Death In Varanasi



People come to Varanasi from all over India to die. Well, if they’re Hindu, old and on the point of dying, they do. Apparently, it’s an auspicious place to leave this world, as it guarantees instant moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death. Anyone who’s been caught in Delhi traffic or on an Indian train which can be delayed by more hours than the actual journey time will crave for similar liberation. But for the rest of us, Varanasi still offers plenty of sights and things to do.

Aurangzeb’s mosque dominates the northern ghats

The city is situated on the Ganges and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, dating from the same era as Babylon. Most of the buildings are only a few centuries old, however, and are in a bad state of repair. The focus of the city and the place which draws locals and tourists alike are the ghats, or steps down to the river. They stretch for miles and provide a welcome respite from the traffic congestion of the town centre, although you’ll still have to have your wits about you to avoid the cows and buffaloes and their droppings.

Laundry day

I spent three days just wandering up and down the ghats and it’s a great place to people watch. It’s like the Times Square or Copacabana Beach of Varanasi. The predominant activity is bathing, a holy ritual for Hindus, but given the appalling pollution of the waters you’ll never see foreigners taking the plunge. There are all sorts of extravagant claims about the Ganges’ ability to kill germs and even cholera, but I wasn’t about to put them to the test.

Ritual bathing

Laundry is washed here and hung out to dry. Sadhus or holy men meditate and beg. Others practise yoga and some read. Country people bring their buffaloes to be washed. Children play cricket. Tourists are routinely fleeced. The biggest rip off is boat charges, but some real hard bargaining can get the price down. Going out on a rowboat at dawn or dusk is a wonderful calming experience. You’re away from even the cows and the touts and the views back onto the ghats are spectacular, offering a perspective you can’t get from just walking along them.

Sitting on the ghats
A low temple you can only see from a boat

But the strangest sight of all are the so-called burning ghats, where bodies are cremated on the edge of the river every day. It’s big business and all very public. The biggest is the Manikarnika Ghat. Huge piles of wood are stocked nearby, waiting to be weighed out on giant scales. Bodies are carried on stretchers through the narrow medieval lanes down to the cremation sites. The heat is quite intense, but there didn’t seem to be much visible grieving. 

Cremation at Manikarnika ghat

In the evening there is the famous Ganga aarti, an evening worship on Dashashwamedh Ghat, where young priests swing lots of fire around and onlookers chant, sing and ring bells. It’s quite fascinating, but also very touristy, with the usual attendant touts. 

Ganga aarti
Ganga aarti

Varanasi is a major stop on the tourist circuit and has good hotels and guest houses along with great restaurants. However, there’s also a great deal of hassle and touts swarm around, but it’s an unmissable place. It’s India at its most intense, exotic, colourful and bewildering. 

Hanging out on the ghats

All the world’s a stage – street life in the cities of Lucknow and Allahabad

Cycle rickshaws, Allahabad

Wandering the streets of Indian cities you’ll encounter some of the most astonishing street theatre anywhere in the world. It seems that life is lived on the streets, business is conducted and, for many, it’s simply the place to sit back or lie down and watch the world go by over a cup of chai. It’s noisy and chaotic, enervating and exhilarating, but one thing is certain – it’s never boring. There may be historical monuments and museums to visit, but it’s invariably the streets that hold the most fascination. 

Baker’s, Lucknow

Surprisingly, shops and businesses don’t open till around 10am, so exploring before then guarantees you’ll beat the crowds and heat. By midday, however, you’ll be plunged into the madness and mayhem, as every conceivable type of transport battles for a place on the busy streets along with cows, goats and stray dogs.

Fruit vendor, Allahabad

The market areas, bazaars and chowks, are particularly intense. Street vendors selling fruit and vegetables push their carts through the throngs. Beggars beg, the poor perform their ablutions under outdoor taps and many relieve themselves in public. Barbers cut hair in the open air. Men type affidavits on old-fashioned typewriters in front of the law courts.

Marigolds, Lucknow

On my first day in Lucknow I visited the Residence, where in 1857 many British were under siege for five months during an uprising against the Raj. It’s left pretty much as it was and you can still see the bullet and canon holes in the walls. 

The Residence, Lucknow

The next day I woke not only to the horrors of a Trump victory in the USA, but to the news that all bank notes of 500 rupees and over have been made worthless. The government is trying to clamp down on the black economy and forged currency, but the banks are struggling to exchange everyone’s money and the ATMs have enormous queues.

