Imagine, it is considered one of the oldest cities in the world with a history of 5.000 years, and India’s most sacred, so, there should be a… few things to see and a… few things to attend. Architecture, history, religion are bonded in a very special way with the local community, very rare to see in any other place in the world.
Starting at 5.30am is not so common in the western world. However the Indians start at that time, to be on time for the morning rituals in Assi Ghat. This is the Southernmost ghat, of the 84 ghats of Varanasi and the ceremony starts at about 6.30am.
The landscape is majestic with the colors of the dawn giving a very tranquil flavor to buildings, tourists and pilgrims altogether. The local priests, on special stands, perform the short ritual and a few minutes later the sun is rising.
The music entertainment program starts shortly after the rituals end but you need to find your next adventure on the Ganges river.
Just a few minutes, and you find yourself inside a wooden, traditional rowing boat (you hire it with the “boat-man” so you don’t have to raw, he has…), flowing on the waters of Ganges river (downstream that is). The place is very peaceful and calm, however the ghat buildings on the side of the river portray a very powerful presence, although the morning fog makes everything smooth.
All around, boats full of either indian pilgrims or indian tourists (the majority), give the impression that this is something very common, but it is not. Being in Varanasi, in the river, is considered a very special treat for the Indians that exercise Hindu religion. The most traditional of them, instead of touring around with boats (as all tourists do) they, prefer to have their morning bath in Ganges river. These are the locals that they even bring the soap with them!
It is very strange because you can see women in the traditional dresses entering the river following some personal ritual, men doing almost the same but without full clothes and also the locals that seem that they use the river water just as a refreshing morning… shower. They feel very blessed that they have the chance to enter this river, and they believe that river can erase all sins from their life’s history.
After the morning
After the morning rituals, some of the locals exercise Yoga in front of the ghats, while others get prepared for work.
Already at 8.30am seems that everybody is out on the streets. Condensed traffic is very common to India. So is in Varanasi.
However, if you are lucky to be a tourist, you are still on “your” wooden boat enjoying the view of the ghats from the river. Ghats have been built in very different times, in very different conditions and this is the reason that you can see a great variation in architecture. Palaces, temples, cremation facilities, an observatory and many different kinds of buildings create a very unique image. It may take about 90min to go all the way to the last ghat, but there is not a single moment that you see something that is not interesting.
Of course some of the ghats have become hotels (some very expensive…). But the architecture was not altered, or at least it seems so.
The morning tour by the banks of Ganges is the first from the “things to do in Varanasi”. This is the morning tour, because you should take the night tour as well. In the morning, you can see all the details of the buildings, you can enjoy the beautiful colors, and see in detail the famous cremation ghats! However photography in cremation ghats is not allowed, or better put, has been the media for the locals to earn money. If they see you taking photos of the cremation ghats then they will try to stop you and ask for money. They say that money is a “donation” but in fact they judge how much they can take from you and charge you respectively. From 10 rupees to 10.000rupees any request for “donation” is possible. If in trouble keep calm and pretend that 10-50 rupees is all you have…
Taking photos from the boat is the easiest way, especially in the evening. In the morning is (or can be) more… complicated.
During daytime the city of Varanasi is buzzing, full of life. People, cars bicycles, tricycles and many animals are everywhere. The rhythm or the city is not that fast, but everything seems very busy.
So comes the evening. The evening rituals start at about 18.30, however, punctuality is not something Indians are known for… By that time (I would suggest 30 min earlier), the visitor should be around the main ghat, the Dashashwamedh Ghat. It seems that this is the point to be for everybody in the city. For some people seems better to see the rituals from the city side, for others the river side seems more attractive… I had chosen the second option which proved to be the right one for me and the less crowded. The boat owner was a nice guy with big family, who was willing to show me around. So, before the rituals started we had the chance to visit the main area of ghats and see quite close the main cremation ghat, the Manikarnika ghat. Covered by the darkness I was able to photograph the cremation procedure, see the eternal fire (believed to be there for thousands of years), and also admire the beauty of the city in the night.
My boat ride ended at Dashashwamedh Ghat, where I was able, with the help of my guide, to see the Aarti Ganga ceremony (or Pooja ceremony) just in front of me. The ceremony was impressive, with intense colors and interesting procedures and it was definitely up to my expectations.
Rituals lasted until about 20.00 hrs and then all people were spread through the narrow alleys of the city. All streets were packed and the going through them was an interesting experience.
Besides some hygiene issues that the people in the “western world” find either disgusting or hard to live with, Varanasi is colorful, busy and very interesting. Yes, you will see people pissing in front of your face in the middle of the street. You will see tons of garbage on the street sides, possibly with pigs eating them (natural recyclers…). Cows and so cow shit are everywhere. Dust and nasty smells are all around. If you can put all these aside, and focus on the very interesting local folklore and tradition you will find a destination among world’s most exciting!
I would like to sincerely thank my company KTM South East Europe SA, also KTM AG and Barbara Kenedy and Ilia Condou, that contributed the most in order for this trip to become reality.