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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.