We left Ranthambore on such a high – feeling happy that we got so lucky with our tiger sightings. Our journey back to Delhi was the same way we had come – by train. We knew the drill now, which was basically – follow Bablu! There is such an overflow of humanity in Indian railways stations and trains. While we waited, some locals wanted selfies with our caucasian friends – a common occurrence in our travels here. There were a few polite locals who said “it’s all right you can be in the photo also”. I do not need to tell you how amused we were at all of this attention they were getting. They were all good sports and took it in their stride.
The carriages may not be new and sparkling but they do make the attempt to keep it clean. As the cleaner comes through we lift our legs off the floor (told you we knew the drill) he pours some disinfectant on the floor and swiftly mops the centre of the floor twice and voila! Another two sprays on the curtains (not the window mind you) and off he leaves satisfied that he has ‘cleaned’ the cabin. We were left looking out of a grimy window. Bablu was in another carriage and the 5 of us were together in one cabin – we chatted, we laughed, we ate, we slept, we sleep-talked, we kept companionable silences for the 5 or so hours it took.
We geared our minds for our next destination: Varanasi; also known as Benaras or Kashi. I grew up knowing it as ’Kashi’ – some of my relatives have made the journey to immerse the ashes of departed family members. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world – archaeological evidence suggests that a settlement existed there as early as the 12th century BCE. A place of pilgrimage along the the holy Ganges, where Hindus believe that if you immerse yourself you will be cleansed and your sins absolved. We were looking forward to experiencing this spiritual heart of India.
We took a flight the next morning, checked into our hotel, had a bit of a rest and in the evening set off toward the Ganges. We were dropped of at a certain point and then cycle rickshaws were arranged. And we thought tigers were dangerous?? We held on for dear life as our rickshaw wallah expertly avoided many a collision as lorries and cars hurtled towards us and motorbikes weaved in and out and every manner of life – men, women, children, cows, goats, dogs and birds made their way through the streets to the almighty din of constant hooting of airhorns no less! We held on and once we ‘settled’, whipped out our cameras and clicked away. Street photography heaven!
Kids dancing and having a good time on the streets (video courtesy Penny Robartes)
We were then dropped off and walked the rest of the way to the ghats (the steps leading down to the sacred Ganges, also known as the Ganga). As we walked down, a strong and sweet smell pervaded the air and just off to the side were a few sadhus smoking cannabis. I suppose the hallucinogenic effect gets them closer to God? To each his own.
Every evening, an elaborate ceremony is conducted on the steps of Dasaswamedh Ghat, which is the main ghat where hundreds of visitors sit on the stairs, rooftops and on moored boats waiting for the evening aarti to begin.
The river bank was filling up fast as we found a good spot for the evening aarti. Aarti is the offering of light which is performed to dispel darkness and as an offering to the deity. We perform aartis in our homes and I was not expecting a full scale performance (it is the only way to describe it) that evening. It was truly a spectacle to behold. Young priests in resplendent clothes performed a synchronised offering as mantras were chanted.
Hinduism is steeped in symbolism and just as the oil lamps symbolise the bringing of light to darkness, the conch shell is sounded to free you from your sins; the wisps of smoke from the incense sticks is meant to purify the soul, peacock feathers represent purity and immortality of the soul and flowers are a symbol of gratitude. Mind you, you may hear differing versions of the significance of these items used in an aarti, and they would all be acceptable. That’s the beauty of Hinduism – the assertion that all ways of worshipping God and all meaning you ascribe to it are equally valid. The ceremony was magnificent, I have not seen one quite like this before. As the crowd joined in the prayer and raised their hands to “Har Har Mahadev”, I had goosebumps. The ‘Ganga Aarti’ takes place every day of the year and if you find yourself in Varanasi, don’t miss it.
