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Independent Travel

The Soul of India

Varanasi is a Microcosm of the Country


Varanasi's "ghats" where locals take their morning baths in the Ganges

When I was told that a trip to India would not be complete without a visit to Varanasi—that it would be gruelling yet energizing, squalid yet magnificent—I was more than intrigued. I decided to take a 32-hour detour from my planned route. Arriving bedraggled and exhausted, I hoped my friend was right.

First impressions were not good. I was ripped off by a rickshaw driver and taken to a bogus hotel. Dodging cowpats and silk sellers in narrow streets, I started to feel that this was a terrible mistake. But after the eventual discovery of my hotel and escape from the claustrophobic bazaar, I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable and tantalisingly beautiful sight of the River Ganges and the ghats (the riverside areas).

Varanasi, the sacred city of Shiva, the God of creation, is one of the holiest cities in India and one of the oldest. Every day it is estimated that 60 thousand Hindus take a dip in its holy waters, their sins washed away in the murky depths of the Ganges, perhaps the most polluted river in the world. Raw sewage flows directly into the river. Yet one sees locals nonchalantly bathing and brushing their teeth in the river water.

But Varanasi is famous for a more macabre reason. The holiness of the city brings thousands upon thousands of pilgrims here each year to die. Eager to learn more, I set out for a boat trip along the Ganges—a magical experience, and at $1 for 30 minutes, a real bargain. The city comes alive at sunrise: men and women take their morning baths in the river and say their prayers, clothes-washers start beating their soiled laundry at the water’s edge, and the riverside mansions are bathed in a glorious golden light.

At the "burning ghat," the riverside area designated for cremations, a sinister smoke envelops the air. Dead bodies are covered with cloth and carried to the water where they are submerged before being cremated. The members of the lowest caste, untouchables, are placed nearest the water; the Brahmins or priests, the highest caste, are burnt on an elevated platform far above the lower castes. The burnt ashes are then washed away into the Ganges, adding to the debris that chokes the water. The burnings take place 24/7, and at $500 for every cremation it is a very profitable business for the fortunate landowners.

Travelers in search of peace and tranquility will find joining a yoga or meditation center is an ideal way to unwind. One popular one is the Yoga Clinic and Meditation Centre (Tel: 327139); for the more serious, the Benhares Hindu University offers diplomas in yoga and Hindu philosophy. The riverside ghats themselves are a wonderful place to relax and absorb the atmosphere: a man brushing his teeth in the Ganges, a kid flying his kite, women beating their clothes on the steps, boatmen offering river trips, a man covered in soapsuds scrubbing furiously, a young man practicing a form of Indian body-building, swinging a giant stone weight from one side of his body to the other.


The author traveled from Varanasi to Badani, where she photographed this woman washing clothes.

It must be said, however, Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted. The nauseating smells and rancid sounds, as well as the music blaring out of the loudspeakers at the earliest hour of the day can seem overwhelming at times. Yet, Varanasi is a microcosm of India and missing it would be missing out on India’s soul; learning to cope with these everyday "inconveniences" is all part of the India experience. The sense of the unknown awaiting one around every corner keeps one going and wanting more and more.

Practical Matters

Transportation

Varanasi is well connected by train, bus, and air to all large cities. From Delhi it is advisable to change in Agra for a direct service to Varanasi, ten hours away. Check well in advance if traveling to the south.

Accomodations

A good place to stay is essential in Varanasi. Many bogus hotels operate, their names the same as the backpackers’ favorites. The Yogi Lodge in the old bazaar is an excellent choice (Tel: 392588, yogilodge@yahoo.com) as is the Vishnu Rest House on Panday Ghat (Tel: 450206). Typical backpackers’ pensions cost around $2 a night. In order to avoid dishonest rickshaw drivers, phone your chosen hotel upon arrival at the main train or bus station; someone will come and collect you. If that fails, tell the rickshaw driver to take you to St. George’s church at the main crossroads near the main bazaar from where you can walk to your hotel.