Wandering the Ghats of Varanasi

Backdated from March 29 – April 03

Varanasi’s a great city to get lost in. Which is a good thing since, given the twisting labyrinth of narrow lane-ways that pass for streets in the blocks leading down to the Ganges, you’re bound to spend a lot of your time doing just that. Whether intentionally or no.

Inside the narrow, twisting alleys of Varanasi.

Actually, getting lost in the lane-ways was the very first thing we did upon arrival in this ancient city. After getting one of the bikes unstuck after a failed attempt at a U-turn (not recommended) we pulled them to the side of the ‘road’ as much as was possible so Pete could head off with a helpful local to locate our hostel. In the meantime, I attracted the usual number of odd looks being a woman riding an Enfield typically yields. Children find me fascinating. Women find me hilarious.

Much later, as I spotted Pete walking back up the dusty alley towards me, I had a moment. For a short instant I felt oddly displaced; the diverse bustle of people still exotic to me, the unfamiliar scents of unknown spices and something about the way the rare sunbeam filtered down to illuminate the scene brought to mind a scene out of a film shot in some far-off location. I began thinking about what I’d learned of Buddhism, particularly about objects not actually being anything static, but becoming whatever impressions we attach to them. In that moment, that scene had the flavor of travel and adventure as we view it in movies – something we walk through as opposed to become a part of. Maybe it was because we’d just come from the Jain temples of Khajuraho but that paved way for some pondering on the idea that lasting peace is obtained once we, among other things, realize and make peace with that fact. That every moment is equal, and it is only our expectations and our hunt for fulfillment that make some experiences seem more enjoyable than others. That we are now as close to bliss as we will ever be if only we can train ourselves to be aware of that truth.

But something about it still won’t sit with me. Maybe that’s just not how I was raised.

We finally located our hostel and made arrangements with a local shopkeeper to store our bikes for the duration of our time in the city. With the alleys being the way they are, it would be just as fast to walk anywhere as it would be to try riding. Perhaps faster.

From the rooftop restaurant above San Katha hostel we were able to view the cityscape. Varanasi (or Benares as it’s also known), where it stretches back from the river Ganges, reminded me of a Tetris game gone wrong. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it’s made space for structures wherever it can find it to spare; temples are jammed between residential buildings, and piles of rubbish stand in small towers that would surely topple if they weren’t walled in at all sides. Smaller buildings, like plants dwarfed by the trees around them, see only minutes of natural light each day, when the sun is directly over them to shine down through the rooftops above.

This would be one hell of a city for anyone into parkour.

Looking out over the erratic rooftops of Varanasi.

And up above, the skies of Varanasi were filled with kites, their ninja-like fliers often hidden by the network of rooftop edgings. A string could occasionally be spotted, when the light hit it at just the right angle, but for the most part the kites appeared owner-less. I ogled at how high some of them managed to get. From a distance, it was impossible to distinguish kites from birds, particularly given the similarity in how they both bucked and weaved, distant silhouettes in the flawless blue of the afternoon sky.

They next day I began to wander along the ghats. San Katha lies about a block or two back from Manikarnika, the main burning ghat and a hell of a place to start off in Varanasi.

To clarify, a ‘ghat’ can be any set of stairs leading down to a body of water. Many of the ghats along Varanasi serve a particular purpose; many are used for bathing, some for particular ceremonies like the daily Ganga Aarti at dusk. . . And others are used for the cremation of the dead.

Cremation is the usual choice of funerary rites for anyone of the Hindu faith, and Varanasi is a particularly auspicious place to have it done. Expiring here apparently offers the soul Moksha – liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

It’s impossible to spend any amount of time walking through the alleys that stretch back from Manikarnika without running into one of the small processions bearing a cloth-wrapped figure bound for the fires. Their repetitive chants echo off the surrounding walls, signalling their presence long before they enter into sight.

Piles of wood stretching high up the building walls signal you’re near. Apparently, it takes a fair amount of wood to cremate a body entirely, and Manikarnika hosts up to 200 cremations each day. Sadly, this has inspired a running scam at the ghat – men will approach curious foreigners and begin to offer information on what is, to them, a rather curious ritual to be performed so openly in public. Informative conversation will quickly turn to an announcement of the nearby hospices (sometimes containing an offer to visit them), and an explanation that many people there are near death, and struggling to raise funds for their own pyres before their final day. Simply dying in Varanasi doesn’t offer Moksha – burning there does. And wood costs rupees. A lot of rupees.

