I arrived in Varanasi at ten am on the morning of the 12th. Unlike the last time, my train journey went exactly as planned; it left Gaya on time and it sidled into Varanasi Junction station on time. Unfortunately, I hadn’t slept (due to the aftermath of a very dodgy lassi two days before) and crashed into bed as soon as I arrived at my hostel, missing out on the rest of the day.
Talking of the hostel (Stops Hostel, one of a chain) – it was really great. Fun, full of people, free breakfasts and very helpful. They run cheap tours around the city – including sunrise and sunset boat rides on the Ganges – and really go out of their way to make friends with their guests (shoutout to AK, Indian “superman” extraordinaire). As a place to stay, though, Varanasi can be a little foreboding with its warrens of ancient alleys and riverside ghats. I did feel cooped up inside occasionally, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Varanasi was the first time I’ve really felt like a typical tourist (of course, I hadn’t been to Agra yet…).
Regardless, I loved Varanasi as a city. Something about its density, its business and the strange, almost ritualistic way of life you see really caught me. Almost everyone who visits India comes there (and should). One of the holiest locations in Hinduism, it is apparently also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. You can feel it in the air. The story – as I was told multiple times by various tour guides – is that Brahma (God of creation) created the city for Shiva (God of change and destruction), who is now said to watch over the city and its people. As Shiva is the most worshipped of the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon (don’t ask why there are so many… I was told, but it’s a long story), his city has become one of the focal points of the Hindu world. In fact, technically, I think it is regarded as the centre of the universe. Varanasi is the city at which it is claimed it is possible to escape Samsara (the cycle of suffering and rebirth) to enter Nirvana. If you die there, or your ashes are sprinkled in the Ganges (mother Ganga), you achieve a instant no-catches ticket to Hindu heaven. As a result, countless numbers come here to be cremated on the banks of the river. There are allegedly cars which come loaded with refrigerated bodies from all over the country, just to have the deceased’s final wishes honoured. Many opt for a traditional, open air funeral on the riverside – though this isn’t cheap. I was told the cost of the wood, donations and payments come to nearly 15,000 rupees (about £180/$240). There’s also the option of the government crematorium for those who can’t pay. Some aren’t even cremated, however. Certain types of bodies, considered holy, are simply weighted down and dropped into the river. People swim in the river. People wash clothes in the river. They float candles on it at night during the Brahmins’ ceremonies.
Watching the funerals is a deeply affecting experience. It is not for the faint hearted. I saw them as part of a boat cruise, with a certain distance separating me, but it is possible to be come close. I was maybe a little more prepared than most – I saw the same practice at Pashapuntiath in Kathmandu, and had to walk through the funerals there. In either case, they are difficult places to see.
I also took tours around the markets and temples in the area. It was really quite interesting seeing the different processes of how paan shops but together the package you see people chewing. The betel nut used, along with the tobacco, is very addictive and acts as a slight stimulant. It also stains your teeth blood-red.
On the boat tour, I made good friends with a group of Germans and Austrians (one of whom was actually my age, hallelujah). We stuck together for the next couple of days, going on the same tours and hanging out in the rooftop. On my last night, we ended up making mango and whisky smoothie using the hostel blender – which involved sourcing alcohol at 9pm from a very dodgy looking side-street shop, after being taken there by a random man. It was an experience.
I took another overnight train to Agra on the 15th. Again, the train was absolutely on time – and, what was more, I actually shared the carriage with someone else from my hostel who was also going there. India has a pretty established tourist trail around Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh; you just keep running into the same people again and again. We arrived in Agra at 6am and shared a lift to our hostels (which were on the same street).
Agra is not a city tourists spend much time in. They come there, see the Taj Mahal and the red fort and then leave again. Some don’t even stay the night. