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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi - 25th to 28th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'Look over there,' said Raju, pointing with his chin in the Indian manner to some indistinct letters and numbers painted on a building.

'Would you believe that the Ganges reached up to there in the monsoon of 1978?'

We looked down to the river flowing serenely beside the stone steps of Varanasi’s ghats today, a dizzy, mind-boggling 74 metres (242 feet) below. Ahead and beneath us, left and right, as far as the eye could see, everything would have been covered in a fast-flowing, brown inland sea. The vast sandbanks stretching to the horizon, the ghats, the temples and streets throughout the city would have been flooded, flushing away the grime of decades and adding to it with the detritus from towns and villages upstream.

It seemed almost inconceivable that this remarkable city could have survived such inundation. But survive it certainly had - just as it had withstood so many other catastrophes in its long historic past.

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In 1978, this view would have been just water - and, as recently as 2015, the water would only have been a mere 6 metres below us.
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David and Raju walking down from the 1978 high water mark

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'Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.'
Mark Twain, 'Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World', 1897

Benares or Banaras, or even Kashi - today, they're all Varanasi, the final destination of our spiritual journey along the Ganges.

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This holy city, the oldest in all India, thought to date from 1800 BCE, is one of the most written-about places. Without exception, writers of books about Varanasi (and bloggers!) always mention the sacred Ganges, the ghats and the public riverside cremations. Of course they do - they're highlights of any visit to this amazing place.

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Perhaps no-one will notice me as I'm dressed so inconspicuously!

But there's more to this enigmatic and eminently photogenic city. Most previous authors will have trodden in the well-trodden touristy bits. Very few of them would have been fortunate enough to have had our friend Raju, a kind and knowledgeable resident of the city, to help them tread in other things among the backstreets!

It's impossible to walk anywhere here without stumbling up and down the uneven stone steps of the 80-plus ghats which loom high above the river. Every visit must start close to the holy river - a fascinating and vibrant scene at any time of day or night, or high up - more tranquil, with sweeping vistas and stories of monsoon floods, which in recent years have been only marginally less than that of 1978, revealing the unpredictability of life here.

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Assi Ghat, named after the Assi River which once flowed into the Ganges at the city's southernmost end, was where we'd landed after our boat journey from Mirzapur (Faster down the Ganges... ). From on high, we looked northwards along the banks of the Ganges to where, seven kilometres (four miles) distant, the Varuna River joined. The city's name derived from these two tributaries (Varuna + Assi = Varanasi).

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The river near Assi Ghat in the early morning

It was from Assi Ghat that, like hundreds of others - Indians and foreigners alike, on this day and every day for years before, we took a boat ride along the river. We went especially to view the sacred Manikarnika Ghat, a cremation ground like no other - not for any ghoulish reason but, on this final leg of our spiritual journey, to help us to better understand the rites of passage so essential to the Hindu faith.

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Hindus, you see, often have little interest in the afterlife, nor in mourning as we know it. It's believed that, once a person is born, he or she never dies. Few tears are shed, perhaps because the point of a funeral is to show respect, not sadness, or because the dead are believed to be fortunate in going to a world far better than the one they've left behind.

Fire is the chosen method for disposal of the dead because of its association with purity and its power to scare away harmful demons; it releases an individual's spirit from its transitory physical body so it can be reborn. Those who die or are cremated beside the Ganges achieve absolute salvation, escaping that toil of reincarnation.

Many Hindus therefore come to this sacred place to spend their final days. Others are brought from elsewhere within hours of death, without coffins but instead carried through the streets on flower-draped bamboo biers to the banks of the sacred river. Covered in glistening shrouds, the corpse is given a spiritual cleansing dip in the Ganges before being taken to one of many funeral pyres which burn here by day and by night.

Our boat elbowed its way in towards Manikarnika Ghat, where, in growing darkness, with the backs of other boats' passengers silhouetted against the light, flames leapt from twelve simultaneous funeral pyres. Groups of male mourners1gathered on the steps. Doms, a wealthy caste of 'untouchables' who control these places, poked the fires from time to time, speeding up the burning process and sending orange embers spitting into the night sky.

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Similar rituals were being played out at the smaller, less spectacular Harishchandra Ghat, the oldest place of cremation, which some say surpasses even Manikarnika in its sanctity. We saw it both from the water earlier that same evening and, on another occasion, during a walk along the ghats, when numerous fires burnt brightly even in daylight. An electric crematorium was built there in 1989 and refurbished in 2012 but, despite its greater efficiency, ridiculously low-cost funerals and better environmental qualities, it remains little used. Even the poor try to avoid it, insisting on tradition while struggling to afford the high price of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of wood needed to build an effective funeral pyre.

