The Holy City of Varanasi

Varanasi was always a “must do” on our trip and for at least a year we have planned to be in the city at the time of Dev Deepawali. This takes place on the night of the first full moon after Divali when Hindus believe the Gods descend to earth to bathe in the sacred waters of the river Ganges. The city fills up with worshipping pilgrims as well as visitors who come to see more than a million small flames burning along the water steps or ghats, up and down the river. We have been so looking forward to seeing this extraordinary, spectacular and spiritual sight.

We arrived the day before the actual festival of Dev Deepawali and found everyone very busy preparing. Everywhere was being swept and cleaned, boatmen painting their boats along the ghats and decorations and lights being hung. That evening we attended the traditional daily Puja ceremony on Dashashwamedh Ghat which was packed with Indian families in the city for the festival.

Everyone cramming into Dashahwamedh Ghat before the Puja ceremony
Accolytes waving flaming Christmas tree shaped objects around was all part of it!

As it got dark on the following evening of Dev Deepawali, nearly everyone from our hostel opted to go onto the river to watch the ceremonies from their boat. There were hundreds of boats, some beautifully decorated and lit, cruising up and down the dark two mile stretch of water in front of the main ghats. This vantage point provided an amazing view of the millions of aarti lights, sparkling fairy lights, fireworks and illuminations as well as the different activities going on all along the ghats. You could also clearly see the fires from the funeral pyres at the burning ghats – they go on day and night without cease, and we were told that daily around 200, or nearly 70,000 bodies a year are cremated along the banks of the Ganges in the city.

The burning ghat from the river

There was a fantastic atmosphere of festival everywhere; many thousands celebrating their religion with friends and families as well as enjoying the spectacle and generally having a good time. It was great to share the evening with both Indian and foreign tourists from The Wander Station hostel. Afterwards Paul and I split off to get dinner at a excellent local restaurant (very tiny with only 4 tables!). There we met an interesting older Indian guy who took a shine to Paul and told him he should visit Hindu and other religion’s temples and sites, in order to “bear witness” to all beliefs. We found this an interesting concept and resolved to do more of this during our travels. When we got back to the hostel the party on the rooftop was in full swing and we managed to stay for a couple of beers before needing to hit our bunks!

Dashashwamedh Ghat on the evening of Dev Deepawali
Along the ghats
Indian dancers performing

Varanasi is notorious for being dirty, noisy and a challenging place to visit but actually the airport is very modern and the outskirts of the city are as good, or better than other Indian cities we have seen. It’s only the lanes in the ancient centre that are so tiny, twisting, dark and narrow, full of people, animals and unidentifiable sounds and smells. Cars cannot enter them, but unfortunately motor bikes can, so when walking you have to squeeze back against the walls every two minutes as guys roar past, weaving and honking madly. Until recently you would also have walked through literally ankle deep rubbish and crap, but now the lanes and ghats are cleaned and swept daily, so they are much more pleasant and you only have to watch for the daily deposits of cow poo or dog shit from the endless feral dogs that doze or squabble every few metres.

An almost typical lane in the old part of the city (no scabby dogs in the picture!)

Prime Minister Modi made an election vow to clean the River Ganges when he was voted in, but has struggled to keep this promise, as although a lot of work is taking place, huge quantities of waste as well as raw sewage still enters the soupy, brown river waters where people worship, wash and swim every day. As someone who struggled to recover from a severe eye infection, I winced every time I saw a pilgrim duck their head under or splash water over their face!

We went for full on hostelling in Varanasi with mixed success. We’ve consistently found that hostel staff are helpful, kind and full of useful information. However we were in a mixed four bed dorm so sharing for the first time. On night one we had an Indian guy rooming with us. He smoked in the bathroom, talked loudly on his phone until well gone midnight, and kept his massively noisy cubicle fan on all night in spite of the room being air con cooled. On night two we got a friendly young Chilean woman. After the Dev Dheepawali celebrations she got very drunk and threw up in the bathroom during the night. On night three, mercifully our roomie didn’t turn up so we had some peace and quiet! We are in a pod hostel for ten nights during the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland in December but, that apart, we’ve decided that we enjoy hostel stays, but only if we can have a private room with a door that locks!

Paul peeking out from his bunk bed
The sights walking along the ghats during the day
View of the city along the sweep of the Ganges
This guy was just sitting quietly playing his flute and contemplating the river as we passed by
Four ancient Sadhus or holy men wandering along!

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