Varanasi is built on the western bank of the Ganges and much of its activity focuses on the riverfront. It is possible to walk the whole length of the city along its ghats – steep steps down to the quayside. Some of these are cremation ghats so they house small temples and a myriad of boats take people out to pay their respects to the river and see the ‘City of Light’ from the water. The waterfront’s crumbling, pastel coloured palaces and forts give it a Mediterranean feel and every view looks like it was painted by Canaletto.
We spent our first full day in the city wandering along the ghats. At the Assi ghat, which is close to our hotel, we watched a spectacular puja to wake the river as the sun came up. Further into town we witnessed a number of cremations and saw countless people bathing in the holy river (despite its visible pollution!)
Although it is a big city, Varanasi is very different from Kolkata. There is the same poverty and filth but it has a relaxed vibe and feels like a holiday town. There are many more westerners everywhere and the bars and restaurants in our part of town have a ‘hippy trail’ atmosphere. Women ride scooters here (sometimes in burkahs) which was a bit of a culture shock after the other places we’ve been and, although there are plenty of hawkers pestering tourists to take a boat or visit a silk warehouse, their style is less aggressive than in Kolkata. There are also many more cows in the street and, therefore, cowpats!
Our day ended, as many have done here, listening to the call to prayer from the roof of our hotel as the sun went down. This has been a really powerful image everywhere we’ve been in India and it will feel rather odd not being able to hear it back in Chorlton! G
Today we went to Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon and began to ‘turn the wheel of Dharma.’ This is a suburb of Varanasi and only around 10k from where we’re staying but it took almost an hour to get there in frightening traffic. We only went the wrong way up a dual carriageway twice and the wrong way around a roundabout three times but we were pinned to our seats with fear for most of the journey as our driver weaved in and out – showing expert clutch control as he narrowly missed hundreds of pedestrians, cyclists and a fair few cows!
The museum, housing the capital of an Ashoka pillar (carved with Buddhist edicts and built all over the Buddhist world in the third century BC by the Emperor Ashoka), turned out to be closed on Fridays, which none of our guidebooks had foreseen. Instead, and with some trepidation, we followed a sign saying ‘Buddhist Theme Park this way’. This took us to the ‘main temple’ where, indeed, the beauty of the wall paintings and the golden shrine were a little overshadowed by the constant chatter of tour guides and the Disneyesque fibreglass figures in the grounds outside.
Realising we’d made a mistake we doubled-back and found our way into the excavations of the Dharmarajika Stupa. This was built by Ashoka to commemorate the location of the first sermon and to house fragments of the Buddha’s remains. This is also where the base of the Ashoka pillar can still be seen, although what is left is really just a foundation stone.
The grounds are beautifully kept. They also house the ruins of four monasteries and the much more in-tact Stupa of Damekh, which stakes a competing claim to being the site of the first sermon. It was in the shade of this impressive edifice that we recited the ‘Twelve Deeds of the Buddha’ and said long life prayers for our teachers. It was also where we discovered that Thai monks like having selfies with us as much as Indian families do!
There are a number of other modern temples along the main road to the site but this was our hottest day to date at around 36 degrees and we were starting to feel ‘all templed out’ so we retreated to what has become our favourite café and drank iced green tea and ginger beer in the shade, then went back to our hotel for a siesta! G
Today we visited the old city of Varanasi, planning to see the Vishwanatha Temple – one of the most holy in India and adjacent to the Jnana Vapi mosque. We knew it was closed to non-Hindus but we hoped to see it from the outside.
The tuktuk dropped us at the alley leading to the temple and we were soon passing crowds of devotees queueing to enter. They alley was lined with shops selling flowers, food and incense and each of the sari-clad women carried an offering. There were plenty of armed policemen sitting on the corners of the alleys and devotees queued from all directions.
The buildings are so close together that all we could see of the temple were the entrance gates but our walk through the alleys of the old city was one of the most interesting, I think, of our stay. As well as the crowds of Hindu worshippers , the richness and changing atmosphere at each corner was awe inspiring. We passed through market alleys: selling fruit and veg or street food; others piled high with wood for the burning ghats; more open ‘tourist’ alleys selling fridge magnets; and quiet alleys with shrines to Ganesha and other Hindu gods. There were old women begging and crazy men shouting and dancing but nowhere did we feel anything but accepted as part of this place. That is Varanasi – lovely people!
We were invited into an Ashram that educates boys and young men to be Brahmin priests. It was lunchtime and we were even invited to eat but we declined! Emerging into the sunlight of the ghats we walked a short way past people swimming and washing laundry. Sue spotted a rather nice hotel with a roof terrace bar so we stopped for cold drinks. From there we watched the river life some more, including a boat carrying a film crew which was recording a young boatman as he rowed back and forward. It was a pleasing end to our morning out. V
This morning we set off for Banares Hindu University campus where there is an art and archaeological museum which houses a vast collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and a great collection of paintings from the court of Mughals and other kingdoms. I particularly wanted to see the Nicholas Roerich gallery. The campus is vast with clean and well-kept pavements and gardens. Unfortunately, once again, the gallery was closed but we may return next week. We’re not having much success with museums so far!
Close by, however, we found the beautiful Vishwanati Temple, set in shady gardens. We were assured that non-Hindus were welcome and went inside. It was a cool and beautiful space, with shrines in different side rooms and a central one which was the focus for enthusiastic worshippers who were being forcibly kept in order. Beautiful images of deities displayed prominent notices forbidding photography but were surrounded by youngsters taking ‘selfies’ with them!
After acceding to the usual host of photo requests we took a tuktuk back to Assi Ghat for a late, relaxing rooftop lunch. Then we sat until sundown, watching riverside life: listening to chanting from the Jain temple; watching teenagers promenade in their best clothes; and seeing extended families gathering for boat rides, complete with picnics and entertainment. We only retreated to our hotel to wait for a taxi to our night train when the mosquitoes came out in force to claim their space! V
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