I have always been intrigued about Varanasi and I knew that it was a must-see destination while in India. Home of the holy Ganges River, Hindu pilgrims come here to bathe in the holy waters as well as perform morning and evening rituals to honor it. It is also THE place in India where Hindus go to die. Being cremated on the banks of the Ganges River is a huge honor, and elderly people will traverse from all over India just to die in Varanasi so they can be cremated there. An estimated 25,000 bodies are burned here every year. During my four days here I saw no less than 20 bodies either being carried to the river to be blessed or burning in a big bonfire on the edge of the river.
There is not much to Varanasi other than the Ganges River and the over 80 ghats that line the river. Ghats are flights of stairs situated on the riverbank that provide access to the river for bathing and other activities. Each ghat has its own specific purpose. The ghats are used for religious ceremonies, bathing, washing clothes, and two are designated “burning ghats” where cremation takes place. Yoga classes, meditation, and prayer also occur along the banks of the river and people are also known to frequent the ghats informally to pay their respects to the river. All of the action takes places during the sunrise and sunset hours, as during the middle of the day the temperatures are too hot.
I spent every sunrise and sunset along the riverbanks during my duration in Varanasi and never once was bored. Every time I stumbled across something unique or different, and it is one of the best places to people watch. The holy cows, dogs, goats, and cats also frequent the ghats, sometimes getting into trouble with one another. The ghats stretch over the course of 2 kilometers on the western side of the Ganges River. The east side is completely bare of buildings or any sign of civilization. I found that it helped to preserve the religious and ethereal atmosphere that permeates through the city.
Sadhus could also be found living near the Ganges. Sadhus are devout Hindus who have chosen to live their lives on the edges of society in order to focus on their own spiritual practices. They renounce all physical possessions and clothing and usually have long white beards and adorn themselves with body paint. Unfortunately there are also people that masquerade as sadhus in order to earn money for posing for photos. Authentic sadhus would not accept money, as money represents the society that they are trying to avoid.
Although a couple of people at my hostel had expressed interest about taking a dip in the Ganges River, that was one thing that I would not do. After seeing the things that were dumped into the river-dead bodies, human waste, trash, animal feces etc, I had no desire to voluntarily expose my body to the aforementioned items and whatever else could be floating around in there. Definitely not my cup of tea!
Another aspect of Varanasi that I greatly enjoyed were the winding, narrow alleyways that were present near the ghats. Even though Varanasi is a city of over a million people, it is easy to forget that as one gets purposefully lost in the maze of small shops and cafes lining the cobblestone streets. Too narrow for cars, the only traffic other than pedestrians are motorbikes and the occasional passing cow. In these alleyways is a delicious lassi shop that has been around for ages, the grandson of the original founder is the current owner. Lassis are a sweet drink that is a mix between yoghurt and a millkshake. Served in terracotta cups, available in a wide range of flavors and costing only a dollar, what’s not to love?
Every evening at 6:30 pm, hundreds of Hindus and curious tourists flock to Dasaswamedh Ghat to watch the evening aarti ceremony. Aarti is a ceremony performed in the evening in which candles soaked in ghee (type of butter) are offered to the gods. This is performed in all temples in the evening, but what better place to watch it than on the banks of the Varanasi, one of the most revered places in India? During this hour long ceremony, music is played and there is much chanting and ceremonial waving of incense. While not of the Hindu faith, I can appreciate the ceremony for what it is worth and is definitely worth checking out for those curious on gaining more insight into Hinduism.
Classical Music Concerts
Two of the evenings I went to Indian classical music concerts, where music was played on the Indian sitar (similar to a guitar), and the tabla (similar to drums), a melodious combination. Both the concerts at the International Music Center Ashram (150 rupees) and Brown Bread Bakery (free) were held in small intimate environments, with not more than 10 other guests, adding to the ambiance. I find the music from the sitar to be very calming and soothing to listen to, and even though I was not familiar with the sitar by sight, I’ve definitely heard it played before.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Varanasi other than the sunrises, were the mornings I spent at the wrestling ahkara, located a bit inland of Tulsi Ghat. Wrestling akharas are where Indians practice the sport of Kushti (traditional mud wrestling), and can be found throughout the cities of India. Teenagers and men congregate here in the mornings to get some exercise in before the day begins, similar to an exercise class in the Western world. The akhara consisted of a square dirt pit covered by a pavilion and several small dumbbells and various other apparati that the Indians use to exercise. I had heard about it from one of the workers in the hostel, but it was a bit difficult to find, tucked away behind a temple. A few Germans accompanied me in the search for the wrestling akhara after we did a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. At the akhara we saw Paul, a Canadian, who was also from our hostel. After sitting and observing the exercises and wrestling practice going on, we were invited to participate by one of the older men, who seemed to be in charge. He introduced himself as Sirium (I probably spelled this wrong). He, along with all the other Indians, was wearing only a cloth that was wrapped around his waist in a speedo-like fashion, covering the bare minimum.
He led us over to the lollipop-shaped weight and had Kunayah (also probably spelled wrong), another man demonstrate how to do it, lifting it behind his back and swinging it from side to side. It looked easy enough, so I decided to give it a try. It was much harder than it looked, and I was unable to swing it from behind my back. The others tried it as well, with similar results. One of the younger Indians then simply picked it up and nonchalantly performed the exercise, proving that it was more about leverage and momentum than brute strength.
Other exercises included lifting a 30kg donut from the ground above our heads, similar to an Olympic style motion. While difficult, I was more familiar to this motion and was able to do it after a few tries. There also were two parallel bars that were utilized for a variety of strength and balancing exercises as well as a heavy donut that was supposed to go about one’s neck. It definitely was a good and different workout than I was familiar to. Around 8am, the locals began to leave, headed to their various jobs and responsibilities for the day. Sirium told us to come by 6:30am, and we agreed to do so.
Paul and I returned the next day and were able to jump right into the exercises with the other Indians. Today a few of the teenagers were practicing wrestling while Sirium oversaw and gave them pointers. When they were finished, Paul asked if he could give it a try and grappled with an Indian man for a bit, the latter, more experienced, and taking it a little easy on Paul, while I sat back and snapped a few photos.
Paul left later that evening so I returned alone the following day, this time the Indians were much accustomed to see me and Sirium and Kunayah greeted me with big smiles. I had another enjoyable experience working out and joking along with the other attendees at the akhara. Experiences like this, having genuine interaction with the local people are some of the most priceless in my opinion. It is here when one can truly get a glimpse into the life and culture of the people that live there and renew my spirit and zest for travel and adventure.
Do: Sunrise boat ride to experience the Ganges River coming alive
Eat: Vaatika Cafe for a pizza when you want a break from Indian food
Eat: Aum’s Cafe for the most delicious egg-less pancakes I’ve ever had
Visit: The wrestling ahkara near Tulsi Ghat
Listen: To a Indian Classical Music concert
Watch: Aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh
Stay: Stops Hostel, friendly and informative staff and lots of other travelers!
Drink: Blue Lassi for some of the most delicious lassis in all of India