Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Religious Experience - Varanasi

A Moment of Moonlit Beauty in the Surrounds of Smog & Sarnath

After relaxing in Orchha and Khajuraho it was on to Varanasi. We disembarked the plane and walked across to the brand new terminal building, picked up our luggage and found our driver. Varanasi is (in)famous for many things, we quickly experienced the first one, traffic. The airport was not that far from our guest house but with the traffic the journey by car felt longer than the flight! However being in the back of an air-conditioned Taxi it was fairly comfortable. Outside the pot holed roads filled with livestock and almost every kind of road transport imaginable looked like hell. Anyway, an hour or more later and we arrived at our lodgings, the Maruti Guest House. We were a little unsure at first if we had arrived at the right place due to the lack of signs but once through the gate we were warmly welcomed by the owner and his wife. We sat on the rooftop area with them as they explained to us about food, things to do etc. We given a nice hand drawn map detailing the main areas to visit, complete with recommended rickshaw/Taxi fares which was handy. We checked into our rooms which were "basic" but relatively clean. As our hosts often reminded us this was typical middle class India and the hosts did live in the guest house with their extended family. Anyway, the bed was rock hard again... the plumbing was interesting but I was getting used to not sleeping by now so it was OK!

That evening we took a walk to Assi Ghat by the Ganges to get a taste of the local area and take in some atmosphere. We were a five to ten minute walk away so our location was perfect. We sat on the Ghat for around half an hour watching the sunset. Feeling relaxed but a little tired we went to one the restaurants recommended to us, Haifa where we had a okay middle eastern platter which resulted in a cracked tooth for someone whilst eating the hummus! It may not have been the best place to spend my birthday but we more than made up for it on our last night in Delhi. We returned to Maruti and made an arrangement with some of the other hotel guests to hire a boat on the Ganges the following night for the Diwali celebration. Other than that I caught up reading the copy of The Economist that I picked up at Heathrow in the hope it would help me sleep. The intoxicating fumes of the mosquito coil and general tiredness gave me a good few hours at least.

The next day we started with breakfast at Maruti and met a few of the other guests, some arriving some departing. At breakfast we got our first taste of the middle class yoga hippie types. I had to stop myself from getting annoyed with them almost instantly, anyway, if they managed to find the enlightenment they were looking for, who am I to judge. Our plan for the day was to walk along the ghats and the back streets following the Ganges until we were tired. One of the things Varanasi is famous for are the burning ghats one with an eternal fire (that has been lit for hundreds of years) where cremations are carried out by the river side in full public view. Walking through these burning ghats with the smell of burning wood and logs piled high was hard to describe. I found it both uncomfortable and fascinating, much like many holy places for a non-religious person. Anyway, it is certainly something to be experienced. After visiting the Big Burning Ghat we decided to turn away from the river and catch a little shade. It was just after midday and pretty hot. We wondered through the backstreet markets which was much like a maze. I really enjoyed this as you can feel completely lost and at peace. We walked for a while and found a small restaurant for lunch serving good quality Indian food. The food was nice but it seemed to lose temperature quickly and I was worried about getting food poisoning. However, I felt no ill effects. I think this restaurant would have been perfect and by the sound of things horribly busy for dinner. I decided we should walk back along the roads rather than along the Ganges so we could see as much of Varanasi as possible. We continued along the back streets for a while, passing stalls and tiny temples before heading out on to the main road where there was a huge market. We then headed through the Islamic district and shortly before we were about to cave in and get a rickshaw we were back at the Maruti where we relaxed before our night time boat ride.

