04 June 2009

First Impressions: Varanasi

(This is from Tuesday) Today is our first full day here Varanasi. There is hardly anything you can say about it that hasn’t been said before. To experience it for the first time is something indescribable.

As stated before it was a somewhat long journey to get here. We departed our hotel in Hyderabad at 7am to make our 10:30am flight. Our flight didn’t leave until 11am. When we arrived in Delhi to make our Varanasi flight we only had 40 minutes between flights and needed to collect our checked bags as well as switch terminals. While in the U.S. we might have just gone home as there would be no way we could make it, this is India. We checked in for our Varanasi flight only to find it had been delayed an hour. We arrived at Varanasi at about 4:30pm and had an hour car drive from the airport to the city. I use the term drive loosely. Rather than a drive, it was more like a suicide mission. There were at least ten times that we were feet away from a head on collision. Fortunately we were in a very large car. Still unnerving. Despite our best efforts we managed to check into our hotel around 6pm.

For a brief history of Varanasi for the uninitiated here are my quick facts about the city. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world (3,000 years or so) and is one of the major religious cities in the world. The city is built along the river Ganges and has steps or ghats leading up to the banks of the river. These ghats and water are used for many things including bathing, washing clothes, swimming, etc… in addition, dead bodies are set afloat in the river. Since the Ganges is very sacred to Hindus, if you die in the river it is considered a release from the life and death cycle. Hence, Varanasi is a very important city.

Back to the recap, at 7pm we went with a local guide to walk alongside the ghats which included a stop at a Hindu temple. While we were there, we watched a ceremony where a priest twirled fire around an altar. Neither of us completely understood the ceremony but it was very moving nonetheless. After the temple we got VIP seats to watch the artii ceremony which takes place at one of the ghats every single night. When we were done there we took a long walk through the back alleys back to our hotel. We got back early so we could prepare for our 5am boat ride the next day.

Tuesday Morning –

This morning we got up at 5am to take a 1.5 hour boat ride on the Ganges. We met our boatman who then did a ritualistic prayer (which included drinking some of the Ganges water) and we were on our way. I had never seen anything like this. There are countless people bathing all up and down the river with the picturesque background of the city. We passed a few burning ghats where we witnessed a few dead bodies taking their last rites before being burnt and set off in the river.

After this experience we went for a walk alongside the ghats and alleyways nearby, while it isn’t relaxing due to the number of touts and other strange people, it’s still something that is fairly enjoyable.

Overall, my view of Varanasi is favorable but the best way for me to describe it is part of me wants to pack up and leave immediately, while another part of me wants to unpack and stay as long as possible. Never before have had I felt that way about a place that I’ve visited but there is a first time for everything.
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