It has been my dream to see Varanasi for a very long time. I have read endless articles and travel books and blogs and looked at lots of pictures and documentaries and yet nothing prepared me for the assault to the senses of arriving in this town. This is a place that defies description and definition because it is full of contradictions. Whatever you say about it, good or bad, the opposite is also true. Varanasi is the beating heart and the gentle soul of Mother India.
I did a lot of research about where to stay before we came and decided that location came first, second and third, so the place to stay was right on the Ghats in the heart of the old city. Taxis, or indeed any vehicle, not even a rickshaw can squeeze up this labyrinth of dark and very narrow streets, so luggage wallahs are sent to meet your taxi and the last ten minutes of one’s journey is on foot. Sounds alright in theory but following my huge bag which is being carried swiftly, all 25 kilos of it, on the head of a skinny young boy, through streets which are the most crowded, the dirtiest, the noisiest, the filthiest, smelliest, scariest and fascinating I ever saw is something between an ordeal and an adventure!
Almost running, whilst skirting piles of rubble and sandy dirt piled up along the sides of the road, and even bigger piles of stinking garbage, trying not to trip or fall into random holes or be forced into the path of the crazy traffic, because even to attain instant liberation from samsara (the endless cycle of living and dying) which is what expiring in the holy city promises, I am not so keen to get run over, or to lose sight of little Mo Farrar who has all my worldly goods on his head!
I clung to my son as tightly as if he were three years old again but this time it was to keep ME safe and he in turn clung tenaciously to the sight of our bags bobbing and swaying precariously through the usual, but unusual, throng of bodies, white cows with humps, goats, squawking chickens, beggars, hawkers, motorbikes and scooters with multiple passengers, battered old auto rickshaws, bullock carts each drawn by two big black cows with painted horns, and the filthy buses with rows of men each framed in his grimy window and each staring with interest at the frantic white woman with yellow hair jogging through the traffic, with my rucksack bobbing on my back and clutching a pink pillow to my chest. I probably did look a tad unusual come to think of it!
The pillow is important. It goes where I go, and enables some sleep wherever and however I travel. My personal pillow and I have ended up in some strange places through the years, from army camps in Israel to tents in Peru, but I have no “schlepping” regrets and if you should feel inspired to do a breakneck tour of a third world country, staying in ashrams, guest houses and slightly dodgy hotels with the odd night of recuperative luxury, I recommend a half-size, real duck down pillow (yours doesn’t have to have a pink fluffy cover, especially if you are male!) and also a silk sleeping bag which fits into a tiny pouch and is used on the occasions when fleas, bed bugs or just pubes belonging to other people might be your bedfellows! It’s a tried and tested formula and it works! More traveller tips are available on request but a portable plug that fits any sink is jolly useful
Both are relevant to this story… But back to the crazy chase through the streets, after ten minutes of this suicidal scramble, suddenly we enter a dark, almost silent (only in comparison) maze of winding ancient alleys where cows have right of way by virtue of size and holiness, young men on scooters zoom along making everyone in their path flatten themselves against the walls and life goes on pretty much as it has for hundreds of years. We arrive at Hotel Alka for the most incredible four days I have ever experienced.
Hotels are generally not interesting enough to write about. Certainly five star ones, however luxurious they are, however many acres of marble, and snowy white bath towels they provide, don’t warrant much more than a line in any self respecting blog. Comfortable for sure, but devoid of real character and without soul and personality, and at the end, no lasting memories to bring forth a smile. But Hotel Alka won’t be forgotten!
I will long remember the truly hideous and very heavy brown and orange rug masquerading as a bedspread, the lack of a top sheet (here is where the sleeping bag earned its inclusion) and the very skinny roll of rough loo paper handed over with the room key at check in! I will long recollect the screams and shouts and thwack of balls on bats of boys playing cricket every night outside our window until midnight (only charming in retrospect!)
I will never forget the view each evening of the huge puja, prayers to the gods, on the next ghat to ours, where hundreds of people gather, bright lights illuminating a fantastic scene with flashes of fire offerings and the smell of incense drifting on the breeze, and most memorable of all, the sight of dawn breaking over the Ganges and this incredible city coming to life as people arrive at the waters edge to pray, to immerse themselves and thus absolve their sins, or just to have a bath or do the washing!
Each day in Varanasi was an adventure and it was fun too, full of human connections and profound insights. It was beautiful and terrible and sometimes shocking. It was life and death and laughter and pathos and realisations. It was everything I had dreamed of and more. I went with an open mind and an open heart and both were torn open even wider.
On our first morning we awoke before dawn to meet our boatman who ferried us down the river, to watch the most beautiful sunrise I ever witnessed, and to see the scenery and sights from this vantage point. It was cold. I wore all my travelling clothes and yet the ghats were thronged with semi-naked men, and women in their silk saris wading into the filthy water.
We floated by the ancient palaces of maharajahs, next to crumbling old slums, all in technicolor hues of orange and red and ochre, and black with the filth of thousands of years. The scenery was sublime but it was the people who were most fascinating.
Here in Varanasi there are many sadhus and aghora, a sect of holy men who cover themselves in human ash to remind them, and thus us too, of the impermanence of human life. Hindus come from all over India to immerse themselves at least once in their life in this holiest of water, in the same way that Jews go to Jerusalem, Muslims to Mecca and Buddhists to Bodhgaya! The Ganges is believed to be a form of Shiva, the ultimate God and to be cremated on its banks and for your ashes to be scattered in this water, gives you moksha, liberation from suffering the endless cycle of life and death.
All of it is beautiful and moving and fascinating and for me poignant and emotional too because it was the anniversary of my mothers death so as well as the memorial candle I brought with me to burn in my room for 24 hours, I floated a little boat with some flower heads and a little candle on the water to join the hundreds of other tiny flickering flames bobbing on the water in memory of loved ones. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable mornings of my life.
Afterwards we went out to explore the old city and find breakfast. Once again we struck gold at the German Bakery and climbed the 88 steps to the roof and ate the most sublime jam I ever tasted, made from guava and with no pectin or sugar or chemicals. The sun came out and monkeys played all around us and from our roof I watched an old man do his morning yoga practise perched on the wall of his rooftop. Of such images are precious memories made.
In my next post I will describe a day of incredible contrasts, a morning visit to Sarnath, a place of deep serenity and later we walked to the cremation ghat, an experience so powerful, so deep and profound that I think it has changed something in me.