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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Ganges, India, long term travel, Travel, Uncategorized, Varanasi

Varanasi – Part Two

Seeing the Ganges and ghats with Delip.

I wake up at 5am to take a boat ride down the Ganges at sunrise. This is the time when the people of Varanasi rise to say their morning prayers and bathe in the river. I walk out of the hotel, and less than 30 seconds later I have organized a 1 ½ hour boat ride for 200 rupees (about $4). Delip is my boatsman. He is 16 and a native of Varanasi. I immediately recognize his bracelet from the brother/sister festival, so we begin talking about our families. It turns out that Leslie from Alka Hotel is Delip’s Uncle.

He asks where I am from, and he tells me about his friends from California, who he one day hopes to visit. To this day, he’s never left Varanasi. I don’t think many people do, given their beliefs on how sacred this place is.

Delip takes me down the river to a small burning ghat where a few cremations are taking place. We then go up-river to the main burning ghat, Manikarnika. Up to 300 cremations can take place in just one day. Three 3-story buildings surround this ghat, and they serve as hospices for Manikarnika.


We pull right up to the steps, and a worker from the ghat steps into our boat. He tells me about the rituals that take place before and during a cremation. Once a person passes, it’s customary that the men of the family take the body down to the Ganges, for what they call the “last bath.” The body is then registered at the police station, which sits next to the hospices. The body is then wrapped and placed inside a temple, where the family circles the body 5 times- once for each element- earth, water, wind, fire and ether (spirit). The wood for the funeral is selected. Huge piles of wood are stacked on the ghats, and each type of wood comes at a different price, sandalwood being one of the most expensive. The body is now taken down to the ghat and placed on a funeral pyre, and a flame is brought down from the main fire, and the cremation begins.

If a father has died, then the eldest son shaves his whole head, including facial hair. No matter who dies in the family, only the men attend the cremation, the women stay home to tend to the rest of the family. What is most interesting is that all of these steps are carried out solely by the family, from the last bath to the placing of the body on the ghat. I am told this not a sad time, and it’s neither odd nor sad to watch. It is simply a part of life, and they have, in a way, achieved what most Indian Hindus would want by dying in this holy city.

After the boat ride, Delip offers to meet me later in the morning to take me to the silk factories. We arrange to meet at 10. We meet down by the river and walk along the ghats that we had rode past earlier in the day. We then turn onto a main street, weave through a couple of alleyways and end up at Veg Silk shop, where I watch pashminas, blankets and saris being created by hand. What an art!

I spend the afternoon trying to find some respite from the heat, but venture out for dinner locally just after sunset, after the temperature dips.

I had read about Ganga Fuji restaurant in both Lonely Planet and in the Spice Jet magazine on my flight to Varanasi, so I decide to check it out, especially considering there is live music every evening. I dine on Chicken Tikka, Naan and a spinach dish, while listening to the sitar music.

Since dinner is so good, I go back to Ganga Fuji for breakfast the following morning. Here, I have my first real chai tea – sooooo good! I get to talking to the owner about his restaurant and ayurvedic massage business, and then I tell him how I learned about his restaurant. He is so excited to hear about his mention in the Spice Jet magazine, that I am left no choice but to run back to the hotel and get the copy of the magazine for him to see. When I return, he asks me to read him the blurb on the restaurant, which was featured in an article on what to do with 48 hours in Varanasi. I think this man is going to cry! I leave the magazine article with him, and he shows me where he will display it in his lobby.

My time in Varanasi has come to an end. I am off to Rajasthan next, but not without a newfound appreciation for Hinduism and a slight obsession with masala chai…

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Ganges, India, long term travel, Travel, Travel Wishlist, Uncategorized, Varanasi



I make it safely to Varanasi, as do my bags, and I spot my name outside the terminal for my hotel pickup (which is always a good feeling). I share a bus to Alka hotel with a couple of other tourists. The airport is only 13km from the city center, but the journey takes about an hour, due to congestion and road conditions.I find myself sucking in when we’re about to clip a pedestrian or side-swipe another vehicle. For some reason, drivers don’t like to pick one lane, and prefer to drive in the middle of the road. It seems the rule is the bigger vehicle gets right of way, and mopeds just bob and weave in between.

As we get closer to what feels like the city center, I begin looking for the hotel. Well, I begin looking for something somewhat clean, or new, but who am I kidding- this is Varanasi, which Mark Twain describes as “older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” I don’t think anyone can sum up this city better.

A few minutes later, our driver pulls over, and three men meet us to carry our bags. We are told to follow. We enter a narrow alleyway, pass some cows, goats, and dogs, go down some steps and around a corner and arrive at Alka. We are away from the blaring horns of the rickshaw and perched above the great River Ganges.

It is HOT! I am thankful for booking a room with AC even though it doesn’t appear to be working. A man, who introduces himself as “second in command” comes up to take a look at the wall unit. He explains that the one generator they have for the hotel is off right now, but he assures me it will be back on within an hour. I really want to believe him! He asks me my name on the way back downstairs to the lobby, and when I tell him, he seems surprised. He tells me we will  get along so well because our names are so similar. Well, he has my attention. “What Hindi name sounds like Eleanor?” I think to myself.  So I ask him his name and he replies, “Leslie.” I chuckle to myself. I like this man already.


The ghats of Varanasi, leading down to the Ganges.

A little history on Varanasi- It is one of the oldest cities in India, and the most spiritual. Considered to be the birthplace of Hinduism, this is where all Hindus hope to be when they die. Only then can they break the cycle of birth and re-birth, known as moksha. It’s also a place where many come to cremate the deceased. The cremations take place on the ghats, which are steps leading down to the river, and apparently, one family in Varanasi is in charge of all cremations.

The Ganges River, like most rivers in India, serves many purposes. It’s a place for prayer, bathing, laundry, yoga, cremating the dead, and fishing. It’s a mode of transportation, but also unfortunately, a main sewage system. According to Lonely Planet, water samples from the river contain over 5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 4 ounces. Safe bathing water should contain less than 500. That’s India for you. Surprisingly, the river doesn’t smell!