A Walk Along the Ghats
There are many ghats along the Ganga and the main ones are Dasaswamedh Ghat where the Ganga Aarti is held and further along the banks is the Manikarnika Ghat, where cremations are conducted. The next morning we were back at the ghats and watched as rituals unfolded before our eyes. There was one priest, whom we recognised from the evening before, performing the morning aarti and all around us were hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world – anointing themselves with oil and dipping themselves into the murky Ganga to have their sins absolved and their souls purified. After which, they apply the holy ash, vibuthi, on their foreheads. As the sun rose everything was bathed in golden light that made the whole scene before us so visually rich.
We immersed ourselves not in the Ganga but in the experience. We were silent observers of people more devout than us. Nobody minded our cameras and many were friendly and welcoming. There were some who blessed us and put vibuthi and the vermillion kum-kum on our foreheads as we walked along the long stretch of ghats. There were many sitting in tapas (cross-legged in prayer) in deep meditation.
We were meant to take a boat ride but as it was the puja day (ceremonial prayers) of the boatmen (the only day of the year they don’t work) there were no boats plying this day. We flipped our programme around and went to Sarnath. Just 10kms out of Varanasi, this is the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. So Varanasi is famed not just for one religion but two. After he attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, Buddha came to Sarnath to preach. The most prominent structure is the Dhameka Stupa, said to be the very spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon and where Buddhism began.
Boat Ride on the Ganges
The next morning we got a different view of the ghats, this time from the river. Our strong, young boatman rowed along the length of the ghats one way and then the other. It was a riot of colour and teeming with life. We saw many perform their prayers, immersing themselves and even washing their clothes along the bank. It was a beautiful morning.
As we went further down we came upon the Manikarnika Ghat, the ‘burning ghat’. This is where cremations are performed. The whole scene changed from being one of good cheer and brightness, to one that was sombre, dark. Bodies are cremated on open pyres and as we passed by on our boat we saw 3 cremations happening with the fires burning high. We remained silent and respectful, putting our cameras down as we passed the pyres.
All around are piles and piles of firewood. Here at the Manikarnika Ghat, the pyres burn 24 hours a day all year through. About 200 bodies are burned every day. If you want a ‘good burn’ you must use sandalwood, but sandalwood is expensive. The poor can barely afford even the cheapest wood and often they have no alternative but to only partially burn the bodies of their loved ones and release it into the Ganga. Apparently it is not uncommon to see partially cremated bodies floating downstream. I am so thankful we were spared such a confronting sight. As one writer put it “the Ganges is a place where life and death meet, it is a river that purifies and pollutes at the same time”.
We got off just past the burning ghat. Along the narrow path, near the famous Kashi Viswanath Temple, we came upon the complex of ancient temples, still amazingly intact, that were found during demolition works for the Kashi temple’s new and controversial corridor project. (Controversial because homes that have been in families for generations were earmarked for demolition). Intricate and elaborately carved temples stood revealed among the rubble of demolition. All works have stopped and efforts are now focussed on preserving this ancient find. Right to the every end there was something to marvel at in Varanasi.
We continued through the labyrinthine alleys, stopping to make way for a funeral procession, cows, children, bicycles, motorbikes … as we made our way back to our waiting van and back our hotel.
This was our last day in India. We were treated to a special vegetarian thali lunch at a nearby restaurant.
We caught our flight back to Delhi and walked to the international terminal for our respective flights home.
I have to make a special mention of Bablu Khan, guide and friend. You made everything so seamless and you expertly shepherded us around, always looking out for us (and our belongings:-)), making sure we were well taken care of. How do I thank you? This was one of our best trips and a big part of it was because of you.
Of course a huge thank you to Marius Coetzee of Oryx Worldwide Photography Expeditions for suggesting this trip in the first place!
Farewells are never fun but we bade each other goodbye in good cheer and on a high note. Penny, Astrid, Debs and S, the Bandit Queens – it was a blast! Thank you so much! My friends, it is a fundamental Hindu belief that there is divinity within each and every human being and so I end by saying, Namaste (which means ‘the divine in me bows to the divine in you’).
If you would like to see more photos of Varanasi, please click on this link:
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