manikarnika cremation “burning ghat”, buffaloes cooled down in the muddy river, and people started gathering at Dashashwamedh Ghat for the 7pm ganga aarti ceremony with fire, offerings, and music. We watched the event from the river as several religious figures from the community performed the ritual while others rang bells, sang, and threw flowers into the river. Children hopped onto our boat to sell lotus flower candles, some of which were glowing and floating in the water next to us. It was a beautiful spiritual event to witness and I was amazed that so many people come out every single night to take part in this elaborate ceremony with such passion and commitment.
I tossed and turned in the stuffy heat, despite the puny fan’s constant spinning. I woke up to Byron nudging me at 2am since he also couldn’t handle the heat and moved us downstairs to a minutely colder room. After a few more hours of restless shut eye, we gave up and had breakfast along the dirty river with a cold Nana Mint drink in hand.
The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus to wash away their sins and to spread the bones and ashes of their cremated loved ones since the water is considered pure. According to the religion, dying in Varnassi releases them from the cycle of reincarnation. In many circumstances the bodies are thrown in the river whole, such as young babies, mothers who died during child birth, holy men, poor people, and those with leprosy. The Ganges is one of the most polluted water sources in the world with sewage, industrial waste, garbage, and incredibly high levels of bacteria. This is a huge issue because so many people rely on it for their daily needs, like cooking, bathing, drinking, and washing. It’s amazing to me how religion can cause people to become blind to reality and the clear issue at hand. Regardless of the serious health and environmental threats, thousands of people travel here to wash themselves in the Ganges, drink from it, and bottle it up to bring it back home. Their is little concern for cleaning the water and fixing the issues with their holy Ganges. Needless to say, we didn’t stick more than one hand in the water, followed by thorough Purell usage.
We wanted to get a closer look at the Ghat activity we saw from the boat ride, so we walked from one end to the other. The cremation ghats gave off a pungent smoky odor long before we could see the flaming piles of wood with cloth-wrapped bodies inside. Several men came up to us and insistented that we could stay and watch but photography was strictly prohibited. We solemnly looked on as a group of men carried a stretcher with a body to the water, chanting loudly. The body was dunked in the water and they continued to sing until it was completely doused. Sadly, there was another body in line to be dunked, but there were no family members taking care of the body, so a cow took interest and started licking it and eating the flowers off of it. Quite a morbid sight.
We had enough of the ghats, so we went on a search for a famous lassi shop. On our way, we passed several other groups of men carrying bodies down the tiny alleyways, causing us to squish up against the walls in order to avoid touching the stretcher. Somehow we found the shop among the weaving roads and it was well worth the effort. There was a man sitting cross-legged in front of the shop using a large mortar and pestle to churn yogurt and mash up fresh fruit. All this deliciousness cost less than $1.
When we ventured back out to the ghats in the evening, the entire place had changed. Hundreds of people were crowded together in the water singing and clapping along to the devotional songs booming over the waterfront speakers. Most of them were fully dressed as they dunked themselves repeatedly under the filthy water, shouting and hollering. We later learned that this day was a lunar eclipse, which meant that the Gods were in pain. In order to ease the pain of the gods, the people didn’t eat any food, or visit the temples, and instead came to the river to sing and cleanse. Even though I had no understanding of what was going on around me, I could feel this sense of importance and significance to what they were doing. It was men, women, children, elderly, monkeys, bulls, dogs, beggars, rich and everyone in between gathering here along the river to take part in this ceremony. We spotted a few weathered looking indian holy men with long dreads tied on top of their heads, white paint slashed across their faces, and long skirts for clothing. They sat in a circle around a fire, solemnly throwing powder into the fire and chanting.
It was almost impossible to squeeze past people on the main Ghat, especially because we were trying our darnedest not to touch any bacteria-ridden Ganges water. However, it was hard to avoid when we were packed in with hundreds of soaking wet bodies. I just gave in and tried to embrace the madness and appreciate the powerful music, the vibrant lights, and the lively spirituality.
Eventually, we pushed away from the crowded ghats and found a rooftop restaurant with live sitar and tabla music. It all felt very stereotypically Indian to eat Veg Biryani while listening to mystical sitar notes and enjoying the moon shimmering on the Ganges River.
