Spiritual, chaotic, loud and unforgettable- holy city of Varanasi

VARANASI- Part II of INDIA travel series

Overview

  • When: 24 December, 2018 – 25 December, 2018
  • Where (accommodations):  Kedareswar B&B
  • Transportation: Flight from Mumbai to Varanasi – Spicejet Airways.
  • Sights/attractions:  Old Town tour (guided), Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankat Mochan Temple, Durga Temple,  evening ceremony from the boat, sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Brij Rama Palace.
  • Food/drinks: Suryoday vegetarian restaurant, Monalisa cafe.

It is Christmas Eve and our second day in India. Just a little over 2hr flight on Spicejet airways from Mumbai to a northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is ancient- in fact one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. For Hindus it’s the holiest of the seven sacred cities, which draws pilgrims from all over the country. Spiritual capital of hinduism, Varanasi has this indescribable energy that makes you hold your breath in awe. It is easily one of our favorite cities  in India.

River Ganges, also known as the Ganga, flows from the Himalaya mountains through Varanasi and is considered one of the most sacred rivers to Hindus. In multiple areas of old Varanasi there are steps leading down to the river- they are called ghats. Most of the ghats are for the access to bathe or to perform the ceremonies, but there are also two that are exclusively used as cremation sites.  Ganges river holds ashes and bones of the hindus burned at the local ghats or brought from all over India. Hindus believe that Varanasi is the most holy place to die. Those whose life ends here are believed to be freed from  the cycle of death and rebirth. They do not have to be born again, suffer or die, but instead attain moksha or release at the moment of death. People bathe and wash their clothes in the same water! Don’t even ask me how that is at all clean or sanitary, or how they don’t get sick. India is magical in that way- things we’ve experienced here would not make any sense anywhere else in the world.

Talking about senseless. The first and one of the most shocking things in Varanasi that we have encountered was traffic! We thought it was pretty crazy in Mumbai- in comparison that was nothing! We arranged to be picked up from the airport by our bed and breakfast driver and bless his heart, the man knew how to drive. Countless times I was sure we were going to be hit by a bus, scooter, tuk tuk  or plow into a cow or a goat.

It was a MASSIVE chaos, beeping and a total madness, which we miraculously survived without a scratch! Unfortunately we witnessed an accident- a milkman tried to avoid the cow in the middle of the street, got hit by the car behind him and there was a LOT of spilled milk…

Kedareswar B&B is located in the old town Varanasi, right on the bank of the river Ganges, on Chowki Ghat (near Kedar Ghat) and could not have been in a better location! We only had 24 hrs in this city with so much to see and do, so location was the key. From the airport it took us about 1hr in that mad beeping traffic, but once we got to the place, all the surroundings were quiet and peaceful, room simple but comfortable and the rooftop terrace where we will have breakfast the following morning- breathtaking.

Besides the fact that the staff was extremely helpful, the cost per night was only 38 USD! I would definitely stay there again and if you do- make sure to ask for the pick up at the airport. It’s not possible to reach the place by car all the way to the doorstep- you need to walk a bit in the winding old town streets and if not for the pick up, we would have never been able to find it.

As soon as we checked in and dropped off our bags we needed to have some lunch before sightseeing the city. We were escorted to a clean and simple vegetarian restaurant right down the street from the B&B- Suryoday. I think all tourists from our place were sent there- we met an Italian couple and later the other family came that was also staying at our place. Food was good, we tried Northern Thali and Special Thali and paid the total of around  5 USD for the both of us  🙂 ! img_0960

We walked back to the hotel taking in the views of the little streets of Varanasi and stopped at the sweets stand where we just HAD to try local desserts.

Our hotel arranged a guide for the afternoon and Vikyi from Heritage Tours was waiting in the lobby ready to show us his city. We went to Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankat Mochan Temple, Durga Temple, did some shopping and made it to the evening ceremony from the boat on the river Ganges.

Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple

We walked through the winding streets until we reached the main road. Here we got into the car and the driver took us to Shri Kashi Vishwanath– one of the most famous Hindu temples in Varanasi dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Just to enter through the gates into the premises of the temple you have to take off the shoes and leave them with the person that guards them for a small fee/tip. I was wearing white socks which ended up far from white by the end of the temple tour 🙂 . So my advice here would be to bring an extra pair of socks that you can throw out by the end of the day as no shoes are allowed in any of the temples that we visited.

