Varanasi – City of Water and Fire

Several people on my various flights to and from Colombo had said Kerala was quite similar to Sri Lanka – beaches and tea plantations were on the agenda again so I decided instead to pivot north for a complete change of scene.

My first stop of Varanasi has quite the reputation as one of the most intense places in India – chaos, dirt, scams, people everywhere and all packed into ancient lanes for good measure.

Getting a pre-pay taxi from the airport straight away the driver tried to pull one by taking his copy of the slip at the start (they don’t get paid without it) but I wasn’t falling for it. Too many stories of people being brought halfway or to a different hotel or being charged extra just to reach their destination!

My accommodation was down in the Old town – and for Varanasi this means very old indeed. It is claimed to be one of the oldest continually lived-in cities. Walking along the alleys it feels like time has stood still. That even GPS and mobile signals are patchy here makes the city feel not only frozen but hostile to the intrusions of modernity.

You really never know what you’ll find around the next corner in Varanasi. One minute it’s dodgy men whispering ‘marijuana marijuana’. When you think you’ve heard it all in India one will come along and offer opium!

Another day heading into town an enormous angry bull had entered a standoff with a man with a long stick and for a moment a Pampalona running-of-the-bulls experience looked to be on the cards.

Unfortunately it wasn’t really the best time to visit Varanasi. The main attraction are the ghats or bathing areas and steps down to the Ganges where people congregate at dawn and dusk for rituals and bathing.

With the Ganges in full flood mode the ghats were completely covered and no boats were allowed to operate so it was disappointing not to experience the main reasons to come to Varanasi.

The level was so high that flooding was reported in parts of the city and upstream and the level was 3m off the 1978 all-time high.

You can see the power of the monsoon in aggregate in the enormous river but smaller scale demonstrations were on hand too. Heading in an auto-rickshaw fifteen minutes of torrential downpour had so much water in the streets that it was flowing into the vehicle!

Come rain or shine one activity continues – the auspicious cremation of bodied down by the Ganges. Hindus believe that dying and being cremated in Varanasi and remains being put into the Ganges will release them from the cycle of death and rebirth and so people come to the city to die.

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Hindu holy man in the middle of the road

Certain ghats are known for their cremations and the lanes leading to them are stacked high with different types of wood (in life as in death there are luxury options – sandalwood being particularly expensive but presumably smells nice). The wood is weighed out on scales with the men working there knowing exactly how much it takes to fully burn a body.

There are no photos permitted at the ghat itself but bodies are carried through the streets on bamboo stretchers wrapped in muslin and coloured robes before being dipped in the Ganges. It was slightly surreal to see four or five of these bodies in a holding area waiting for their pyre to be ready. I then stepped up to where around six or eight pyres – half of which were burning away furiously.

Further back in the town waiting for a lassi wrapped bodies would be shuttled past as if this was the most normal thing in the world – and for Varanasi I suppose it is.

It really is a city where ordinary things are extraordinary and extraordinary things become ordinary.

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