Varanasi, India. December 2013.

December 20, 2013

Oh, Varanasi! Brace yourself, you will either love it or hate it! Many say, it is a place of the best and the worst India has to offer, and even though it is only my 2nd and 3rd days in the country, I feel I’ve experienced India.
The history, the river, the ongoing funeral ceremonies, the garbage, the animals, the holiness, the sadhus, the temples, the amount of people and touts – incredible! As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi won’t leave you unmoved.


Varanasi, also know as Kashi (City of Life) and for locals as Banares, is regarded as one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism. Established in 1200 B.C., at the time of Gautama Buddha (6th century B.C.) it became a capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. They say, the Buddha has founded Buddhism in nearby Sarnath in 528 B.C.;  the importance of this place was witnessed and recorded by many travelers and religious people visiting Varanasi. In the 8th century A.D., Adi Shankara established the  Shiva worship as a principal sect of the city, and so it remains a city dedicated to the Lord Shiva The Destroyer.

In 1194, the city fell into the hands of a Turkish king Qutub-ud-din Aibak who ordered the destruction of over one thousand temples in the city. The following 300 years under the Muslim rule turned out to be disastrous for the city and Hindu worshippers. In the 16th century, a liberal Mughal emperor, Akbar brought a cultural revival to the city and ordered a construction of two temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, however, the city succumbed to his great grandson Aurangzeb in 1665 again.

In 1897, Mark Twain, the renowned Indophile, said of Varanasi, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Despite the ancient (or more shabby and run-down) look, much of Varanasi was built during the 18th century by Rajput and Maratha kings.

Pilgrims come to the ghats (piers) of the Ganga river to perform puja or to wash away a lifetime of sins; but it is an especially auspicious place to die, since dying in Varanasi will bring you a liberation from the cycle of life and death (moksha).

It is also a place, where you inescapably share the narrow alleyways (called galis) with cows, goats, humans, dogs, monkeys and multiple modes of transportation. A chaos, that brings the best and the worst out of you and every human, but keeps you in control of your surroundings and surprisingly, offers you serenity and a feel of incredible bonding with everything around you.
I loved it.


After a sleepless night on a train, spent fighting off the army of roaches, I arrived to Varanasi train station 3 hours behind the schedule. My hotel pre-arranged a tuk-tuk pick up and a poor driver waited for me on the station since 8.30 am. On a train, I met an interesting couple from Moscow who were on their honeymoon (though, it was theirs 4th time in India). We said goodbyes and parted our ways, knowing that we inevitably run into each other somewhere by Ganga.

I booked Shiva Kashi Guesthouse, 2 minutes walk to the Rana Ghat. Location was great and despite the labyrinth of galis, easy to find. I paid about Rs.850 per night, which was that of a lower middle class hotel. The room was located on the 3rd floor with a nice balcony overlooking the roofs, though I wasn’t able to step outside as crazy monkeys occupied it at all times. Rajiv (aka Raju), the general manager, and I became friends very quickly, and when I complained that I haven’t slept naked in the last 5 days, he agreed to provide me with a free space heater (later I found out that they had only one in house and sometimes rented it, unwillingly, for an extra fee).

After a smooth check-in, I went to the river; it was already past noon and I had a 5 page list of things to see. But the main and only experience of Varanasi is ambience. Wherever you walk, shop, sit or eat, it surrounds you, and you never feel as you are missing out on something because the city is happening around you, the sights are in everything and everybody you look at. You live the city.


I walked along the Ganga river and despite my anticipation of it being dirty and infested with dead bodies (I know, it sounds silly), it was not. It didn’t smell and the banks of the river were clean and litter-free. There are about 80 ghats on the Ganga, with about a dozen in Varanasi, every one of them has its own story or legend attached to it.
Deshashwamedh Ghat or the Main ghat, was the first on my way, there are two myths associated with it, one – that Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva, and another – it was a place where Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 (or 10,000) horses during Dasa.