Sankat Mochan Temple

Next stop- Sankat Mochan Temple– another Hindu temple, this time dedicated to God Hanuman. You cannot take anything else into the premises, except some money- no bags, cameras or any electronics. There are lockers at the entrance where you can leave all of the belongings. There was a terrorist attack in 2006 killing in injuring a lot of worshippers and since then the security has been tightened. We took a pic at the entrance and the rest is stored in our memory. img_1006

Durga Temple

Another famous Hindu temple dedicated for the Goddess Durga. Built in 18th century this beautiful red temple is right near the pond with a fountain. Take all the pics here, as  you are not allowed to take any inside of the temple.

Shopping

It was starting to get quite chilly as the evening was approaching, so we asked the guide to bring us somewhere where I could buy a warm scarf. He took us to the mughal  area- the part of town occupied mainly by muslims where we could see how the silk textiles are made and get a shawl to keep me warm.img_1032

Travel tip: Be ready to be taken shopping and be ready to bargain. In this case, I asked for a place to buy a scarf as I was cold. But as we noticed with all other guides that we had later on the trip- you will somehow end up in one store or the other. Even if you never asked for a shopping experience, guide somehow will lead you  to a carpet store, or a jewelry store, or a textile factory. All guides have their places to get a small cut of commision if tourists buy something. You are not forced to buy anything ever. But it’s very tempting and a lot of times we ended up getting something that was not really planned. Make sure to bargain if you really want an item, but don’t waste anyone’s time if you’re sure you are not interested. It’s perfectly OK to say, no thank you, we will not be buying any carpets today and leave the store. We did that in Delhi and nobody was offended. But if you really like something, give your lowest price and negotiate your way up.

In the meantime in Varanasi the sun was setting and it was time to go back to our hotel, put our warmest jackets on and get on a boat, so we can see an evening ceremony held at Dasawamedh Ghat.

Puja- Evening ceremony

As our hotel was right on the river bank, all we had to do was go down the steps and we were ready to get on a boat. Evening ceremony (just like the morning ceremony) is done every day. Evening- around 6-7pm, morning- before sunrise, around 5am.

The ceremony –puja- involves chanting, singing, blowing conch shells and there are lamps and fire and smoke. It’s a celebration of light and ceremonial dedication to the river Ganges, Lord Shiva, sun, fire and the Universe.  Offerings are made to the river- flowers and floating candles are being placed in the water at the end of the ceremony. Essentially it’s a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. Continuing past Dasawamedh Ghat,  we passed Brij Rama Palace and  reached a burning ghat- Manikarnika Ghat.img_1071

Every day, 24 hrs per day bodies are being brought to be cremated there. It was quite surreal to see several stretchers with the bodies (covered with flowers and scarves) being brought down to the river, rinsed off in the holy water and then placed on the steps. Not long after, they were laid in the fire that is burning right near the river. Ashes and anything that does not burn all the way (like chest cavity, hip bones) – all go down in the same sacred river  afterwards.

We watched this from the boat, from a respectful distance. It was close enough for us and I would not chose to go on the actual steps to get a better view. There were a lot of people watching, but exotic and different that the sight is, after all it’s someone’s loved one that is on display on those steps. We felt like getting any closer would be intruding and not appropriate.

One surprising fact –  with all the burning, there was NO bad smell in this city. We asked the guide what’s the secret and he said that sandalwood and herbs are being used for  the cremations! It explains why the city smelled like incense and flowers.

Sunrise boat ride

Before we leave this truly magical city, we have one more activity- a boat ride on the same river Ganges, but this time at sunrise. It was COMPLETELY different experience from the last night.

We chose to skip the morning ceremony- we did not want to wake up before 5am. Instead, we arranged (again through the amazing staff) the boat ride that left right before sunrise.

We got up at 5.20am and were in the boat by 5.45am. We could see the whole shore in a breaking daylight, enjoy the quiet hours before the city came awake, watch people bathe in the river- it was an incredible experience that I would recommend for everyone visiting Varanasi.

A couple hours later we were back at our hotel where we had a filling breakfast on the rooftop terrace. By 9.15 am are on the way to the airport for our next flight.

It’s hard to believe that we landed at 11am yesterday. Barely 24 hrs in Varanasi was enough to have a life changing experience in this overwhelmingly special city.  Time to see a very different part of India- quiet and clean, warm and peaceful, oasis after the chaos – KHAJURAHO.

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