The addictive sweetness of Varanasi
“So, what’s your favorite city in India?” enquired my friend Diana, once I was finally back from my trip.
“Varanasi,” I replied, without the shadow of a doubt in my voice.
Who would have known that I would have enjoyed India so much (I can put it right there, in the list of my favorite countries), and that I would have fallen in love with Varanasi? Sure enough, I didn’t.
A slap in the face
I landed in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world, after 24 hours of traveling and with a pounding headache. No, I wasn’t coming from the other side of the world. I was actually arriving from the beautiful hill station of Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. My trip involved a bumpy bus ride to Bhopal airport that lasted almost 8 hours; a 90 minutes flight to Mumbai; a taxi transfer to the other terminal of Mumbai airport; a 7 hours layover in the freezing terminal without access to a lounge to rest my sore body (because the lounge at the cheap airlines terminal is only for VIPs, apparently); and a further flight to Varanasi.
As soon as the taxi pulled out of the airport, I realized I was in India. Yes, I had been there for over a week already. But Madhya Pradesh is hardly the kind of India one would think of – or at least, hardly similar to what I thought of whenever I tried to picture India. It was quiet; there wasn’t any of the big crowds or insane traffic that India is famous for; there wasn’t even that much dust.
Find out more about Madhya Pradesh on my post “Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh.”
Varanasi was a slap in the face. It was everything I had feared. It was that very India whose thought would make me wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night during the weeks before traveling, thinking “why am I doing this to myself, why am I forcing myself to go to India?” I was horrified by the traffic, the noise, the dust, the cows that chewed the plastic bags and then sat in the middle of the street, seemingly oblivious to the chaos, the dogs, the bikes, the tuc tucs, and the derelict buildings all around on the way from the airport. I was not even sure that I would be safe there as a solo female traveler. So horrified indeed, that I resolved to buy a plane ticket to go home as soon as I got to my guest house in the Old City, provided I’d actually make it there without getting lost in the mayhem.
You have to get lost to find yourself
Indeed, taxis cannot enter the Old City of Varanasi. I had read this somewhere, but I was still hoping the taxi driver would get me to my guest house, somehow. I was India after all: there’s no such thing as respecting the rules there, and who cares if cars are not allowed in the Old City? The point though is that cars don’t go there because they don’t want to – oh trust me, they would want to, because if there’s something Indians seem to enjoy, that’s being stuck in traffic even when walking seems like the more sensible option. They really, truly can’t – because the streets of the Old City are so narrow that only pedestrians (which includes buffalos, cows, dogs and monkeys), bikes and the occasional scooter can actually go through.
Sure, I didn’t want to break any rule – even if I was in the country were rules are broken on a regular basis. But imagine my despair when the taxi driver pulled off and said he was going to stop right there, adding that he could not take me any further, and off I should go to find my place. Head pounding, exhausted for the long trip and the heat, I threw my backpack on my shoulders (and I thankfully had packed light this time, despite being an unsuccessful backpacker) and took out my iPhone – thankfully my friend Pranav, whom I had met in Madhya Pradesh, was kind enough to lend me one of his SIM cards and I could use Google Maps to guide me to my guest house.
I started walking, and after a few minutes I had to take a turn into a narrow alley. It looked like I was finally leaving the traffic behind, and I had entered the Old City. There were no cars, no honking. It was blissful.
I must have looked lost, and I surely was disheveled after 24 hours with no sleep, no real food and a headache that wouldn’t go away. So lost that a guy from what looked like a small café waved at me.
“Hello, come join us for coffee,” he told me in his strong French accent. He was the owner of the French Bakers, a recently opened lovely place that made the most comforting pain au raisins I could have hoped for, and where I ended up having breakfast every day during my time in Varanasi.
“I’d love to, but I really want to find my guest house, I am too exhausted,” I replied, and asked him if he knew where it was.
