12.26.2015 - 12.29.2015 54 °F
Varanasi (aka Banaras aka Benares aka Kashi) is old. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Mark Twain said, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." (SOURCE: Wikipedia, so it has to be true). It is considered the holiest city in Hinduism and Hindus believe that you receive salvation if you die in Varanasi. I asked Karly to try and get me there if it's ever obvious that I'm on my last days just to make sure that I've got my bases covered. The Ganges river (aka the Ganga, not to be confused with Ganja which turns out to be a Sanskrit word) is the focus of the city. There are large family houses, temples (note: there are reportedly over 10,000 Hindu temples of various sizes throughout the narrow, winding streets of Varanasi), forts, enclaves, and other various old buildings all along the river and steps that lead down directly into river where pilgrims come to the city to bathe in the holy Ganges. These areas are called Ghats and there are 87 individually named ones in Varanasi. Outside of folks using them as their access to bathe in the Ganga, some host morning and evening Hindu ceremonies and some serve as open cremation sites, which is another tradition and ashes are then spread into the Ganges river. Quick sidenote - George Harrison (the Hindu Beatle) had his ashes spread in the Ganges river, near Varanasi. His homie Ravi Shankar is also from Varanasi.
There is a certain beauty to Varanasi, especially on the riverbank. The buildings twist and wind along the river and vary in architecture from different centuries and influences and religions. The oldest still in use buildings in the US (say they were built in the mid 18th-century or so) would be considered relatively new in Varanasi compared to most of the structures.
Also - there are animals and animal crap everywhere. Mostly cows, which are considered holy, wander the streets and poop all over like cows are known to do. In some places, people will put the cow poop up on walls to dry so it can be used for cooking fires. There are lots of stray dogs (apparently it was puppy season, so lots of litters of puppies chasing each other around), goats and monkeys. The monkeys are living large, swinging around the city and snagging whatever they can off of rooftops and terraces when people aren't looking.
We had two full days our tours with a group we found through Varanasi. It turned out to be two young local guys that take pride in showing their city to visitors. I would definitely suggest a tour guide of some sort on a trip to Varanasi. You can avoid getting too lost in the city since you can always walk down to a river ghat to get your bearings, but I don't see anyway that a tourist could navigate the streets with context and purpose. There is a morning ceremony at the Assi ghat every morning at 5am, which we attended on our first full day in Varanasi. The ceremony is very old and performed by young Brahmin (not to be confused with Brahman, which is a Hindu metaphysical concept of the highest principle that ties the universe together) males. Our understanding is that these are guys studying and training to be Hindu priests. The ceremony is pretty beautiful and not very crowded due to the early start time. After the ceremony, we hopped on a boat to travel up the river while enjoying the sunrise and Karly was attacked by birds.
We toured the northern half of the city along the river, which included several Hindu temples with a mosque thrown in every now and then. There were also several large, at one point grand homes that are now mostly occupied by squatters. We also swung by the residence and business place of an guy studying to be an Aryveta who gave us a rundown on common oils used for different common ailments and issues. Him and his family also were considered ballers due to the healthy cows kept in the center courtyard of their home.
That afternoon we took a trip out to Sarnath, which is covered in its own blog post.
The next day, we took a walking tour of the southern part of the city and took an evening sunset boat tour. This tour included going by the open cremation sites along the river. It's a bit surreal to see this is person, but there is something beautiful about the ancient practice as it seems to really give the family a chance to reflect and give their family member back to the river. The sunset boat tour included the evening ceremony as well. It was similar to the morning ceremony, but a little further up the river and much more crowded (mostly due to the fact that its right after sunset and not at 5am). There are lots of boats (a mix of tourists and pilgrims to the city) that tie up together to watch the evening ceremony.
A couple other random notes on Varanasi. We stayed at the Ganpati Guesthouse, which had a good rating on TripAdvisor and while it probably is good for Varanasi, it is a bit behind compared to normal western standards. Once in college, I was returning from spring break and had a connection in Miami. My flight was cancelled so I had to find an immediate housing solution for the night and being a broke college student I found the cheapest possible hotel in the area of the airport. It was gross, there was a note on the window in my room that warned against unlocking or opening the window due to burglaries. That hotel room in Miami was slightly worse than the room in Varanasi, although I wasn't afraid to swallow any tap water. The hotel was on the river and had a rooftop restaurant, where we ate most of our meals. We had a little tour of the Hotel Ganges View, which we would suggest to any future visitors. It is very clean and has maintained a lot of furniture and charm from an earlier time. It's also on the Assi Ghat, so the easiest possible spot to watch the morning ceremony (which is a nice at 5am).
It is pretty hard to stay clean and healthy in Varanasi. I came down with a pretty nasty cough (maybe a cold? Who knows, I did feel awful) by the time we left and Karly developed an small eye stye (that cleared up quickly after leaving). Without too many details, the city is dirty and it's generally pretty tough to get a good shower. The tap water is not clean, so you have to be careful not to get it in your mouth or on your face. It's a great place to go if you happen to love ice old showers though. Here are pics from our last morning that pretty much sum up how we felt about Varanasi at the time they were taken:
There are some beautiful parts and aspects of Varanasi. It is Hindu philosophy in practice, and it is admirable that the city has been able to maintain its traditions and convictions in a modern world bearing down on the area. At the same time, you do wonder how sustainable the city will be in its current state. What were once the prestigious homes of the monarchs and business elite are now dilapidated reminders of a more prosperous time occupied by squatters that may have legal rights to the property due to convoluted property ownership rules. Varanasi has existed and made it through more difficult obstacles, so I'm sure it will find a way to adapt once again.