My 30th travelling destination was fated to be India. A country and culture I have been fascinated with for a number of years largely brought about through my life in the UK working with a number of Indians and gaining exposure to amazing Indian food even if the less authentic kind. Not to mention my love for yoga founded in this beautiful place.
My extensive travels through Asia, south east Asia and Africa meant I didn't get much of a culture shock per say but I did get a battle of the senses. Everything in India is intense, the noise, the cows, the smells both of food, spices but also dirt and litter. I chose a tour which covered off Nepal, and India so these posts explore the India leg.
Varanasi The first stop across from Nepal was the famous town of Varanasi which is known for the Ganges. The river Ganges is an almost mythical creature in india, it is where they bathe, wash, clean, pray and also cremate which was a new one for me. We were fortunate to get to do an evening boat ride the day we arrived which was such a special experience. We all lit small candles in banana leaf baskets filled with magnolia flowers and dropped them in the river from dust to dark. This is a praying practice and in the darkness the river is lit by the hundreds of candle lights and orange of the magnolia.
We then cruised to witness a evening prayer ceremony on the river bank which consisted of 5 platforms each occupied by a priest performing a ritual or what seems as a synchronised dance between the 5 of them. There is someone on the loudspeakers reciting the prayers, instruments sounding all across a backdrop of hundreds of boats jammed together to watch the spectacle and hundreds of people worshiping on the river banks. The boats were so tightly packed together traders can easily jump between the boats selling more candles or chai masala which we had by now become well acquainted with.
That evening we went local yet European to have what was deemed the best apple pie. We had pizza and pie which was good but it had nothing on my granny's apple pie! We did a sunrise boat cruise as well while in Varanasi, this was amazing. We were lucky with a beautiful sunrise and the peacefulness of the river was a great experience.
You get to experience a lot about Varanasi from the river bank which you can walk along for a good hour or two. This is a great people watching spot to see holy men, people bathing , or families preparing bodies for cremations in the Ganges.
In hinduism the Ganges is worshiped as the god Ganga and one of the most sacred rivers to Hindus. The are lots of different myths regarding which goddess brought it into creation but needless to say Varanasi is deemed a sacred city because of it. It is a humbling and slightly shocking experience weaving through the river bank promenade observing thick black smoke from a funeral pyre you know isn't a rubbish fire. The idea of this public display of cremation is completely different to the private and unspoken practice in traditional western cultures. It was difficult to attribute an emotion to this observation, whether it was humbling to experience someone's return to ash, or if it was disturbing to see deconstruction of man. In any case it makes you face your own mortality and spiritual practices which is a good self reflection for time to time.
Away from the river bank, Varanasi is a typical mad city. It is noisy, busy, and smelly, but so massively vibrant you cannot but smile. We dived into the market places for a look around. We went to a silk shop to learn about the fabrics and then took a trip to get a lassi (yoghurt milkshake served in terrocata pots) and a Somosa (common curried potato and onion pastry)
To get some more Buddha culture some of us headed to an archeological site, Sarnath, where it is believed Buddha conducted his first sermon. This place was a big surprise for me as I had no idea what to expect. The ruins are from the 3rd century when emperor Ashoka built a number of stupas and monasteries, most are in ruins about 2 feet high but one really large stupa (hollow structure) it is said it marks the spot where Buddha conducted his sermon. There is a museum on site as well which is interesting with lots of ancient cravings and sculptures. Both cheap as chips, we got a rickshaw from Varanasi there and it didn't take too long.
We all wanted a bit more time in Varanasi to hang around, there are some nice cafes to chill in we had breakfast in a tiny apartment style cafe with lots of nooks and crannies, and I'd say it's one of many in the city. As it is such a spiritual place it brings like minded individuals aka. the hippes :)