He didn’t, actually. But then the Marigold P. Guest House turned out to be just around the corner, tucked away in an even smaller alley. I walked up a few steps, knocked on the door, and was welcomed by Sonu, the young owner. He was all smiles and apologies because the driver he had hired to come pick me up at the airport did not show up. After handing me a bottle of much needed cold water and registering me, he showed me around his property. A few simple, spotless and comfortable rooms; a rooftop terrace with an incredible view of the city and of the river Ganges.
“You can join me here at sunrise, every day, when I practice yoga,” Sonu said eagerly.
“We’ll see…” I surrendered, knowing that there’s no way I can wake up before dawn to exercise.
He then prompted me to make sure to close the door to the terrace every time I went up, as monkeys were known for getting inside and steal stuff. Putting aside the thought of losing my stuff to a monkey, I could not hide my amusement: how cool can a city were monkeys are a threat to property be to a westerner like me?
Varanasi and the circle of life
Sonu’s sweet manners made me feel welcome. It was as if, despite everything, I had arrived home. Varanasi was turning out to be not nearly half has bad as I thought it would be: I was hopeful.
Moments later, I was finally in my room, I took a much needed hot shower, downed the rest of the bottle of water and crashed on my bed. A few hours later, I woke up: the headache had finally gone and decided it was finally time to go explore Varanasi and see what it was all about and why everyone, including Derek of the incredible Wandering Earl blog (who I actually had the pleasure to meet in person right in Varanasi), kept saying it’s their favorite city in India.
So I walked out the door, took a right turn into the main alley, and walked straight for a minute until I found myself into mayhem once again. But this time it was different: I happened to be looking at a ceremony. There were a lot of people sitting (and standing) to admire the show; there was what appeared to be ritual music, and a ritual kind of dance, with the performers handling fire.
Just by chance, I had ended up at the Ganga Aarti, a ceremony held at Dashashwamedh Ghat during which fire is donated to Mother Ganges. It was beautiful: the show, the people around, the colorful saris, the cheering, the music and the atmosphere. I loved it. So much so that in my time in Varanasi I ended up seeing it every day, each day from a different perspective: from a terrace, from a boat on the Ganges, from the stairs of the ghat (by the way, a ghat is a set of steps leading down to a body of water, usually a holy river: there’s 84 ghats in Varanasi).
As the ceremony ended, I joined the stream of people that were leaving the Ghat. I went through the market, then back into the narrow alleys of the Old City. It was time to eat dinner at one of the small restaurants – I became a regular customer of Spicy Bites and of Bona’s Cafe, which serve decent food at reasonable prices (but no alcohol: Varanasi is mostly dry: it is hard to find alcohol served anywhere, especially in the Old City) and attract a young crowd of backpackers, all eager to share their experiences.
Still quite tired from all the traveling of the previous day, I called it a day right after dinner and went to bed. Besides, I had booked a Varanasi sunrise boat tour with City Discovery, and my alarm was set at 4:00 am. Indeed, although I am more of a spontaneous traveler, I do enjoy guided tours and I knew that this time around I wouldn’t have that much time in the city, and I didn’t want to waste any time in scouting for a good guide: I wanted to make sure that my guide was a certified one, that he spoke good English, and that I wouldn’t have to haggle for the price.
Read more about why I like guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”
Where it all begins, and where it all ends
At 4:30 am sharp my guide was waiting outside Marigold P Guest House. It was still pitch dark outside, but as we made our way to a ghat to board a boat that would take us along the river Ganges, the sun was starting to rise. I can hardly find words to describe the amazing view of the sunrise on the river Ganges. Spectacular doesn’t begin to explain how beautiful it was.
Boats moved slowly along the Ganges. And just by chance I saw my friend Lakshmi (or rather, she photobombed my picture!), whom I had met the year before on a trip to Indonesia.
Lakshmi and I agreed to meet later to have tea and a chat, but as the boats went each their own way, I couldn’t help ask myself: “what are the odds of meeting someone randomly in a city that sees thousands of tourists every day, and even more so during the peak season?” It looks like anything can happen in Varanasi.