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Holy men and the really poor often follow another tradition - one we also witnessed - of weighing down a body with rocks, rowing it out in a boat to the centre of the river and simply rolling it over the prow into the swirling waters.

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These were all fascinating, humbling scenes. In the West, we're almost removed from the ritual of death and, in funeral ceremonies, the dead are typically hidden and rarely seen again. Here, the dead were obvious and rituals were simple, poignant, unforgettable.

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Here too, on our eye-opening evening boat ride, were aarthi ceremonies, powerful and uplifting spiritual performances similar to those we'd already experienced in the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh2.

At Assi Ghat, amid what had become familiar clanging of bells, blowing of conch shells and loud, melodic chants, priests in long red robes waved smoking incense and multi-tiered lamps of fire in praise of the river goddess Ganga, the fire god Agni and of the entire universe. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, a crowd of thousands seated on the ghat's steps and on a raft of boats battling the current out in the river watched another spectacular group of priests, here clad in cream dhotis and red sweaters, the audience contributing their own prayers at appropriate times and taking selfies throughout.

These celebrations, intrinsically the same everywhere, but here in Varanasi a more carefully choreographed and showy extravaganza, never ceased to amaze us.

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So much for the familiar. We wanted to see some unfamiliar places too - those that tourists and other bloggers may have missed or simply decided not to write home about.

Behind and up above the ancient, very holy and rightly fascinating waterfront was a labyrinth of equally ancient, narrow lanes, hidden marketplaces and curiosities that most might never find - unless they were lost perhaps and stumbled upon them by accident. Here's where our friend Raju3 and his young pal Ramu came in, taking us to visit an array of lesser-known things.

Now, we knew in advance that Varanasi wasn't renowned for its cleanliness - one account I'd read said: 'I've never seen so much cowshit outside of a farm!'.

However, I have to add that it wasn't half as bad as we’d expected. Yes, you do have to watch where you're walking - cows and dogs feature heavily here, wandering at will and leaving others to clear up their mess (or not). But, look beyond the crumbling, damp and dirty footways and you'll see little litter or other rubbish here these days. The Modi government's initiative in cleaning up India is starting to take effect, even here – particularly here as Varanasi is represented in the Parliament of India by no less than Prime Minister Modi.

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It was among these labyrinthine lanes that we found a garden devoted to Varanasi's equivalent of Joan of Arc, the 'Rani (Queen) of Jhansi', Laxmi Bhai. She’d campaigned against the British annexation of her kingdom, fast becoming a symbol of resistance to Indian nationalists. She battled against the British from her fort, was besieged for a year, escaping when troops of the 8th Hussars encircled it to Gwalior, where she fought gallantly but was eventually mortally wounded. This place concealed among Varanasi's lanes was now a shrine to her martyrdom in the cause for her country's independence.

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We also came upon an akhada - a gymnasium-meets-wrestling ring, where men of all ages practiced a traditional form of wrestling known as kushti4. Clad in briefs or a loincloth, they first worked out on their own or in pairs, jumping up and down, lifting long cylindrical clubs, hanging upside down from bars. Then, duly warmed up, they headed to the dry-sand ring in the centre of the akhada to begin wrestling practice supervised by an older, grey-haired mentor.

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A variety of colourful markets vied for our attention, each dealing in particular goods – piles of white eggs; live chickens despatched, plucked and jointed to order; beautifully-displayed fresh vegetables of all descriptions; pungent spices; colourful fish cleaned and beheaded while you wait; mountains of orange, yellow, red and white flowers; milk straight from countryside cows ladled from churns into your own containers. There were even cows for sale along one alleyway and others being milked on a demolition site - after which, my shoes needed a thorough clean!.

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Here too were little shrines, including one with an unusual little white-eyed black god. A picture of the goddess Durga on her tiger was tucked behind a window grill. There was a huge temple shaped like a black Shiva lingam; inside, a woman showed respect to a lingam covered in the sacred trifoliate leaves of the Bael tree, of which Lord Shiva is said to be very fond. Graffiti murals of more lingams and of Shiva himself decorated nearby walls. An incredibly detailed scale model of the city’s ghats, 40-feet long, stood hidden in the car park of an apartment block.

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Outside her house, a woman stood knitting a long orange scarf (I’d never before seen an Indian woman using knitting needles!). A neighbour’s black goat wore an elegant red cardigan. Close by, buffaloes were being kept for their milk and their dung – blobs of the latter being beautifully patted by hand onto an adjoining wall to dry and later sold for fuel.

