Varanasi was not initially in our itinerary. But everyone told us that it was an incredible stop. We've heard of it as the sacred city where people come to die. We wanted to see the city we have always imagined as the "real India".
One of the oldest cities in the world
After a long and tiring journey from West India to East India, we finally arrived in Varanasi, the new name for Benares. This is where the Ganges river is located. It is also known as the city of Shiva. The god who smokes Marijuana, has a cobra as necklace and associated with a bull.
Around 60,000 people come here every day to wash themselves in the sacred water to be freed from their sins. They believe that if you die in Varanasi, you stop the cycle of reincarnation and go directly to nirvana. That's why many ill and old people come here waiting for the end...
There is not so much to "visit" here, no fort, no big temple but a unique atmosphere to feel. We spent the 3 days here walking around the ghats and the old city. The ghat is the name for the river front steps leading to the banks of the Ganges. The city has 88 ghats!
The river was high due to the monsoon season, so we couldn't walk along them. We had to re-enter the city each time. Walking around the old city was just amazing: lots of small markets, temples, cows, bulls (remember Shiva) and their poo. It is always very busy, sometimes we couldn't walk any more being stuck within the flow of people going to a temple. It is so colourful, many men wear orange clothes and women coloured saree. We also saw sadhu, they are religious people who left their families to live in the path of their god. They don’t shave, so they have long hair and beard. They don’t work and live from charity.
Wandering on the river bank
We spent so much time on the ghats. There are very different ones. Some are very quiet, you then feel like you are in a peaceful place in the countryside, but others are so crowded. We watched people making their ablutions in the Ganges. For some, it is a routine, for others that is a pilgrimage and we could feel the excitement.
The fact that the Ganges is considered as the 5th most polluted river in the world doesn't afraid them. Every day is thrown in the river waste, industrial condiment, sewers, dead bodies, animals... We shyly touched it after someone insisting because that would guaranty a lucky marriage.
A great way to see the ghats is from a boat. We booked a sunrise boat tour on Sunday. We started the tour in Assi Ghat (south) where there is a ceremony every morning followed by a yoga session. Nice atmosphere with all the people exercising before the day coming up. The hour on the boat was great. It is a very different way to see the life here.
An intense moment of our trip was definitely the visit of the cremation ghat. It works 24/7 and sometimes there are 7 bodies burning at the same time with a fire of 300 years old. The smoke can be smelt hundred meters away. Before reaching it, we had seen a family bringing a dead body to the cremation site. Dead women are wrapped in orange, men in white. After paying a very expensive amount for the wood, families light the fire on the body. The ashes will then be thrown in the Ganges (if the wood bought is not enough, the remains will be thrown as well…). We were told that ladies were not allowed on the site to avoid excess of emotion. We were also surprised by the calm of those men carrying their relative to the fire. No cries, no tears, no talk. For us, it was difficult to breath and to look at it, honestly.
We don't want to write too much. No word can actually describe the atmosphere here. It must be lived! This stop will definitely stay in the highlights of our world trip.