Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced. If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!
Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India. 3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there. And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy. Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity. Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way. That, in of itself, might be a miracle!
We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana. Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose. We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes. To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…
Walking along the river at night was especially interesting. In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings. This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists. The big seller on the banks of the Ganges: boat rides. Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question: “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees. The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…
Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful). And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked. It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner. If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area. I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary! It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging. Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.
There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats. This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents. When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads. Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired. In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way. And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well. We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras. Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.
And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem. This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.
If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see. According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures. We didn’t go into any this time around because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime. Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat. Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee. Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own. With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.
In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine. No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!
We’re home now…but don’t worry! I’m not done writing about India just yet! Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!