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A sign-writer chiselled out script on a slate using a hammer and a large metal nail, and a group of men toiled away with little pieces of sandpaper smoothing the rough edges of huge carved marble idols.

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Inside the white marble Tulsi Manas Temple, tales from the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' had been translated from their original Sanskrit to make them better understood by the masses and inscribed in Hindi on panels around the walls. For children or others unable to read, the stories of gods and goddesses were played out in numerous little scenes by automated puppets.

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On 26 January, Independence Day was celebrated by all and sundry. Patriotic orange, green and white flags were offered for sale by many little shops. As we wandered the streets, processions of men on open trucks and motorbikes roared noisily past, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor alike, all waving their national flags. Children on their way home from special celebrations at school, wearing the same tricolour on little badges and peaked caps, smiled brightly and happily stood to attention, soldier-like, for photos.

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In the crowded shopping streets, brilliantly-coloured and bejewelled silk saris (for which the city is known) were stiffly displayed on mannequins, and cycle rickshaws with colourful canopies wove through masses of pedestrians, motorbikes and scooters. I decided to try my hand at capturing some of the typical street scenes in black and white - perhaps with mixed success in this land of vibrant colour!

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Read this carefully - it says Winnie the POOR!

We really only scratched the surface of Varanasi’s attractions, those found in guide books as well as those hidden from view. It was entirely thanks to Raju and Ramu’s local knowledge that we managed to see so much that was both on and off the usual tourist routes - as well as finding us some tasty and unusual meals, Southern Indian, Middle Eastern and street food among them - before we collapsed with exhaustion!

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What we did see was a bewildering kaleidoscope of this wonderful city’s daily life. It was a photographer’s dream, so please excuse the plethora of pictures - they've saved me a few thousand more words!

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One sight still remained on our list. Raju would borrow a car to drive us the ten kilometres (six miles) out of the city to where, in 500 BCE, the enlightened Buddha gave his first sermon to five sceptical followers. I won't detain you with more photos today, so keep your eyes open for another blog coming to a screen near you soon!

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Accommodation:

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Palace on the Ganges, Assi Ghat, Varanasi (http://palaceonganges.com/). Email: info@palaceonganges.com.

A heritage hotel with 24 rooms, each named after a province of India, in a great location close to the waterfront at Assi Ghat. There's a bit of a climb up to the front door but, inside, the reception desk is efficient and service throughout is good. The restaurant is rather gloomy, but the self-service breakfast is excellent and there's a rooftop restaurant with a pleasant view and good food. Our room (called 'Nagaland' if I remember correctly) was clean and very comfortable. We booked through Agoda, which required advance payment - I'd book direct with the hotel in future, if the price was right. We paid around 8,400Rupees (£95/US$130 approx.) per night for the room, including breakfast, service and compulsory taxes.

Guide:

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This is Raju (on the left of the picture) with his friend Ramu

Raju Verma, B1/148 c-1 Assi Ghat, Varanasi. (http://www.beyondvaranasi.com/) Email: raju7pinki@gmail.com

Some years ago, a fellow blogger (on my previous blog site) mentioned that she'd met a very helpful young man during her stay in Varanasi. She pointed me to his Facebook page, I contacted him, told him about our plans for this journey - and 'the rest', as they say, 'is history'. He's no longer just a Facebook Friend.

Raju's very friendly, fun to be with, speaks good English and, because he's a local, he knows his way around and he's known to a lot of people too. He's been a 'fixer' for professional photographers and documentary film-makers. I don't know what we'd have done without him - I'm sure we'd have been hopelessly lost!

Although he has a website and you'll find him on TripAdvisor under his Beyond Varanasi business name, he's really a one-man show with no fixed guiding tariff. Just tell him what you want (he'll book hotels, taxis, boats, whatever you need), be sure to pay him a reasonable rate and to share your lunch or evening meals with him, and he'll reward you with a unique experience from early morning to late evening.

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1 Women aren't forbidden to attend funerals, but tradition says they should not because they might cry and tears are regard as pollutants, unsuited to purification rituals..

2 To read more about aarthi ceremonies we attended, go to: 'A mistreated goddess' and 'Tea with a sadhu' or 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'.

3 Raju Verma will, for a fee, take care of everything for you - just email him at: raju7pinki@gmail.com. Be sure to give him plenty of notice though as he's a busy man!

4 That plonker Del Boy may have used the word 'kushti' to mean 'okay' or 'good' - but Indian wrestling used it first! Mind you, Indians do now sometimes use his 'Luvly Jubbly'!

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:18 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi

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