Then, a few ghats north, I reached the Manikarnika Ghat, or The Burning Ghat.  Legend goes that when Mata Sati sacrificed her life by setting herself on fire, Lord Shiva took her burnt body to Hymalay. While being carried away, parts of her body started to fall back on Earth and a piece of her ear ornament fell down at the place of Manikarnika ghat.  It is perhaps the oldest and the holiest ghat in Varanasi; it is the place of the final rest of many people who come to Varanasi to die or whose bodies are brought to be set ablaze on funeral pyres, that burn continuously day and night. Neither pictures nor inappropriate behavior are allowed, however, local people shout, pee, laugh and behave in a disrespectful (for my culture funeral tradition) ways everywhere. They interrupt the solemnity of the farewell ceremony with their multiple touts and cheap tricks to get your money.


The tout I encounter the most is the one when they tell you, pointing at, what is looks like, abandoned house, that they care for the dying people at the hospice. None of the dying people can afford to buy the wood for the pyre (I checked, it is Rs.5 per kilo of regular wood, and if a person dies without the means to pay for it, local people donate the money to cover the ceremony and to give a proper funeral).


Needless to say, that Indian hospices have a well known awful tradition of harvesting body organs from the people (with their consent, of course) they cater and care for. For most of victims, it is the only way to die with some degree of dignity.

In any case, I chose to ignore the money request for the hospice, instead I went behind the Ghat in search of Nepali Temple. Of course, I had an unwelcome guide who dragged himself around the Ghat and to the Temple with me. The Nepali Temple is located near the Lalita Ghat and was commissioned by the Nepali king. The wood and wood-craftsmen were brought from Nepal and that is why this place is so different. Perhaps it is the only original Nepali temple in the whole of India.  In my opinion, the temple was small and, even though, exquisitely done, wasn’t impressive. The sex scenes were carved on the wooden pillars supporting the roof which, according to my drooling with excitement guide were “the place where young and unmarried Indian girls and boys come to receive their first sexual experience and education”. I paid Rs.15 admission fee, donated few more rupees for the temple and left.


I had to part with my “guide” and shyly but firmly, he asked me for Rs.200 donation, which was outrageous for 10 minutes we spent together. I gave him Rs.100, knowing that perhaps it was more he had made in a whole week. Before leaving, he showed me the way to Vishwanath Temple, also know as Golden Temple, though warning me that no Hindus are allowed in.

I walked along the galis in direction he pointed me, and very soon by the quantity of flower shops and amount of people, it became clear that the temple was somewhere near. First of all, I had to surrender all my possessions at the nearby silk shop (for no fee, as one of the security guards kindly informed me), except for my wallet and a passport. After passing through the metal detector, I stepped on the Vishwanath gali and continued my way. Very soon, I saw another entrance and I could tell that was the main entrance to the Temple. However, before entering I was stopped by the security guard telling me that as a non Hindu I couldn’t go inside.
Vishnawath Temple is the holiest existing place for Hindus, where at least once in life, a Hindu is expected to do a pilgrimage to.  A Shiva temple has been mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts –  Puranas. The first temple (along with the entire city) was demolished by Qutub-ud-din Aibak in 1194 and it was the first of the sixth distractions that followed soon. Aurangzeb ordered to build Gyanvapi Mosque on the site of Vishwanath temple (the ruins of the old temple are still visible behind the mosque), and it is said that the chief priest of the temple jumped into the well with the original Shiva Linga. The current temple was built by Ahilya Bai Holkar, the queen of Malwa kingdom, in 1780; the 800 kgs of gold plating for the tower and dome was provided by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore.

Vishwanath Tample attracts up to 3 million visitors a day and that day it looked very busy (also due to a visit of a political leader passing through town with a re-election campaign and also paying his respect to Hindu god). Understandably, as a Christian, I wasn’t allowed to enter, or…. I wouldn’t have been had I not have a tongue and determination to speak out. I asked for a person in charge of security, when he was identified and I was presented to him, I pleaded my case. He asked me what country I came from and after hearing “Belarus”, he asked me wether I believed in Hinduism. I said that I believe in one God who had different faces to different people. I also pledged my respect for traditions of Hindus and promised not to disrespect in any way their ceremonies if allowed inside. After acquiring my American passport info, he announced his verdict that I was allowed to enter. I have to admit, saying that I was from Belarus but presenting a US passport, didn’t go well with him, that is why I had to show him with my finger a line in the passport stating my place of birth and tell him my entire story of becoming a US citizen but remaining a Belarusian in heart.