There’s only so much of the ghats you can see before they start to get monotonous, so today we took a horribly bumpy rickshaw ride 15km away to a town called Sarnath. This area is extremely important to Buddhists, as this was where Buddha gave some of his very first teachings of enlightenment in front of Dhamek Stupa. Each temple, stupa, and ancient ruin had some significant connection to the life of Buddha. There was even a tree that is said to be the offspring of the tree in Sri Lanka that the Buddha originally attained spirituality. I have a hard time even fathoming the age of historical sites that were built in the year 500, because any historical site in the United States is only a few hundred years old.
After seeing another gigantic Buddha statue (our third on this trip), and Chaukhandi Stupa, the skies turned a nasty grey and it started to pour. India was the last place I thought I would be caught in a sudden downpour, but here we were running in the rain trying to flag down a rickshaw to take us back. The rickshaw didn’t add much better protection.
The rain limited our options for the night, so we ate in a dingy restaurant near our guesthouse. I ordered a lemonade and told them no spices (this is necessary for every order, no matter how crazy you would have to be to add spices). They brought out a glass with lemon, water, and a heaping lump of salt. On their second attempt, they brought out a glass with water and sugar and no lemon. I didn’t have the Hindi words to explain the situation, so the glass remained untouched for the duration of our meal. Our sizzler was delicious, however, and consisted of green beans, cabbage, a veggie patty and a handful of French fries served in a cloud of hot steam. After a lassi dessert from Green Lassi Shop on the corner, we headed back to our guesthouse for our last night in Varanasi.
Our attempt to wake up at 5:30am to see the sunrise on the river was largely disappointing as the skies were too hazy to see anything more than a faint orange fuzz on the horizon. However, there were crowds of people awake at Assi Ghat. Tourists snapped photos of the morning fire aarti ceremony, a group of women sang in unison under a pavilion, and children bathed in the murky water. It was all very lively at this time of day, perhaps because the heat wasn’t so unbearable yet.
Our guesthouse host insisted that we couldn’t leave Varanasi without visiting the Monkey Temple, so we hopped in a bicycle rickshaw and argued with the driver for the duration of our journey. He wanted to get us to agree to a tour of the entire neighborhood and each temple within it, at a hefty price. Luckily he kept pedaling and accepted our payment as we entered the only temple we wanted to see. After depositing our bag and shoes at the entrance and passing through a metal detector and pat-down, we were surrounded by monkeys, dogs, and worshippers. The people didn’t seem too interested in the monkeys, as if they were just common squirrels running in the yard. However, these were large monkeys and they were feisty. The plastic awning creaked and banged as the monkeys chased each other and jumped from rooftop to rooftop. All this was occurring just a few feet away from the line of people going up to the altar to be blessed with holy water.
We still had a few hours before our train left, so we attempted to hop in a rickshaw to the cinema. However, we greatly underestimated the traffic, so by the time we got to the shopping complex an hour later, we basically had to turn right around. We did have time to pop our heads into the swanky Ramada bar and enjoy a nice cold beer before heading back into the insanity-inducing traffic.
Back at Assi Ghat, we rushed to print out our train tickets at the travel agent’s office. Over the past few days we went back and forth to this office to try to get tickets from this man, since apparently all the tickets were sold out. He insisted that we “Don’t worry about how I’ll get the tickets. That’s my job. Just know that I will.” His surprise 50 percent commission tacked on at the end might explain how he did it. Nevertheless, we had our tickets in hand and soon were at the train station stocking up on snacks and drinks. There was a train waiting at our assigned platform, so we got on to our numbered carriage, put our bags down and started to get comfy. Byron double checked with a local to see if we were on the right train just as the whistle blew. The man shook his head and said no, and within ten seconds we had our bags on our backs and scrambled out the door just as the train wheels started moving. Whew, that was close.
Half an hour later, the right train pulled in and we found our appropriate seats in the mostly empty car. Unfortunately Byron wasn’t feeling so good and spent a portion of the overnight journey vomiting in the moving train toilet. It was a relief to pull into our destination of Kujaraho in the early morning.