Varanasi is known as the 'City of Temples' but it is much more than just a religious centre there is a bustling city of 2.1 million people who call this home. We wanted to explore the streets of Varanasi, including a visit to the Weavers' District to silk cloth being manufactured
Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Benaras, this holy city is located in the southeastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It rests on the left bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges) and is one of the seven sacred spots for Hindus. Every devout Hindu wish to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the Ghats of the Ganga (the famous steps leading down to the water), walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and die here in old age. Many tourists come to Varanasi, but also many avoid it due to its reputation for being dirty and packed with people (all of which is true), preferring to stick to the golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). But it was one of the places I wanted to include on the tour precisely due to the reasons people miss coming – this is real India!
Getting from the airport
We made an early start to get to the airport for our flight from Delhi to Varanasi. The sun was yet to rise, and luckily, so had many of the residents of Delhi, making our journey to the airport less frenetic than the way in. The security was tight getting into the terminal building, but we were soon checked in, only to find our flight had been delayed (a common occurrence in India).
The flight was short, and we were soon in our car on the way to our hotel. The airport is around 35km from the centre of the city and the first part of the journey was relatively calm. They are in the process of constructing a new road from the city to the airport, which will be great when it is finished, but for now, it was a cause for chaos (a taste of what was to come). Where buildings had been in the path of the road, they had simply knocked down the part that was in the way, leaving the rest of the building intact with people living in whatever had been left behind.
Amazing! As we had previously discovered there is no lane discipline in India, so when parts of the road ran out vehicles simply crossed to the other side and navigated their way through the oncoming traffic, using their horns to announce their presence. The basic rule seems to be if something bigger than you are coming in your direction you need to get out of the way. All the lorries carried a painted sign – “Blow Horn, Please!”
By the time we reached the city the traffic in Varanasi was in full flow. We have never seen anything like it, in fact, it is impossible to describe the total madness of experiencing it for yourself. Somehow everything worked, and we reached our point of departure from the car. The last quarter of a mile to our hotel, Suryauday Haveli, had to be traversed on foot. Luckily, our tour guide had called forward and some porters were on hand to carry our bags.
We had a warm welcome waiting for us. The service in hotels and restaurants (at least the ones we went to) was amazing; sometimes almost too much. For the first night, we were given a suite, and after dropping our bags in the room we headed to the roof terrace. The Suryauday Haveli overlooks the river Ganges, and we had a fabulous viewpoint to observe everything going on around us, both on and off the river. Below us was a Ghat, a series of steps that ran down to a small beach, with groups of people milling around. A small herd of water buffalo also seemed to live there, and occasionally got it in their mind to chase a person. The Ganges often floods during the monsoon season filling up the whole river basin (and parts of Varanasi), this being December the width of the river was more modest, but nonetheless inspiring due to its iconic status. We ordered some lunch and when it arrived we had to sit on guard to protect it from the local, marauding monkeys. We needn’t have worried too much, because as soon as they got too close a member of the hotel staff appeared from nowhere to chase them off with a big stick.
We decided to eat most of our meals at the hotel and the food was pretty good. One of the nights we got back late so there was nothing else left for us to do except eat another tasty Indian meal. We dined in the hotel courtyard where the hotel had organized a group of musicians to play traditional Indian music. It was good, apart from the instrument that occasionally made the sound of a distressed mosquito. Karen, as is her wont, went up to the band members to find out more about their craft and ended up singing some scales with them. Our waiter noticed Karen’s interest and said he could get hold of CDs of their music, we tried to ignore his offer and finished our meal and headed off to our room.
The next night after we returned to our hotel room to get ready for dinner. As we prepared there was a knock on the door. It was the creepy waiter from the night before, who invited himself in and discretely pulled out some CDs from the musicians who played in the evenings at the hotel. Being British we were too polite to tell him to piss off, so we ended up with some more souvenirs of our trip … in this case not ones we wanted. Appearing soon in your local charity store – “The Musical Delights of Varanasi!”
One night as we walked back to the hotel along the river 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!
The Amritara Suryauday Haveli was a great place to be based to explore the ghats along the Ganges and also the main town of Varanasi. Everything was pretty much within easy walking distance.