Fog, holy men and lassi – Exploring the mysteries of Varanasi
When we rose this morning and looked out of the window all we could see was a thick blanket of fog; our view of the Ganges, only a hundred feet or so away, had disappeared overnight. The plan for the morning was another boat ride on the Ganges to view the morning rituals of the devotees and pilgrims who come down daily to the river to wash in the holy waters. The prospect for this did not look great! So, after breakfast, we were surprised to see our tour guide.
We had thought the trip might get cancelled. Anyway, we headed down the river, where Karen managed to find a very slimy patch (probably a patty from a passing water buffalo moistened by the mist) to slip in and crash to the ground. It was not a great day for being wet and stinky on a boat (although the general smelly atmosphere would have covered the evidence of the fall) – so she popped back the room to change. Take 2! We went down to the dock again, being careful this time where we were treading, and boarded our little rowing boat. Casting off down the river, we travelled close to the shore as the fog still persisted! Through the gloom, we could just make out people on the Ghats bathing in the water. Although the weather was not ideal it certainly added to the atmospheric drama of the experience. After we had gone half a mile or so, the guide ordered our oarsman to take us ashore, so we continue the rest of the tour on foot.
We climbed up the steps of a Ghat (there were a lot of them) and continued through a narrow, covered passageway, passing by several holy men sitting cross-legged and obviously meditating, and then out on to the narrow streets. A short time later we found ourselves in the same bazaar area we had visited the night before, which was already bustling with people. Our guide pointed out the many heavily armed soldiers hanging around the narrow streets; these are now a constant presence due to the terror attacks a few years back. The reason we were here was to see the mosque and the golden temple (a Hindu temple), which are hard to see in this district, where the buildings are densely packed. What is amazing is that Hindus and Muslims coexist as neighbours in such close quarters! We could have waited for hours in the lines to get into the compounds for these temples, and on this dismal day, it was hard to say how much we would actually see. Instead, our guide took us into a small shop selling various religious items, where we were offered a nice cup of hot masala chai tea. Subtly, one at a time, the owner took us to the back of the store and asked us to climb on a ramshackle box and look out of a small window. From here you could see both the mosque and the golden temple, but as we suspected there was not much to see on this foggy day. After the excitement of this experience (note the sarcasm) we were taken to a crossroad in the alleys, where the guide pointed out a small shop called Blue Lassi, which apparently is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. Lassi is a dessert dish (but is also great for breakfast) that is made from blending yoghurt, water and spices. To make it all the yummier, you can add in fruit. Whilst we had been discouraged from eating street food our guide assured us it was safe to eat, so we ordered a couple of different flavours and sat down and waited. The lassi was being prepared by a sallow looking gentleman in a bowl on the side of the street. It didn’t feel very hygienic – but when in Rome! As we waited we got talking to a group of three young western looking people, who from their raggedy appearance had obviously been travelling from some time, which made it difficult to tell where they were from. As it turned out they were from Portland, Oregon and knew Bend fairly well – it is a small world, but I will not harp on too long about this as it gets Karen going on her deep beliefs in the six degrees of freedom mumbo-jumbo. Soon our lassi was ready, and it was delicious. This was just the beginning of our love affair with lassi during our stay in India!
Nourished, we headed back to our hotel. The fog had still not lifted and our next scheduled tour was a photographic tour of Varanasi, which seemed a bit pointless as there was not much sign of an improvement in the weather. So, we decided to cancel the tour and hang out in our hotel and rest a little.
A couple of hours later, miraculously, the sun came out. We decided to go out and walk down the riverfront toward the main funeral Ghat, which was a couple of miles downriver. By the time we set off the weather was fabulous, and we got some great photographs of people washing their bed linen in the river and drying them on the steep banks of the Ghats, holy men and their disciples chewing the fat and various scenes of people and animals going about their daily business. Before long we had reached our destination. As expected there were several cremations in various stages of progress. We walked among the huge stacks of wood and little shops selling everything you need for a Hindu funeral. Among all this humanity, the animals of Varanasi carve out a little slice of life for themselves. Things don’t always work out for these creatures, and one example presented itself to us in the form of the tiniest, scrappiest little puppy we had ever seen. It had got lost from its family, but Karen came to the rescue, picking up the puppy and reuniting it with a mummy and group of puppies, who seemed to be thriving better (we assumed this was its family, if not hopefully it would be adopted!) As providence would have it we were about to rescue another lost soul, this time in the form of an elderly, well-spoken English lady from Devon. She was with her travel partner, also an elderly English lady, and seemed overwhelmed by all that was going on around her with the cremations taking place.
We did our second good deed for the day and guided them back to a place along the river they recognized and could navigate their way back to their hotel from.
We returned to the hotel for some afternoon vittles and rest, with a plan to return to see the Aarti in the evening. This time from the shore!
The walk to site to Aarti was only a short stroll from our hotel and we arrived in plenty of time to get a prime place on the steps of the Ghat. Once settled in, we spent our time people watching. Viewing the Aarti close up was a very different experience to watching from a boat on the river. This was a more intimate experience and we were able to observe more of the detail and intricacies of the ceremony. The procedural sequences were well-rehearsed, with the four priests (one who remarkably looked like Jon Snow – a.k.a Kit Harrington – from the “Game of Thrones” TV series) synchronously moving through the various phases – it was truly mesmerizing, and the forty-five minutes passed by so quickly. Afterwards, there was nothing to do except to return to our hotel and prepare for the journey to our next destination, Agra.
When we reached the top of the steps of the Ghat just below our hotel, we noticed marks on the side of the wall recording the height that floodwater had reached over the years. Amazingly, over 100 ft above our heads was the mark for the catastrophic flood of 1978. Very scary!
Lessons learnt at Varanasi:
- Never try and drive in Varanasi unless you are crazy
- Always look down while you are walking as you’ll never know what you are stepping in
- Don’t stop and talk to locals at the main tourist areas – they want to sell you something
- Don’t wash, drink or clean your teeth in the Ganges
- Cow dung and water makes a slippery hazard
- Lassi is very tasty