Bank queue, Allahabad

Lucknow has a rich Mughal history and the tourist office runs a great City Heritage walk through the narrow streets of the Muslim area. There are also some imposing Mughal buildings in the area. Meat is common here, unlike many cities in India. I even found buffalo kebabs. They were slightly disappointing, though. I was looking forward to something really chewy and meaty, but they were more like patties. They were created by royal chefs so that the toothless nawabs could still eat meat without having to chew!

Kebabs fried outside the restaurant

After a few days I moved on to Allahabad, a big city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but relatively off the tourist trail. It’s a big Hindu destination, however, as it lies on the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges, two of the holiest cities in India. I have already been to the sources of these two great rivers in the high Himalayas, so I was intrigued to join a boatload of shaven-headed pilgrims rowing out to to Sangam.

Preparing offerings at Sangam

My bargaining skills have recently been honed after being ripped off too many times and I managed to get the boatman down from 250 to 50 rupees. Learning a few numbers in Hindi also seems to help. The locals were there to float offerings of marigolds and candles and to take a dip. Given the pollution of the waters, I was happy just to watch.

All saints cathedral, Allahabad

Allahabad also has some attractive monuments. There are British built buildings, including  All Saints Cathedral, which almost transports you back to England, until an auto rickshaw whizzes past. There is an atmospheric park containing Mughal tombs, one of which belongs to Khasru, who rebelled against his father, Jehangir. If he hadn’t been defeated, he might have become emperor instead of his brother, Shah Jahan, who went on to build the Taj Mahal.

Khasru Bagh, Allahabad

Negotiating the streets is not for the faint-hearted. There are times when I find it almost unbearable, but it’s an incredible experience. You are immersed in the pulsating vibrancy of life and it’s full of extremes. It’s often said that you either love India or hate it, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The poverty, traffic, noise, hassle and rubbish can be overwhelming, but it’s intoxicating and hugely rewarding. There’s nowhere quite like it.

Cows and a woman sift through piles of rotting rubbish in Lucknow

Gurus, traffic jams and apple pie in Rishikesh-on-the-Ganges

Laxman Jhula bridge

When the Beatles rocked up in Rishikesh in 1968, Ringo Starr said he thought it was just like Butlin’s. I’d say it’s more like Disneyland, but foreign tourists come here in search of gurus and spiritual enlightenment, rather than fast food and Mickey Mouse. Indian visitors also flock here because it’s the place where the Ganges emerges from the mountains, although the true spot where it enters the plains lies a little further downstream at Haridwar. 

The ghats

Both towns represent the worst of Indian city life, congested roads and piles of rubbish. As a pedestrian you have to brave yourself against the onslaught of cars, lorries, buses, rickshaws and cows. Drivers use their horn more than the gears or brakes, many of them instead of. It’s an enervating experience just walking from A to B. No wonder yoga and Ayurvedic massages are all the rage here. There’s so much stress to get rid of.

Pilgrim by the Ganges

I was lucky, though, as I stayed in a guesthouse in High Bank, a quiet pedestrian enclave above the chaos which surrounds the two suspension bridges spanning the Ganges. I guess if you’re in Rishikesh to do something like a yoga course, you’d probably get more out of the place, but I didn’t think it was worth it just for a few days and I had no interest in spirituality or “finding myself”. But there’s nothing of historical or architectural significance here and so for me there was little to keep me occupied.

Bathing at the ghats in Haridwar

For Indians it does have a religious significance and there are ceremonies down by the ghats (steps) to the river every night. Plastic bottles are on sale so people can scoop up the holy water to take home with them, although one man told me you can buy bottled Ganges water in Delhi. Kids pester you to buy flowers and candles for offerings to the river. The idea is you put them in a little boat and set it adrift down the river. I saw several Westerners pretending to be Hindus and making offerings. Religion and soul-searching are big business here.

Sunset on the Ganges

In the end I have to admit it wasn’t my kind of thing. It’s probably more due to my cynicism than anything else, but I’m just not interested in places whose existence is built entirely on tourism. On a more positive note, there are some good restaurants offering a change from the usual Indian fare and great bakeries with apple pie. You can escape the crowds and traffic by walking out of town north from Laxman Jhula bridge and follow the river up the beautiful valley. As a place to relax and eat well after a few weeks roughing it in the mountains, it did the trick for me, but I was anxious to move on to somewhere more real. 

