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Friday 18 Mar 2011
Varanasi, India

Leaving Khajuraho and arriving Varanasi

Despite the seedy restaurant manager (the restaurant seemed to be an autonomous business separate from the hotel), the actual hotel I had in Khajuraho was decent enough, positioned directly across the road from the main group of western temples. My extra large room, on the first floor, had a full pane of windows looking out across at beautiful Parvati Temple (about 100m opposite me) that I could even see down past my feet while laying in bed. This meant that during the night I had a moonlit view of the temple to accompany me. It really was one of the most perfect nights on the trip.

Khajuraho temple
Khajuraho temple

I decided to concentrate on the Western group of temples again as I wanted to get some better photos in the morning light. I decided to skip the Eastern/Southern temples as they were around 2km away and did not have anything more than the best ones here have (except, of course, that they are free to view and less touristed). Also the other complexes didn't have any erotic sculpture ;)

As I left Khajuraho, and even in days to come, I would reflect on the peacefulness of the place, relative to most other places I would visit in India, and come to regard it as one of my favourite places on the entire trip simply because it was so laid back and such a change from the fast pace of Indian life (and apart from the occasional rickshaw, the roads were safe enough to walk across without much trepidation!)

Arrived Varanasi after a quick flight and had great fun trying to leave the airport cheaply. The taxis seemed to have a monopoly there and there were no rickshaw alternatives at the time. I hadn't had time to research a place to stay.. just a brief read of the Lonely Planet guide on the plane, so I was fairly exposed to the wily taxi drivers who knew I didn't have a clue where to go and saw me as a commission goldmine.

All I knew is that I wanted to be as close to the Ganges river as possible, as that was the place to be.

Eventually I met a couple of German backpackers, Stefan and Bridget, who were walking around the carpark look similarly lost. We finally managed to negotiate a deal for a taxi into town split between the 3 of us for 500 Rs (about 8 euro). Our destination was to be a place I saw recommended in the Lonely Planet: Rashmi Guesthouse, located in the "old town".

In Varanasi, the "drivable" road only goes so far, before you reach the old town: a labyrinth of ancient narrow streets splitting off in multiple directions in a chaotic non-gridlike fashion, very much like the old town in Marakech. After going as far as he could, the taxi dropped us off in the middle of a street packed solid with cows and people (cows are sacred in India and seem to have the run of the place, even on highways). According to our driver the guesthouse was only about 10 minutes away, but clearly he was just trying to fob us off as over the next HOUR, we wandered completely lost: left, then right, then right, then left, asking anyone who knew where the damned guest house was. I was lugging 30kg on my body and sweating profusely due to the swealtering heat, but was still able to absorb the mystical air of the place as we passed stall after stall of spice-sellers / fabric-makers / even a "cheese market" (which stank in the heat!). Monkeys swung on the electric lines above us, and even a singing funeral processing squeezed by us, running down toward the Ganges, carrying the flower-laden deceased on a platform held shoulder-height.

Varanasi is where Hindus come to be cremated, or to worship/bathe in the river, as the Ganges is the most sacred Hindu river.

Eventually we somehow made it out of the maze of the old town and arrived at the river and it's famous Ghats (basically "steps" leading to the river for bathers/worshippers). In our tired state we were elated, at least, to finally see the famous river.

Having not found any suitable accomodation (after finally finding Rashmi Guesthouse, it turned out to be a dump) and contemplating crashing in the first ashram that would take us, I looked up and saw a huge hotel with balconies overlooking the ghats of the Ganges: Schindia Hotel. They had fan rooms with a shared balcony for only 750 Rs a night (about 12 euro) and the view was pretty stunning. Score!

As it had taken so long to find a place to stay it was already around 6pm and I thought there wasn't going to be much chance for sightseeing. But Varanasi never sleeps and as I looked up river I saw the evening's sacred rituals beginning: people out on boats, placing candles on floating flower trays which are sent downstream; a constelation against the black evening river. I could hear music upstream. It turned out that, purely by chance, I had arrived in Varanasi during one of the most holy weeks in the Hindu calendar: the Holi festival. This festival is also famous for people liberally flinging coloured ink and powder dyes at each other... including tourists. A somewhat mixed blessing: great for photos, but potentially disasterous for expensive camera equipment.

Pre holi celebration on...
Pre holi celebration on...

As luck would have it, we arrived just as boats were heading out at night to see the celebrations which were taking place on the eve of Holi at the main ghats upstream. Most were packed with 20 people per boat as they had booked through a hotel instead of just hiring a boat directly from the dock. When I went to the dock I met a man called Rajif who had very good english. We agreed a price of 150 Rs to take the large boat out for an hour to see the events. Finally, after an exhausting day, here I was floating on the Ganges, a sacred destination for 7,000 years, and I was thankful that I managed to do something this evening as my itinerary unfortunately limited me to one day. I already knew that I wasn't even going to scrape the surface of Varanasi, as there was so much history/culture to see.

We floated by the cremation area where bodies are burned 24 hours a day, attended to by the Untouchable caste (the lowest caste in Hindu society, and so often despised by the higher caste.. although this may be an outdated view in modern India) who are the only ones allowed to "serve the dead". Photos are not permitted unfortunately (police will actually fine you quite considerably) so I had to sneak some blurry shots from a distance. Finally we arrived at the main ghats and already there were about 100 other tourist boats floating here on the still river while the sound of yogi mantras filled the air and Brahman priests performed sacred fire rituals facing out to the river.

I was thankful I had gotten my own boat as the other tourists seemed rather cramped on theirs, plus I was able to direct Rajif to check out other sections so that I could get some great shots, while he filled me in on the history of the various ghats.

Had dinner with a couple of yanks, both working in Germany, whom we had met earlier on the ghats. Whereas I was loving my time in India, despite the craziness of some places, they had a somewhat jaded view having bussed uncomfortably around the country plus they didn't appreciate having to bargain for everything. I guess I can see where they're coming from, but to be honest, that's part & parcel of India.

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Photo Album

  • Pre holi...

    Varanasi

    India

    Pre holi celebration on the Ganges
  • Pre holi...

    Varanasi

    India

    Pre holi celebration on the Ganges
  • Cremations...

    Varanasi

    India

    Cremations run on 24 7
  • Sunrise on...

    Varanasi

    India

    Sunrise on the Ganges