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Varanasi: The Holy City of India

The holy city of Varanasi was our first stop in India. Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India and quite possibly one of the world’s holiest city. It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism, and is also a very important place in Buddhism. It is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. Mark Twain famously recounted Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

But Varanasi does not only look and feel old, it is also the dirtiest, smelliest and filthiest place I have ever been. Many people warned us that Varanasi is ‘not for the faint of heart’ and while true, I typically don’t fall into that category. I unquestionably saw the beauty in the spiritual rituals that took place in Varanasi and was awestruck at the devoutness of the pilgrims around me, but it was hard to look past the grotesque smell and site of pollution, smoke, sewage and rubbish that is literally everywhere (not to mention all the cow patties). *Speaking of the bulls, I truly admire how India integrates wild animals into their cities and every day life and manages to live at peace with them, even with a wild bull with large horns (this would be considered very dangerous in North America). 

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Varanasi is situated along the bank of the sacred Ganges River. The river bank is covered with Ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank – some for bathing, others for laundry and two reserved for burning deceased bodies. When we arrived at the Ganges riverbank I had to cover my mouth with a scarf to avoid breathing the smoky air that wreaked of sewage and do everything I could to hide my absolute shock that people were not only bathing in the river but drinking the water from it. The Ganges has been closely associated with the spiritual city for several thousands of years and Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation and that a lifetime of sins can be washed clean with a dip in the “purifying water.”  The river which once flowed pure and clean has been polluted beyond believe.

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At dusk, we watched the Ganga Aarti ceremony, a Hindu ceremony performed by Brahmin disciples to honor the holy river, that takes place every night. The ritual was a beautiful mixture of chanting, singing, drumming, ringing of bells, blowing of conch shells, waiving lamps filled with incense, and dancing. Attending the ceremony supposedly brings purification and blessings. During the ceremony the river is lit up with tiny aartis (candles) which are being sold all over the ghats and on the water to other boats – hundreds or thousands are released to flow down the river every night. The problem is, it’s not just a candle. All of the candles I saw for sale were placed on a tin and paper plate surrounded thus just adding to the unbelievable amount of litter already floating in the Ganges river. I out-right refused to let a candle float away (many people tried to sell them to us and it makes for a beautiful photo). *I did read that the candles used to be placed in a bowl made from leaves and flowers which I would have been fine with. Also note that contrary to what many people will try to tell you, you do not need to pay or hire a “guide” to get close to the ceremony and can stand wherever you like and enjoy the ceremony.

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The next morning we woke up before sunrise and walked back to the Ganges to watch the morning Ganga ceremony which is very similar to the evening ceremony. The main difference was this ceremony was started by a group of young girls singing majestic tunes.

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Everyone told us that you just had to get up for sunrise on the river describing what a special and spiritual experience it is. With the low hanging fog and smoke (and no wind to blow it away) we couldn’t even see the sun rise and the views and photographs were terrible until the sun was high enough to have a chance at shining through the deary sky. In retrospect I probably would have opted for an afternoon boat trip with better light and having already had my coffee and eaten breakfast 🙂 

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During our two-hour boat trip, we traveled along the river passing by a portion of the cities 87 ghats. As we past bathing ghats and laundry ghats and watched countless adults, kids and animals playing, drinking, cooling off, fishing, praying and more in the river, it became clear how much everyday life revolves around the river for the people of Varanasi. The new government of India has promised to clean up the Ganges and I truly hope they find a way. 

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Washing and drying laundry along the Ganges River

The last ghat we passed on our boat trip was Manikarnika Ghat, the primary cremation ghat in Varanasi. To be cremated on the banks of the Ganges is the highest honour for Hindus but only the rich can afford it, therefore, many bodies get put into the river unofficially, skipping the expensive cremation. Hindus believe that having their dead bodies washed and cremated on the Ganges and their ashes thrown in the river will liberate them from the cycle of life and death (reincarnation) and allow them to move to a higher plane of being. There are two cremation ghats in Varanasi and they both run 24 hours a day, every day of the year. On average, there are 80 cremations per day in the city – which is likely why Varanasi is also referred to as “the City of Death.” We were told that we would see many people taking photos – family, friends and strangers – but because foreign tourists in the past have misused their photos, photo-taking by foreigners is generally discouraged. I found it sad to think about how people could purposely misuse these photos to portray something negative. Watching a body burn was not something I had ever considered but there was something oddly serene and peaceful about it. 