With shoes off and flowers in hand, I entered the holiest of holy. It was crowded, dirty and orderless, yet it was spiritual, enlightening and extremely special. I brought my flower donation and was given a white tika on my forehead and a garland of flowers in return. In organized line, I entered the main small shrine, observed and repeated what most people around me did – poured milk-like substance and wrapped a flower neckless around the linga aka penis  (60cm tall and 90 cm in circumference) of the Shiva deity housed in a silver altar inside the main temple. Yes, the Shiva God is represented as penis. After paying, in my opinion quite successfully, my duty to Lord Shiva, I made a small tour around the compound and left the premises. I thanked the guards again for allowing me to enter, bought a few souvenirs for my friend Cristhian and myself and headed back to the Ghats.


Around 6 pm I reached the Main Ghat and to my pleasant surprise found out that an aarti performance/ceremony was about to start. Every evening, a group of priest perform “Angi Pooja” (worship to fire) dedicated to Lord Shiva, river Ganga, Surya (sun), Agni (fire) and the whole universe. I was offered to hire a boat for Rs.400 to see the performance from the river, but I denied it and stayed on the Ghat, which provided  great, if not the best, views.


The ceremony consisted of 6 or 8 priests standing on each individual platforms on the ghat and performing well-synchronized movements of dedication – with fire, Shiva snake urns, whips (or what looked to me as a whip) and other objects. It was very colorful, but very loud as bells and drums were testing my hearing abilities. It lasted for about an hour, after which I headed back to the guesthouse to get some food and sleep.

Saturday, Dec 21.
I woke up at 5.30 am in order to see the sunrise on the Ganga. I walked to the Ghat at around 6 am but strong fog hanging over the city prevented boats from going to the river. I waited for about 30 minutes and then hired a 1.5 hour boat ride (Rs.200, plus Rs.100 tip) to take me along the river from one burning ghat to another (apparently, Varanasi had two funeral ghats).

The city looked absolutely picturesque from the water. My guide/boatman had a perfect conduct of English and a great knowledge of the city’s history. He kept pointing at different palaces, telling the stories of the former owners – the Maharajas of Mumbai or Jaipur, and the legends associated with this or that king’s property. Morning is the busiest time the river ever gets, and perhaps the best time to see the ghats in sun rising over the city.


After having a breakfast at Mona Lisa cafe (my first food outside home), I headed north to see the Alamgir (aka Aurangzeb) Mosque, Gauri Matha Temple and Kaal Bhairav Temple. They are all located off Panchganga Ghat – the meeting place of five rivers and the place where the spiritual history of India made a turning point. It was on the steps of this ghat that Swami Rananand initiated Kabir Sahib.


On my way there, I stopped by the Burning Ghat to see something I missed the day before – the eternal fire, said to be burning for the last 3,000 years. I could take a picture of the building from the outside, but one of the local “i am not a guide” man, allowed me to come up and take a photo of the fire for “1000 or 500 rupees, whatever little I could spare”. I refused to take any pictures for this price or any less money for that reason, so I left the place in not so holy state of mind, but not before giving a guy my opinion about his awful way of treating his own relics and people who come to admire them and pay respect.


Alamgir Mosque is the largest river-side building in Varanasi, dominating the Panchganga ghat with its impressive structure. It is built by Aurangzeb on the foundation of Bindu Madhava, a Hindu temple, and after being destroyed by the flood in 1948, its interior is poor and badly preserved, however, its exterior is grand and magnificent.

There was a temple, just a chicken wire away from Alamgir mosque. As many of them in Varanasi, it was very small and easy to miss, but unmistakable flower sellers guided me to the right place. It was a beautiful small shrine; I walked in, gave my donation and left. Like everything else in Varanasi, it was incredibly dirty inside, and my socks got drenched with muddy water the moment I stepped inside.

Tip: you can enter the temples without giving any offers, but it is customary to bring flowers from the outside; you can simply request flowers for Rs.10 or Rs.20, instead of falling into the same trap with me – a pile of flowers and a Rs.200 bill. Also, I found it convenient to have two pairs of socks with me, one for the all shoes-free areas (temples, mosques, shops).