Wood piled high in the alleys leading down to the burning ghats.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely any money offered will ever cross the palms of these unfortunate souls from the tout’s story. I’d barely caught sight of the fires when someone approached me, eager to enlighten my Western mind as to the intricacies of this Indian tradition. He informed me of how the color of the cloth the body is wrapped in indicates the gender and age of the deceased (White for men, red for women, gold for elder women, orange for elder men), and also went through the list of the five people that do not burn on the pyres – Sadhus (or holy men), lepers, pregnant women, very young children and snake-bite victims. These corpses, he said, do not need further purification. Instead, their bodies are taken by boat to the middle of the Ganges and, after being weighted by a stone, are dropped directly into the same holy river where others are washing their laundry, their cattle and themselves.

Keeping in mind this COULD actually be a friendly local eager to share information on his culture I listened attentively as he explained. But, when the conversation made a sharp shift into an offer to follow him into a nearby hospice, I politely declined and continued South along the ghats.

I picked up a number of short-term followers as I moved along; touts urging me to check out their shop or hire a boat, silent old men, pointing young boys and even oddly charismatic goats.

I later realized he figured staying near me would keep him safe from the wild dogs that were eyeing him up as their next meal.

I came across a group of children, dressed in costume to re-enact scenes from the Ramcharitmanas in celebration of Rama Navani. At first I found it a little surreal to see young kids dressed as deities. Then I realized it’s no more odd than Christmas recitals back home, where small children play the roles of wise men and virgin mothers, while a worn plastic doll is wrapped in blankets to represent the supposed son of God.

Admittedly, their costumes are cooler.

Scattered in clusters along the steps, platforms and river’s edges (not to mention throughout the city at large) were hundreds, if not thousands, of Shiva Lingams, my personal favorite among the countless representations of Hindu Gods. The phallic column sitting upon a vulva-like platform is meant to symbolize both male and female creative energy, and the inseparability of the two. Fitting iconography for a god who is sometimes represented as a hermaphrodite, his consort Parvarti displayed as being not alongside of but as a conjoined half of him. Legend says that Shiva founded Varanasi, long before it was known as Banares or even Kashi, so it’s little wonder that the trident-bearing ‘destroyer’ god is the primary subject of worship here.

Shiva gets the all the coolest iconography.

Based on what I’d read and heard of Varanasi, I’d expected utter insanity from the city. Instead, I found it quite chill and peaceful there. Boatmen lounged under over-sized umbrellas to escape the sweltering afternoon sun, while groups of children claimed the wider ghat platforms for games of cricket with improvised bats. There was a distant sound of bells and chanting from the temples above, providing a steady backtrack that was added to by the activity down at the water’s edge; the wet slap of laundry against the stones, the soft dip of paddles into the river’s surface and the overlapping murmur of conversations I couldn’t understand.

I was taken once more by a sense of wonder at how India could somehow manage to be both so much crazier and so much more peaceful than I had expected of it.

Stretched out in a hired boat for the trip back to San Katha, staring up into the clear skies above, something floated by us, catching my attention from the edge of my peripheral vision. I’d never seen a cow without its skin before so it took me a moment to place the bovine corpse for what it had once been. It must have somehow become detached from the stones that would have been weighting its body down to the base of the Ganga.

I guess he just wasn’t ready for Moksha yet.

The full photo set from Varanasi can be viewed over Flickr here, or on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.

Health update: Still not 100% but, considering I was able to nom the fuck out of BBQ burgers yesterday without repercussion, I think it’s safe to say I’m no longer limited when it comes to my diet.

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7 thoughts on “Wandering the Ghats of Varanasi

  1. Glad to have found you via your comment on Nerd’s Eye View’s post about travel writing quality. A relief to find someone else who uses a narrative style and strong voice in their travel writing. Varanasi was such a frustrating, confusing, and ultimately awesome place. Thanks for taking me back through your words.

    • Hi Lauren,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. Being told you’re able to bring someone somewhere through your words is. . . I feel very flattered.
      Was browsing your blog and you seem to have quite the talent for words yourself. You had me at, “This soup needs bread like an alpaca needs a sweater vest.” ^_^ I’ve marked a couple of your longer posts to check out on one of my reader apps later and am looking forward to going through them.

      All the best, – K

  2. Pingback: Vidur’s Travel Diary – 13 : Varanasi « Vidur's Blog

  3. Pingback: Highlights from a Vagabond’s Motorcycle Wanders of India | On the Road to Ithaca

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