The world’s most confronting destination

Varanasi in India is one of the most interesting – but also confronting – places I’ve ever been. Experienced explorers say one cannot call oneself an international traveller if you have not visited India. The challenge is clear: if the Tour de France is the ultimate test of a cyclist’s skill, endurance and stamina; India is the decisive examination of a tourist’s proficiency, patience and resilience.

Mother Ganga is one of Hinduism's most holy sites
Mother Ganga is one of Hinduism’s most holy sites

The attraction

Despite having a good idea of the challenges I’d have to face, I never doubted my desire to visit Varanasi. The motivation is overwhelming! The most ancient permanently inhabited city in the world… The holy Ganga caressing adoring pilgrims… A plethora of Ghats linking terra firma with sacred water… The Monkey God peering down from architectural perches… The spectacle of the Aarti celebration igniting a sensual overload!

The challenge

Varanasi is also one of the filthiest places I’ve seen. Streets on the approach to the river narrow into a mystifying spaghetti of twists and turns, almost as if seeking to expunge the rubbish and faecal matter that overflows onto the footpaths, the roads, even spilling into the holy Ganges… Surviving the labyrinth of streets and dodging the piles of litter only serves to deposit the un-fleeced gawker into the hands – literally – of every con and trickster known to, well, history! The extrication process, which amounts to minimising the amount of fleece being suborned, plays off against the backdrop of burning dead people – trained or bussed in from all over India – before their ashes disappear into the welcoming arms of Mother Ganga.

The reward

Despite the difficulties, perseverance rewards the visitor with a rich tapestry of history, humanity and the best damn lassi in the whole of India!

Exploration of Varanasi begins at the Ghats. These are lengthened steps – or stone terraces – that stretch along the embankment the city shares with the holy river. The Ghats form an integral part in the lives of local residents and visitors alike. On some Ghats, drying linen extend along the steps in swathes of iridescent colour. On others, pristine white sheets flutter in the breeze, their apparent ability to repel dirt and dust logic-defying ! These are known as washing or laundry Ghats.

The oxygen levels in the Ganges are 25 times higher than any other river in the world

Then there’s bathing Ghats. Religious pilgrims dunk themselves in the purifying waters to ritually cleanse their souls before worshipping their gods. The Times of India reported in 2010 that water quality criteria peg the maximum permissible faecal coliform contamination in bathing water at 2,500 per 100ml. In Varanasi, this figure ranges from 60,000 to 1.5 million! Despite these frightening numbers, I saw pilgrims waist-deep in the Ganga, washing themselves, dunking their heads beneath the water, even brushing their teeth…

However, the Ganga’s purifying nature should not be ignored. The oxygen levels in the Ganges are 25 times higher than any other river in the world. Macrophages proliferate in the polluted water, feasting on and killing organic material and bacteria. Recent figures do paint a gloomier picture though, suggesting the Ganges may be losing its oxygen-bearing capacity…

Harishchandra Ghat is a crematorium site open to all faiths
Harishchandra Ghat is a crematorium site open to all faiths

Possibly the most interesting embankments are the so-called burning Ghats or cremation sites. Hindus believe cremation on the banks of the Holy Ganga will release them from the cycle of death and rebirth, called moksha. Old people, hoping to be rid of egotistic self-interest and subsequent union with Brahman, come from all over India to die here. Families deliver the bodies of those who did not make it on any available transport, including trains and busses.

There are two burning Ghats, Manikarnika being the largest and most famous. Two-thirds of all Varanasi cremations, restricted to Hindus only, occur here. Piles of wood are stacked up everywhere and families select the type of wood for the cremation based on affordability. Sandalwood is the most expensive. Bodies arrive wrapped in cloth and decorated with flowers and garlands.  The bier is carried by a caste of untouchables, called doms. The deceased is first dunked in the Ganga and then placed on about 360kg of firewood. Only male family members participate in the cremation, which lasts about three hours. The licking flames appear particularly active early in the morning or in the late afternoon and into the night. An electric crematorium is available for those who cannot afford wood.

Raj told me the body we had rowed past was probably a cobra-bite victim

It is possible to walk along the entire 5km stretch of Varanasi Ghats, but a more relaxing way to see them is from the river. Countless guides ply their trade along the shore and are ever keen to take visitors on a boat ride. Overcoming my instinctive resistance to haggling vendors, I engaged the services of a skinny young man who based himself near the minor burning Ghat of Harishchandra. He agreed to guide me on a sunrise boat ride along the Ghats and onward to Ramnagar Fort, roughly 4km south of Harishchandra and on the opposite bank of the Ganges.

While the Fort is fairly impressive from a distance, resplendent in red sandstone, and offering scenic views from the ramparts over the river, I was disenchanted by the dilapidated state of the museums inside the complex. Far more interesting was what Raj had to tell me as he patiently rowed past oxen lazing in the water, finding relief from the burning sun. Gesturing to a shrouded body bobbing in the middle of the river he confirmed his Hindu belief in the purity of Mother Ganga. He pooh-poohed my health concerns, saying the Ganges has a natural ‘disinfectant’. Interestingly, Raj told me the body we had rowed past was probably a cobra-bite victim. “We do not cremate babies and young children, pregnant women, holy men or those killed by a cobra,” he said. “They are weighed down and dropped overboard into the river.”

Raj’s serious face broke into a smile as wide as the Ganges when I asked him to show me the lassi shop near Fort Ramnagar. He confided that all his friends had given him money to buy lassi when they heard he was rowing me to Ramnagar – it is the best in Uttar Pradesh, and probably the whole of India, he bragged. And he was right. The proud proprietor served us lassi, thick as yoghurt, in clay mugs. Having eaten the lassi, content customers smashed their mugs on the ground, the cracking of the clay an obvious hygiene statement but also an ovation for the delicious drink. I ordered a second one while Raj stuffed sealed packets filled with the nectar down his shirt for the homeward journey.

TRAVEL TIP: While the burning Ghats are accessible, be cautious about taking photographs. You will have ‘indignant’ Indians approach you, castigating your luck of ‘respect’ for the deceased. Whether this is indeed a taboo or not, I am not certain, because they are quick to offer you a tour of the burning Ghat – photography inclusive – at a price!

Stay tuned for a report on Varanasi’s awesome evening Aarti.

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