How I got attacked by a giant killer chicken trekking in Uttarakhand

At the top of the Darwa Pass, Dodi Tal trek

Ok, so let’s get the chicken thing out of the way first. I’ve never resorted to clickbait before, but being bitten by a chicken wasn’t what I was expecting as I was hiking in northern India. Usually when walking in remote areas I’m apprehensive only about snakes or wild dogs, so when I saw a few chickens in my path, I assumed they would simply scatter like they do in villages. But these were wild chickens, and one particularly bossy rooster wasn’t moving out of my way without a fight. He squawked, fluttered his wings and pecked me on the leg. 

Darwa Pass

It was the end of the first day on the Dodi Tal trek in Uttarakhand. I’d spent a few days in Delhi which is a hard city to love. I visited some wonderful Mughal tombs and other monuments, but the traffic chaos, filth and noise are uninspiring. I was happy to flee to the mountains again, this time in Uttarkashi, the gateway to Gangotri, the source of the mighty (and, to Hindus, holy) Ganges. Uttarkashi is a miserable, noisy and charmless town of the sort you find all over India, but the two day trek up to the source is fabulous. I caught a cramped shared jeep up to Gangotri, where there is a temple, and I stayed the night in a pleasant guesthouse with a room overlooking the river Bhagirathi which becomes the Ganges a little further downstream. 

Pilgrim making offerings in Gangotri

The next day at a bitterly cold dawn I set off up the mountain path for the six hour hike to the small settlement of Bhojbasa. After a cold night in a cell-like room in an ashram I set off early again to reach Gaumukh, the point where water gushes out from a rock and eventually becomes the Ganges. Sadly, the glacier which only ten years ago hung over the rock, has retreated almost out of sight. It was a hard scramble over boulders to reach the top, but because of the difficulty of access there were fewer people than I expected. You are no longer allowed to walk down below to the actual source. 

Gaumukh, the Source of the Ganges

The way back to Gangotri was long and exhausting and I spent ten hours walking that day. The path is quite dangerous and in places has eroded away. The steep drops to the valley below were vertigo-inducing. Gangotri is actually the second stage of the Char Dam, the so-called four seats, which attract pilgrims from all over India. It was fun to see some of them taking pictures of ice by the river, something they’d obviously never seen before. 

The path up the Bhagirathi valley

The first of the Char Dam is Yamunotri, the source of the river Yamuna, which runs down to Delhi. You can take a bus there, but you can also trek. I organised this through an agency in Uttarkashi and I set off with a guide and two porters. The first day was easy, despite being attacked by a chicken, and we camped a few kilometres beyond the village of Agoda in a place called Bebra.

Dodi Tal

On day two we followed a beautiful mountain path up the valley to Dodi Tal, a small lake with a temple dedicated to Ganesh. I was invited in at dusk by the porters to watch the evening aarti, or ceremony. Day three was the hardest and longest, as it involved crossing the high Darwa Pass, but the views of snow-capped mountains more than compensated. We camped at Shima, the best site I’ve ever seen. It was also the coldest night in a tent I’ve ever experienced and the following morning the tent and ground were covered with a thick layer of frost. The last day was tough and the least interesting as it was mainly just a long descent, in places very slippery with ice. 

Campsite at Shima

My last day in the mountains was unfortunately a disappointment. I followed the pilgrim trail from the scrappy village of Janki Chatti up 5 kilometres to the temple at Yamunotri, where the Yamuna river is formed from water falling down from a high glacier. It’s undeniably impressive, but sadly ruined, like so many places in India, by the extraordinary amount of litter and rubbish strewn everywhere.

Rubbish on the bank of the Yamuna

Indians come from all over the country and the rich hire horses or are carried up on litters, while the poorer people walk. It’s a great spiritual quest for them, but it’s sad to see that so many of them have virtually no regard or respect for the environment. Plastic wrappers, bottles and paper line the route and river bank. It was also the last day of the season before the Char Dam sites close for the winter and the villages looked forlorn and slightly depressing, but maybe it’s better in peak season.

With a brief excursion to Punjab and Delhi I’ve spent most of the past three months in the Himalayas which I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m ready to leave the cold behind now. Over the next month I’ll be pretty much following the course of the Ganges across the hot plains as it winds its way to Kolkata in West Bengal. My first stop will be Rishikesh, made famous in the 1960s when the Beatles turned up there in search of spiritual enlightenment. As for me, I’ll just be happy to be warm again.