Varanasi: one of the most ancient cities in the world
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I decide to take a train from Delhi and reach Varanasi. I take the train category 3A (with air conditioning and with 4 beds in my compartment) that I pay 1,500 rupees (about 18 €). I was supposed to leave at 2:03 pm from Delhi Cantt but the train leaves 3 hours late. During the trip, a boy tells me that the hours of delay have risen to 8! I resign myself and I keep reading my book and listening to some music.
I finally arrive in Varanasi at 1.30 pm after a journey of 20 hours!
I take a tuk-tuk for 150 rupees and head to my hostel: HosteLaVie. I pay 229 rupees for 1 night in a 4-bed dorm with a fan. The bathroom is in the room but there is no hot water. But it is so hot and humid outside, that I don't really mind. Breakfast is included: bread with eggs, banana and chai (Indian tea). Moreover, the location is perfect and there are a kitchen and a washing machine available for free use.
As soon as I arrive in Varanasi the first thing I notice is the tremendous traffic, a bit 'the common denominator of major Indian cities. Nevertheless, it remains a very interesting city.
Varanasi is, in fact, the sacred city of the Hindus. Every Hindu, at least once in his life, must have gone to Varanasi and here he must plunge into the sacred river Ganges at least by 5 different ghats or the flights of stone stairs that end inside the river. Every morning at dawn, the Hindus begin to perform their own ablutions from the ghats. The best place for tourists who want to attend these ritual ceremonies is from a boat that goes up the river.
According to Hinduism the only place on earth where the gods allow men to escape samsara, that is, the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, is the western bank of the Ganges in Varanasi, so over the centuries millions and millions of Hindus have come to die here.
And it is always in the Ganges of Varanasi that every Hindu wants his ashes to be scattered, therefore the pyres for the cremation burn 24 hours a day and every evening, at sunset, the brahmins dance holding fire sculptures in their hands.
Places to visit:
-Manikarnika Ghat: a place where cremation takes place 24 hours a day.
-Dasaswamedh Ghat: every evening at 18:30 there is the ceremony of devotion to the Goddess Ganga then to the river.
- Kashi Vishwanath Temple: it is also called the "Golden Temple" or temple of gold. Here to enter you need a passport and for security reasons, you have to leave anything you have in the lockers next to the entrance for 50 rupees. After checking and registering, you can enter the temple; obviously, you have to take off your shoes too. The visit can last from half an hour to 1-hour maximum.
-Durga Temple: also called the temple of the apes, since inside there are many specimens. Built in the 18th century, it has a style similar to many temples in northern India, with a colourful architecture in shades of red and gold.
If you have enough time, it is interesting to take a tour of the university campus: Banaras Hindu University. Here is also a temple: Vishwanath Temple.
Also along the Ganges, but in the internal streets, there are various local markets where you can buy souvenirs and food.
Here you have a list of cafes where I have been:
-Bona Cafe: prices range from 100 to 250 rupees for food and it is a very nice environment.
-Brown Bread Bakery: here there are different types of cake but also the food is not bad and in the evening at 19:30 they do live music. There are an air-conditioned room and a rooftop terrace.
-Rome's café: located in the university area and is a slightly higher level. Here they make excellent cappuccinos and you can even eat them. Prices are slightly higher than average.
-Chocolate Heaven: if you want chocolate cakes or ice cream.
So I stayed in Varanasi for 3 days and I think they are enough to see all the ceremonies and to realize what happens in this sacred city.
It is really fascinating to see so many people so believing. Not to mention the ritual of cremation of the body, although I must say that it was not so touching as I imagined because the body is covered with clothes and none of the family cries for the deceased (it is even forbidden to cry because it makes it more difficult than the spirit reaches Nirvana). When the body arrives at the Ghat, it is first washed in the Ganges, submerging it to the knees. Then it is laid on the pyre, with its head to the north and its feet to the south. Part of the wood is placed on top of the body, which is sprinkled with sandalwood powder (to make sure that it does not give off unpleasant odours), clarified butter and of a few drops of Ganges water. The eldest son, who is the person appointed to conduct the ritual, makes five turns around the pyre and then lights it, starting from the hair (a temple attendant carries the torch with the sacred eternal fire, which is said to burn in the temple for about 3000 years). When the cremation is over, water is thrown to extinguish the fire and the child collects the ashes in the urn, which then must be returned to the Ganges.
The moment when the ashes are scattered in the river and follow the current has been a moment of reflection for me: it is as if the person, once dead, vanished together with the river, as if it had never existed. Obviously everything is very expensive because you have to buy wood (whose quality varies depending on the income of the family) and pay more for the ignition with the eternal flame (a local guide told us that the price varies from 10,000 to 15,000 rupees or between € 125 and € 185 which is a huge sum for an average Indian).
Finally, there are 5 cases in which the body cannot be cremated: when the woman is pregnant, or less than 10 years old, she gets stung by a cobra, if she is suffering from leprosy or if she is part of the category of gurus (holy man). In these cases the body, covered with a white cloth, is thrown directly into the river because it is thought to be already pure.
So I advise anyone planning a trip to India not to get lost in Varanasi because it is really an interesting city from a religious and cultural point of view. It can indeed be considered the city of life and death!