Friday, 6 February 2015

India: Varanasi

Next stop on our journey around India was Varanasi, probably one of the most chaotic places we've visited yet. We've been pretty excited to see Varanasi for a loooong time, mainly because of its sanctity within the Hindu religion, something which we've been trying our hardest to embrace and educate ourselves in as we've been going along. Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India and is often referred to as "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of Shiva", and "the city of learning" so you can imagine how important it was for us to visit. Many Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation - if you are cremated in the city and your ashes thrown into the Ganges, you will attain nirvana. This ends the life/death cycle which is preferable to the majority of Hindus because it means all their sins are forgiven and they can finally rest in peace rather than being reborn as something less preferable than a human, or even a human of a lower cast (if possible) in another life. We'll discuss this in more detail in a while.

We stayed at Stops Hostel during our time in the city. We absolutely loved the hostel and felt so at home there we ended up staying an extra two days! When we arrived we were greeted by bright displays of colour, painted walls, chalk boards, random furniture and a general chilled out vibe. The manager explained to us that a number of tours and activities were planned for each day of the week and that we could do a cooking class, a sunrise river boat tour along the Ganges, an evening boat tour to the burning ghats, a market tour, a temple tour, yoga classes, and much more. They even offered massages for a small donation which was very tempting. We stayed in a 16 bed dorm but we also found out that there was the opportunity to sleep in tents on the roof (the cheapest option available) which you would initially think is a bit silly considering there are beds available in dorm rooms with actual mattresses but it was surprising how many people were checking out of the dorm and into the tents at the earliest opportunity - they were fully booked for the entire duration of our stay! The tents were located on the roof and had a really nice area where you could chill out and socialise. Maybe worth a try if you ever visit! Also on the roof were the communal toilet and shower cubicles, each of which were painted in the theme of a particular film, some of which included Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It certainly made for some interesting toilet/shower breaks! The hostel also provided free breakfast - the first hostel we've come across that does so which we obviously loved. Every morning there were endless supplies of cornflakes, boiled eggs, toast with butter and jam, coffee, and chai which allowed us to fill our bellies up for the day.

As we arrived pretty late in the day, and weren't yet sure of our whereabouts we asked for some advice on where to eat and were told that Kerala Cafe, about a two minute walk away had some pretty good food. We decided to visit and found the cheapest food yet (around 50p for a huge portion!) VERY spicy but delicious all the same. After our great feed we decided an early night was in order as we had booked a sunrise boat tour of the ghats for the next morning - we were not looking forward to our 4.30am alarms!

Before we knew it we were awoken to the dreaded sound of our alarm. Still pitch black outside, freezing cold and still half asleep we followed our guide on a 5 minute walk from the hostel to the Ganges river. Here we were met by the most friendly young man - Babu, who would be our boat rower for the tour. This boat ride was very chilled, taking a slow pace up the river where we admired the local laundrettes hand-washing bags of laundry from the surrounding houses and hotels. We also got to see many local people having their morning bath in the river (even though it was freezing cold outside!), they do this as they believe it washes away their sins. When the sun rose around 6.30am, we could finally see just how many people were at the ghats waiting to wash in the Ganges and start a new day afresh. On our way back towards the hostel Babu kindly stopped at a small stall selling chai - a bargain at only 5p a cup! We were feeling pretty exhausted after our early start, so after taking full advantage of our all you can eat inclusive breakfast at the hostel we decided that some down time was in order so set up in the chill out space in our dorm room to begin planning our next leg of the adventure. This proved to be a very frustrating task indeed, as every route we planned to take brought us more and more dead ends. After hours upon hours of planning, our hard work had worked up our appetites, which was only going to be fulfilled by McDonalds - thank god for google maps pointing us in the right direction!

The next morning we thought we would have a wander around the streets of the city - what a maze this turned out to be! The streets were so windy and narrow it was impossible to navigate our way around. After aimlessly wandering for a few hours and feeling ourselves getting a little overwhelmed we took refuge in Brown Bread Bakery. We had been warned about the many fake copies of this restaurant but a kind local man reassured us this was the original. We were delighted with our amazing pasta dishes and the bread basket that accompanied it was to die for! After months and months of Asian bread (you'll know what we mean if you've been) it was like a dream come true to taste the freshly baked goods.

That evening we were feeling inspired by the city and eager to learn more about the ghats and the significance of Varanasi city within the Hindu religion so we booked another river boat tour through the hostel, however this time we would have a guide, Anil, to explain everything in a lot more detail. As we travelled up the river Anil first explained about the 'burning ghats'. Manikarnika Ghat is the most well known place for Hindu cremation, carrying out around 200 cremations per day, as they believe that cremation here will bring moksha (emancipation, liberation, release). The price of a cremation here is very expensive and the type of cremation depends on a persons caste. The body burns best using sandalwood, which is the most expensive and so can only be afforded by the richest families. If a cheaper wood is used then the body will burn more slowly, or not completely which is undesirable. The ashes are then collected and thrown into the river. Women are completely banned from attending any cremation at the ghats, as it is believed that women bring too much sorrow to the event. Burning of the body is not to be looked at as a sad event; but rather a new beginning.

Next on the tour we stopped at Dashashwamedh Ghat where every evening five priests perform Ganga Aarti (Agni Pooja) which is a dedication made to Lord Shiva, the Ganga River, the Sun, Fire and whole universe. This is a spiritual ritual which takes place along the entire length of the Ganga river. There were hundreds of boats filled with both tourists and pilgrims who come here daily to worship Lord Shiva. We watched as the priests began the ceremony with large flaming lamps and the chanting of mantra and songs. The crowds in the boats followed this by lighting their own lamps on placing them into the water lighting up the whole river. Our heads almost exploding with new information we decided a good dinner was necessary so we left the boat and went on a mission to find something delicious.

Varanasi really was one of the most inspiring places we've visited so far, we hope the pictures capture the beautiful chaos better than our words... 

Planning our next move
Stops Hostel Wall Art

Babu on the Sunrise Boat Tour

And they say India is third world.. :P

5p Chai 


Evening Aarti Ceremony

Happy Wanderers

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