India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges

4 Jan
Varanasi at sunrise

Varanasi at sunrise

The moment I fell for Varanasi was when it finally became peaceful. It was six in the morning, the pale sun was lifting a yawning head above the skyline and everything was dripping in an orange and pink haze.

Our captain.

Our captain.

The boy and I boarded a small rowboat with two young American girls from our hotel and our rower – an older gentleman with a welcoming smile. A little boy – no more than six or seven – hopped across the deck and over other boats to ply us with candles draped in marigolds to light and send bobbing out over the Ganges. We agreed to the inflated price he was offering and handed over our rupees, before lighting our candles, making a wish and nudging them away from the boat. Around us, dozens of other tourists were doing the same thing but – rather than feeling like we were on a tour group with these strangers – it felt oddly peaceful.

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We had been in Varanasi for less than 24 hours, having arrived via a 12 hour train journey from Delhi. I was still feeling delicate, having succumbed to Delhi Belly sickness two days prior, which saw me curled up in the fetal position at my friend’s flat in Delhi for an extended period of time. Primed with antibiotics and three other unpronounceable pills, the boy and I took a risk of boarding our planned on train and continuing our journey.

Vara2

Luckily, I managed to rest and I arrived in Varanasi feeling worse for wear but ready to continue our trip with increasing hopefulness.

Varanasi is considered the holy city in India. Belief goes that if you come to die in Varanasi and have your body cremated by the riverside at one of the burning ghats and your ashes spread by your relatives in the Mother Ganga (as they all refer to it as) you will break the cycle of reincarnation, finally allowing your soul to escape to the other world. It is here that people come to pray, to die, to live – it is a city full of more noise and colour than anywhere else I experienced in India but it also has its wealth of peace.

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We were met at the station by a young man from our hotel – Kedareswar Bed and Breakfast, a small, family-run place right on the river Ganges. We’d arranged the pick-up ahead of time opting for a non-AC car. What we found was barely a car itself dating back to the 1960s and driven by a man so sun-weathered and wrinkled we were amazed he was still able to walk, let along operate a vehicle. After multiple attempts to shut the trunk and doors of the pea-green car, our bottle-glasses wearing driver inched his way out of the train station lot into the insanity of Varanasi’s traffic.

Vara1

We had both thought that Delhi was bad – but Varanasi took chaos to a whole new level. It is the superstar of insane roads and with the smog, dirt and stench rolling in through our windows, it was soon clear that my nausea had not yet abated and that taking an AC car would have probably been wiser.

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When finally we arrived at the B&B – located at the end of a string of winding alleyways piled high with cow dung and rubbish – we were most glad to discover our place of residence for the night was cool, clean and relatively quiet bar the workmen pounding away on the building next door. It faced straight onto the Ganges and, at the cost of £16 for the night for a room with AC and private bath, was just right.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

After a nap, we went out exploring, but the 35 degree heat proved too much for my exhausted self – having not really eaten for two days I was weak. Instead, we did what we normally avoid and opted to take a tour arranged by the hotel. I’d heard negative things about the tours in Varanasi being overpriced and usually a scam, but we lucked out and had an honest hotelier who arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk with a knowledgeable and friendly driver all around the city.

The

The Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

We toured the beautiful, tree-lined grounds of Banaras Hindu University – one of the top universities in the country according to our driver – and proceeded to visit four different temples, including the peaceful Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Hanuman, and the 8th century Durga temple, with its grounds filled with (not so evil) monkeys. For £5 for the tour for us both, it was well worthwhile in my state.

Evening puja.

Evening puja.

That evening, we punted out onto the Ganges in a private rowboat (arranged, again, by our hotel at a steal of 100r (or, £1.20 each) to watch the evening puja (or prayer) ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Dozens of other boats came up beside us but we were lucky to be the only couple with a whole boat to ourselves to sit back in and relax while we watched the intense dance of men from the temple wearing orange and red, dance with fire and make music.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

But it was the next morning when I really fell for Varanasi. In that beautiful morning light, the city came alive as hundreds of people bathed in the Ganges, said their prayers and let the cremated ashes of their relatives float out onto the river. Despite the continual chaos of the city, that morning’s boat ride was filled with peace.

Our candles drift out.

Our candles drift out.

Varanasi for us both ended up being a highlight, which surprised me not only because I was still quite ill but because I had read numerous negative stories about it before arriving.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

I believe much of our enjoyment came from staying in a place with friendly owners, who seemed to really care about their guests, without wanting to rip them off or overcharge for tours/transfers/the room. It was basic but just right for letting the peace of Varanasi wash over our tired, Delhi trod-souls.

In Part 4, the boy and I escape the heat of central India and head north to the Himalayan hills of a tea estate and Darjeeling in West Bengal.

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2 Responses to “India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges”

  1. Annick Gwilt January 5, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    Hi Alwynne !
    What an amazing account of your travel through India. I felt I was travelling with you and Lee .
    How lovely to see pictures from two of my favorite people !
    Reading about the evil monkey surely made me laugh.
    I enjoyed the way the articles were written.
    Looking forward to reading part 4
    Annick

    • gwiltypleasures January 9, 2013 at 10:39 am #

      Aww thanks for stopping by Annick! Glad you enjoyed!

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