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Stacks of firewood prepared for cremations (on average it takes 250kg of wood to cremate a body)

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A body wrapped in silks and flowers awaiting cremation

The hardest part (for me) about being in Varanasi was trying to comprehend how people who consider this land and water as sacred and holy could simultaneously destroy it. In many places I have traveled to it’s easily argued that foreign tourists are ‘ruining the land;’ but in Varanasi, there are very few foreigners compared to the large numbers of locals and devout Hindu pilgrims from across India. And many of those devotees that travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers to Varanasi haphazardly toss their rubbish on the streets and in the river. Whereas the few foreigners walk around awkwardly trying to find a garbage can for their litter while people look at them like they’re crazy for carrying around trash – and you can completely forget about recycling. On top of that, people urinate everywhere and anywhere and that’s not even touching on the amount of pollution created from burning thousands of kilograms of wood every day. I realize much of the pollution in the Ganges comes from the factories and industries upstream but those too are being worked at and run by Hindus who consider the river sacred. I had no desire to spend anymore time in Varanasi as I couldn’t bare to watch as people around me showed such little respect for the land and water they consider so holy.

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The holy Ganges River

We spent the remainder of the day and the following day in a fairly westernized coffee shop working on our blog and hiding in our guesthouse. Except for dinner where we returned each night to “Cozy Corner” a restaurant we found a few blocks away from us with excellent tasting Indian food. We paid an extra fee to have our room until the evening when our train departed and hid from the smells and chaos outside in the sanctuary of our room.. which was as much of a sanctuary as you can except for $8 CAD/night. 

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Delicious Indian food

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Our room

In the evening we arrived at the train station which was absolutely packed with people camping out there. I couldn’t tell if they were waiting for a train, possibly wait-listed for the train (they sell out) or just living there. One thing that made me smile was watching people get onto the escalator. From what I could sense, many of the people had never seen the moving stairs and were truly afraid or uneasy to step foot on them. There was quite a wait to get on as people eyed them curiously. I also found it interesting to note how few Caucasian people were at the train station. I always considered Varanasi a fairly large tourist destination, and while it is, I never considered that many of the ‘tourists’ are from other parts of India. 

Trains in India

India has the fourth longest train network in the world (behind the USA, China and Russia) with more than 65,000km of operating tracks. Over eight billion passengers and 1 million tonnes of freight were transported in 2013. At any given time across the country, thousands of people are camped out at train stations waiting to see if their wait-listed ticket has turned into confirmed seat or waiting for a train that’s hours late. And Indian trains are also famously delayed – not by minutes, but hours. From what I’ve read trains are delayed by everything from cyclones to high ranking officials booked on the train arriving late to mechanical/electrical problems, loading problems in the stations, local troubles in the stations, track problems, etc. etc. Given the subcontinental size of India and the great distance trains travel there is almost unquestionably weather problems somewhere in the country. To compound the problem, the majority of tracks in India are just double line meaning if one train on the track is delayed than it will backup all the trains behind it. Stations have priority ranking for the trains and it’s not always first-come, first-serve.

The entire network is state-owned by India Railways and has been almost fully computerized since 1995. The Indian train website is updated to the minute with train times and delays and the arrival/departure platforms are posted beforehand. They even have a twitter account that tweets info every few seconds about trains across the country. If you’ve reserved a berth or seat in the highest class on the train your seat number is posted four hours before departure, online and at the station. Anyone with a network connection on the train can track where you are and when you’ll arrive. Given everything I’d heard from travellers about not being able to purchase tickets themselves (and getting massively ripped off purchasing through a hotel or agent), having no idea what platform to go to or where their seat is or when they arrive or even depart I was shocked to find the system so easy to use and so well maintained. In many ways it’s a better managed system than anywhere in Europe and unlike many countries we’ve been to – you don’t even need to print your ticket (just show the e-ticket on your smartphone). Foreign tourists are also notoriously tricked by “officials” at the train station who say the train has been cancelled and then lead the naive passenger to another ticket booth (making them miss their train). I have little pity for any of these people: you’re in India, everyone wants something from you, be smart and check information for yourself – especially when it’s so widely available. And if you don’t have a data plan on your phone, every hotel, restaurant and coffee shop has WiFi… so no excuses! 