I walked along the galis, enjoying the hectic yet organized way of Varanasi’s disorderly life. Kaal Bhairav Temple was another place I wanted to see before going to the south of city. Kaal Bhairav is a dreaded form of Lord Shiva avatar symbolizing death and is known as the most ancient temple of Varanasi. I paid my tribute, donated flowers and money, and per tradition, purchased a black thread (Rs.10) to be tied around my wrist to protect me against evil. The head priest of the temple struck up a conversation with me and later brought me sweets to eat, I assumed it to be the mandatory sweets offered to the followers so I couldn’t deny an offer and ate it with a thought that this candy would definitely make me sick.


After leaving the temple, I visited a highly recommended Mehrota Silk Factory and purchased 2 beautiful scarfs Rs.1000 each.

Tip: the streets of Varanasi are uninviting, tangled and claustrophobic, but at the same time they are an adventurous way to discover the city and inevitably get lost.  When my google map failed me (in Varanas,i  it happened all the time), I simply asked people in the galis and they were eager to point the right direction.
I still had 3 hours before my train to Delhi, so I walked to Chowk, the main road.

There I hired a cycle rickshaw (about 30mins ride) to take me to Tulsi Manas Temple, Durga Temple and Sankat Mochan Temple in a New Town. If I thought that walking in galis among cows and motorcycles was an adventure, then the rickshaw ride down Chowk was by far the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. Perhaps, along with Ghats, it was my favorite place in the whole of town. The pace and amount of action, people, vehicles, animals can’t be described with any words and recorded with any camera.


We reached Sankat Mochan Temple  first (also know as Hanuman temple), a famous home to thousands of monkeys. Sankat Mochan means “reliever from trouble” in Hindi and the current temple was built in early 1900s by the freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya (he also founded the Banaras Hindu University). It is believed that the temple was built on the very spot where a Hindu poet-saint Tulsidas had a visions of Hanuman. People hope that regular visits to temple will gain them special favors from Hanuman who is famous for neutralizing  the ill-effects of practically any planer that has an effect on human life.  It is one of the sacred temples of Hindu, and the offerings to Hanuman is sold in a form of a special sweets (besan ke ladoo) from the local stores.


After leaving all my belongings at the deposit stall, I walked in, saw many moneys, huge line of people patiently waiting to give Hanuman their sweets and read their prayers. I barely had time to visit two other places so I didn’t linger for long. At the deposit stall, I was requested to pay Rs.20 for the service. I looked around and noticed that locals weren’t paying anything, just picking up their stuff and leaving. The temple attendants lied to me again.

Tulsi Manas Mandir, built in 1964, is the only temple made out of white marble and surrounded by a beautiful garden. There are cultural and historical importance attached to the temple. They say that Goswami Tulsidas had written an ancient Hindu Epic “Ramncharitmanas” at this place, describing the life of Lord Rama in this epic. The temple was beautiful on the outside with its garden and statues, but completely bare inside.


The last temple on my trip to Varanasi was Durga Mandir, built 500 years ago. It is a great example of the beautiful Indian stone work art. After paying my respect and acquiring yet another (third for today) tika, I left.


My rickshaw driver safely got me back to Godaulia crossing and after paying Rs.250 for his time and services, I made my way back to the guesthouse.

Before leaving the guesthouse, Raju, showed me yet another temple – Lahiri Lore, located next to the hotel, and dedicated to the creator of Kriya Yoga. I was given a private tour of the premises, because the main priest just finished the ceremony and was free to show me around;  after I was rushed out by Raju who was afraid I would miss my Shiva Ganga train to Delhi at 7.15 pm.

A pre-arranged tuk-tuk (Rs.250) waited for me around the corner and after giving Raju a big hug, I braced myself for yet another crazy ride through town, hoping that all the donations given to the gods of Varanasi would keep me safe.


I left Varanasi, but I am definite, this city will never leave me. All the negativity or inconveniences of this place were forgiven and forgotten the moment I turned to the next galis, the touts and lies of the Temple attendants were erased from the memory by the spiritual beauty and devotion of the Hindu followers. I hope to come back, but I doubt i will ever do; however, on the train back to Delhi and eventually to New York, I will carry a beautiful bracelet that would protect me and remind me of the holy city of Lord Shiva.


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Amer R says:

You should be writing for Lonely Planet, good stuff really just as if I was there in person.