I had pre-arranged for someone to pick me up from the Varanasi train station and I’m grateful for that as it was complete mayhem when I arrived. My hotel was near the Ganges at Kedar Ghat, which is in an ideal location between the more touristy main ghat and popular Assi Ghat. Once you get close to the ghats, you have to abandon your vehicle and walk through an intricate maze of alleyways to find your hotel. Thankfully my driver took me straight to my hotel and there were plenty of signs pointing me in the right direction once I was on my own. I was tired but also hungry, so I enjoyed the beautiful view of the river from the hotel rooftop restaurant and then had a nap. I didn’t want to feel intimidated by Varanasi and just hide out in my hotel all evening, so I put my big girl panties on and ventured out on my own to the Ganga Aarti, a nightly devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering to the Goddess Ganga. There were tons of people, a mix of tourists, locals, and pilgrims. I felt okay but I got lots of stares and questions. It was all very fascinating though and I’m glad I went.
The next morning I went down to walk the ghats at sunrise. There are tons of people offering boat rides along the Ganges, but I wasn’t up for it and the walking was nice. When I got to Assi Ghat, I found a very sad looking dog that had a ruptured abscess on his face and who just looked so emaciated and depressed. I looked up an animal welfare agency in Varanasi and thankfully found Varanasi for Animals (vfa). Since it was still very early, I took a photo of him and promised I’d be back. When I called I was told the clinic was quite far away and was given another number. The person who answered the phone didn’t speak English so I called vfa back and was given the name and number of an Australian volunteer (Neeta) who had also planned on bringing him in. I called her and asked if I could come with her and she graciously accepted. I cancelled my tour for the day and met her and the dog (Matru) at the ghats. Off we went in an auto rickshaw to the vet. I was super grateful for Neeta’s help as she really cares about these dogs and she conveniently spoke Hindi. We left him at the vet and I started scheming on how I could bring him home. After much deliberation and research, I decided that this wasn’t the best idea and was reassured that there are people on the ghats that will look after him.
With my new friend Neeta, I was shown a few great restaurants and ate many delicious western meals. She also walked down to the main burning ghat with me, which I can only describe as surreal. There are upwards of 300 bodies cremated here daily! One guy brought us right up to a row of active cremations and when I looked over and literally saw a leg melting, I nudged Neeta and said that we should move further away. It felt really disrespectful to be that close. Of course there are still scams even at this sacred spot. You will be told that the surrounding buildings house poor woman in hospice who cannot afford their own cremations, then your heartstrings will be pulled on to visit and buy them a pile of wood. Thankfully my driver had already warned me of this scam. From a distance we watched the process. First the bodies come in on bamboo stretchers, decorated in fabric and marigolds. Then the body is washed in the river for purification and set aside until it has dried, in the meantime cows will happily eat those marigolds right off the body, which is actually a good omen I am told. The body is then placed on a pile of wood and covered with more wood. It takes 3-4 hours for the body to burn and then the ashes are kept by the family for 2 weeks before being brought back to the river to be released.
Varanasi is said to be the spiritual capital of India and it definitely feels this way with the numerous temples and cremations. The reason it is so spiritual and why so many people bathe in the Ganges River here is because this is the only place where the river turns back on itself. That’s what someone told me anyway. However, from what I’ve read, it is also the spot where Lord Shiva and Parvati stood when time started ticking for the first time. Whatever the reason, Hindus from all over come to bathe in and touch the river, and celebrate along the river banks. I was there during wedding season so there were many couples coming to the river for luck in their marriages. I swore, all of those women looked extremely unhappy, so I hope the river brings them all the happiness and luck.
Varanasi is not a pretty place. There are times when the ghats can seem quite peaceful with men playing cards or badminton and kids playing cricket or flying kites. But there is also the pungent smell of cow manure and human urine, since the men seem to have zero bladder control and pee on everything in sight. There are also literally hundreds of dogs, goats, chickens, water buffalo, and burning bodies too. And then by late morning it is swarming with people. All of that aside, the ghats are generally quite clean. There are people paid to sweep up the steps and there are garbage cans everywhere where men do their best to spit their red betel into. Garbage and bodies are no longer allowed to be tossed into the Ganges either, but I did see a dead cow bobbing down it once. I’m told the river is clean and was dared to go have a bath in it. No thanks. Which is probably why I didn’t risk getting into a boat either.
One of my favorite moments was watching the sunset from the roof of my hotel. The sunset was beautiful but what really struck me were the hundreds of kids flying kites and playing the game of cutting their opponents string, like in the book, The Kite Runner. I also saw families of monkeys playing and jumping from rooftop to rooftop; a rooftop cricket game; and two men that spent hours hollering and spinning rags at a flock of pigeons that called their roof home.
On day 3 I went to Sarnath to visit the Dhamekh Stupa (and ancient grounds), the location where Buddha gave his first sermon after becoming enlightened under the Bodhi tree. There is also a temple, deer park, and museum. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site not to be missed (unless of course you don’t care about Buddha).
The rest of my time was spent walking along the ghats, eating great food, and playing with lots of dogs and puppies. One night I bought this sweet mum of 7 puppies a chicken dinner for 200 rupees. That is more than I pay for my own veggie meals. The men at the shop thought we were crazy and proceeded to take out their cameras to document the crazy westerners feeding a dog a perfectly good chicken dinner.
My final day was bitter sweet, I was happy to move on but I also grew to really like Varanasi. It was also the day that Neeta was going to check up on Matru and I would have loved to have gone. I had a great breakfast at the best cafe owned by an American woman (Aum Cafe). I then headed to the train where once again I felt a bit afraid standing there in the platform by myself, unsure if I was going to get on the right train or not. And then my fears were validated when two women swarmed me talking a mile a minute in Hindi. I thought they were trying to ask what train I was getting on but then a sketchy looking guy that knew them came over and asked if I had crack and that he needs crack. I said no and that the stuff was bad for you. Thankfully a train came (not mine) and I used the opportunity to move far away from them.
I got my update on Matru. He is still not better. We suspect it’s nasal TVT (a type of tumor) but the vet doesn’t agree but will give him chemo anyway?! In any case, he would not be healthy enough to come home to Canada anyway. I did what I could, got him treatment and made a donation to vfa. Hopefully he’ll be better soon.