The only some-what complicated part of train travel in India is purchasing tickets online. Trains book up fast, often weeks or months in advance; there are over 1.3 billion people in India: that’s a lot of people and it’s not to surprising trains (and planes) fill up. There are supposedly a certain number of reserved seats on every train as part of a ‘tourist quota’ which you can book last minute from a travel agent, but I am not an expert here. You can also be wait-listed for a train and given enough people cancel (tons do) then you’ll be assigned a seat. To book tickets online, you need to use a third-party site called ClearTrip which accepts foreign credit cards. The only complicated part about booking your tickets is getting the account set up – The Man in Seat 61 has an awesome step-by-step guide to follow here. And give yourself a couple days to activate the account, nothing is fast.

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To be honest, I was quite apprehensive about our first train ride. Not only was it an overnight train but there were no available trains with an AC1 class car (the highest) so we booked in AC2. This is still the second highest class  and some travellers take lower classes to save money – some of the lower classes are incredibly cheap. But, as with many things in life, you get what you pay for.

We lucked out and our train originated from Varanasi meaning it wasn’t delayed (we checked beforehand online). We arrived at the station already knowing what platform to go to (although it was also posted on a giant board) and found our train already filling up with passengers an hour before the scheduled departure. We walked passed dozens of carts crammed full of people with only open slots for a window. Once inside our cart, we found our seats easily; we had an upper and lower bunk together. Our train left on time, and to my delight about 20 minutes after the train departed someone came around and gave us two clean sheets and a face towel (which we used as pillow covers). There’s also a warm blanket provided but it didn’t look like it had ever been washed so I kept it aside.

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Shortly after the train departed, it was lights out and everyone was going to sleep. After an hour or so of reading I packed up my purse (which I kept next to me – our luggage’s were locked together underneath our bunks) and went to sleep. I was awakened a couple times at large stations when hoards of people boarded but overall it was a great sleep. Sometime around 5 AM my alarm woke me up but the GPS on my phone showed me we were nowhere near our station. I asked someone across from me who clearly had a data plan on his phone and he informed me that the train was delayed about three hours. So, we set another alarm for three hours later and got some more sleep. By the time we arrived we were about five hours late but we really weren’t bothered as at least in the train we had a bed to lie down on and our hotel check-in wasn’t until noon anyways! 

Overall, we were worried for nothing and it turned out to be one of our best overnight journeys yet anywhere in the world.

Check out more photos on Flickr

How did we get there: Flight: Dubai-Varanasi via Delhi (Air India)
Transport cost: $255 CAD per person
Recommended nights: 2 nights

Accommodation: Private Room/Shared Bathroom (Kedar Guesthouse) at $8.80 CAD per night
Average Cost per day: $40 CAD/day for two people

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3 thoughts on “Varanasi: The Holy City of India

  1. John Tak says:

    Enjoying your posts from afar and in this case not feeling so jealous that mine is not a first-hand experience.

    John T

  2. Anna Jean Mallinson says:

    Kyra, this is fascinating! Thanks for sharing you impressions and your struggle to come to terms with the drastic contradictions in Varanasi.. I’m, glad your leaving by train was son the whole an agreeable experience. I think the British built the core of the rail network in India — one of the good things, along with their legal system, that they left in India. Being in a place like Varanasi, one would long to change it, to harmonize it, but that’s not possible. The contradictions seem so glaring but not to people who have lived with them forever .

  3. Dave Mallinson says:

    I love the photos for this Blog entry, they truly conjure the feelings and some of the sensory overload – thank god not the smells.

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