I was a little skeptical about this boat ride as we were paying way over the odds for a boat due to the festival, but actually this was one of the highlights of my time in India. We walked down to Assi Ghat where we met our oarsman. They had made the rather rickety looking boat nice for us "high spending" tourists and we set out with the current in our favour and headed out along the river towards the Big Burning ghat as the sun began to set. The light was beautiful and it was amazingly peaceful and romantic despite being with four other people as well as my partner. We tried to take as many shots as possible before the light faded. About three quarters of an hour or so later we stopped for a moment so our oarsman could rest before heading back, this time against the current. It was dark by now and the riverside was ablaze with light. The burning ghats burnt as bright as ever, there was dancing, ceremony and bystanders on the bank were releasing all manner of fireworks and oil lanterns that floated off towards the moon much like a dream image from a children's book. It was truly spectacular and before long it was all over. After the boat we went for food at Hayat, another Mediterranean restaurant. We sat outside only to find two of our boat party had chosen the same restaurant! We must have been a little late to eat as much of the food seemed to have run out. Everything here seemed to be cooked fresh and in the chefs own time judging by the time everyone seemed to wait for their food. However I had such a delicious okra curry it was worth every minute. It tasted like the food I like to cook myself but done with a perfection I have yet to reach. We looked over our photos from the boat trip and headed wearily back to Maruti to enjoy another sleepless night.

The next morning things started as they meant to go on. Other than the shock of the "prison room" in Agra everything had been going pretty well, but today was probably my worst day of the trip. We started with breakfast at Haifa which wasn't particularly nice. We then decided to get an auto-rickshaw to Sarnath to see the Buddhist temples and memorials in celebration of Buddha's early teachings. We found an enthusiastic man going by the name of Bully (Bulli?) who agreed to take us. We soon found out why he may have gone by this name. Most of the rickshaw drivers looked for the best route on the road, away from the pot holes. Bully had other ideas, he liked the thrill of the bumpy road, he reveled in tight maneuvers and shouting abuse at anyone on a bike between singling loudly to himself (we probably should have done a runner once we saw someone had written in his guest book that he was a "bit psychotic"). The other disadvantage of the auto-rickshaw is that when stuck in the continual traffic jam that is Varanasi you start to breathe in all the fumes from traffic and anything else that's passing by. My favourite moment was overtaking a guy on a cycle cart loaded with about 20 layers of eggs... though the consequences for photographing it were not worth while as we hit another pot hole and the camera and its pouch went flying, though luckily they survived. However as we found out later the memory card with almost all our photos on it was not so lucky and ended up somewhere on the streets of Varanasi never to be found (which explains the lack of photos on the the blog).

Eventually we arrived at Sarnath and walked round the area where the remains of the early Buddhist temples were. It sounded much better in the books and whilst I'm sure it was fascinating for those with a religious calling to me it was just like another set of roman ruins and having been to Rome this is not something I find exciting anymore. We then visited the different temples, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan and had some lunch at a nice little restaurant we we had loads of good food for hardly any money. We then walked back to Bully to brave the ride back to Maruti both shaken and stirred from the ride and from losing almost all our holiday photos. We settled on eating at Maruti that evening and Tripti did not let us down with some amazing Indian vegetarian food. It was the kind of food you will rarely find in a restaurant and only eat if you make it yourself. Exhausted it was time for bed and for me to sleep. Tomorrow we would be heading back to Delhi for the final leg of our trip.

On our last morning we went out for a walk and realised we'd walked past the best place for breakfast every morning we'd been in Varanasi, The Open Hand Cafe and gallery. The Open Hand is a western style cafe and local craft shop, the kind I would probably avoid at home, but thanks to a lovely cooked breakfast and nice strong coffee all was forgiven. The rest of the morning we went visit some of the other temples in Varanasi on foot. After the day before we didn't feel much like an auto-rickshaw. I don't remember much of the rest of the day but we checked out of the hotel that afternoon and went by taxi to the airport to catch our flight with Spice Jet (The Indian Easy Jet) back to Delhi. Our flight was late with hardly any announcements. We also found that airport food can be expensive anywhere in the world, but somehow over-priced Pringles, Snickers and Coke never tasted so good. Anyway, soon enough we were called for boarding and we were up in the air and on our way to Delhi and the final phase of our trip.

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