I don’t know why, but we thought Varanasi would be a quiet place, beautiful for the eye and peaceful for the soul. Maybe it was because we heard of the small alleys, cosy cafés and walking streets with no cars. Maybe since we heard it was walking distance everywhere and beautiful sunrises. Whatever it was, we were quite wrong. And it is quite an apparent misconception to think that any place as holy as Varanasi is in Hinduism, with thousands of visitors every day, would be peaceful.
(Hehe, we are slowly and steadily learning our ways.)
There are noises from morning till late. In addition to the Hindu rituals that goes on without end, including constant ringing of the bells, gongs and ghantas, there are also five daily prayers from the surrounding minarets who will wake you up if you’re sleeping in later than sunrise. From sunrise and onwards it is crowded arounds the ghats, especially the Dashashwamed Ghat. Oh, and yes, the ghats are the platforms and steps leading down to the river. We did not know this before we arrived, and wondered why our driver was so persistent on pronouncing the “main gate” as the “main gatt”. Well, he was right, we learned quickly.
Despite the crowds it is an extremely fascinating place. There are constantly people bathing in the water, naked holy men are sitting around doing some drug or another most of the time, and on the northern and southern ghats there are cremations going on 24 hours a day. We got a small guided tour from an English-speaking worker at the burning ghat against a 50 rupees donation. We would recommend this to understand better how it works, and see the related areas that are not easily accessible to the public, and lastly, perhaps most importantly, you can watch the cremations from a good viewpoint without feeling incredibly uncomfortable just from being there.
Varanasi is remarkable, and should definitely be experienced as part of a trip around India. However, as I later read on another travel blog: do not have Varanasi as your first destination in India – and do not have it as your last. This first makes absolute sense, because if you would start of thinking that the rest of your travels in India will be as overwhelming and intense on the senses as Varanasi, you will definitely reconsider the length of your stay. Not having it as your last destination also makes sense as you should not be ‘tired’ of India and seek a peaceful end to your trip (as we did). But more importantly, try to avoid being sick in Varanasi.
I had a big cold when we were there, after a freezing and long-lasting overnight train from Kolkata. And it certainly does not help a blocked nose and a sore throat to walk around in the fumes and smoke in Varanasi. If it is not the smoke from incense or candles being burnt as part of a Hindu ritual, it is the smoke and ashes from the burning bodies on the northern and southern ghats.
But hey, it’s all part of the experience.