As we went along the river during my early morning boat tour of Varanasi, my guide told me about the importance of the Ganges – one of the greatest rivers on earth – to the Hindus. Many people bathe there throughout the day, to wash away their sins. Some slowly walk inside, some dive head first, some pour water on their head. This is the most auspicious place to hold funerals, too. It’s in holy Varanasi that the Hindus hope to break the samsara cycle, the cycle of reincarnation, to finally achieve moksa, liberation.
I could see several fires as the boat moved along the river: bodies were being cremated, the smoke adding up to the unique smell of Varanasi – one made of spices; of the fried jalebi sweets, pakoras and samosas; of cheese being made in random shops in hidden alleys; mixed with the acre stench of garbage rotting, garbage being burned, cows excrements and exhaust. It didn’t bother me. I learned to associate it with a city I loved.
Cremation ceremonies in Varanasi are held throughout the day and night. Taking pictures of the funeral pyres is prohibited, and I would have thought that even if it wasn’t, nobody would dare take such morbid pictures and lack any respect for the dead, their families, and the whole culture. I soon learned that is not the case, and saw one too many a tourist pushing their way through to get the ultimate shot.
As the sun made its stubborn appearance for the day, the boat approached a ghat and we disembarked. We started walking along the river. People kept bathing there. I could even see some men using the miswak, a toothbrush made of salvadora persica. The business day had started: barbers started shaving their customers; others did laundry for guest houses and hotels right on the river and hung it to dry on the ghats; cows and dogs kept on chewing on garbage bags, undisturbed.
Sadhus (Hindu monks that live an ascetic life dedicated to prayer and to the achievement of liberation) walked around, in their saffron-colored clothes, posing for pictures in exchange of a small fee.
Our last stop was at the temples, although I could just about peep in from the outside, and only after having secured all my belongings in a locker and having gone through a security check. Tourists are indeed not allowed to enter the holiest temples in Varanasi.
After saying goodbye to my guide, I made my way to the French Bakers, for a much needed cup of coffee and a freshly baked pain au raisin. There, I befriended Kusti, a sweet Estonian beach volleyball player. We’d meet at the bakery every day for breakfast then spend the rest of the day wandering the galis, the narrow streets of Varanasi, or hopping from ghat to ghat, and enjoying a cold lassi (a delicious Indian yogurt drink).
Each ghat appeared different from the other. Some looked almost abandoned. Others, full of life: artists painting on one side; somebody making tea; children jumping in the river, putting up a show for us; dogs laying on their backs to cool down; and buffalos fully immersed before walking back up the ghat.
The Assi Ghat appeared like a wholly different place: lovely and quiet, here teenagers sat on the stairs to have a chat; kids played around in their bikes and life went on, undisturbed by the passage of a few tourists.
On my last day in Varanasi, I took a boat to the other side of the river. It didn’t even feel like Varanasi at all – though I could clearly see the city as the sun set behind it. There, horses carried tourists around as if in the desert. A small group cooked under a tent. And a way too large group of kids played an improvised game of football.
Every now and then one would approach me.
“Where are you from?” he’d asked, not even bothered to hide his curiosity.
Then, the rest would wave at me to join in the fun. Who cared if football teams are supposed to be of 11 players, after all?
That football game summed up what Varanasi is: an incredible, eclectic mix, where everything and everyone meets, where everybody is welcome and at home, where everything begins and then ends.
Little by little, Varanasi crawled through my veins, reached my heart and set up shop there. Each and every city I visited in India was special in its own way, but none of them gave me that sense of peace, of achievement, of being welcome and feeling like I was home that Varanasi transmitted.
Yes, Varanasi remains my favorite city in India and one of the best places to visit there, and I can’t wait to go back.
Have you been to Varanasi? What was your experience there?
To read more about India, check my post “A selection of the best places to visit in India.”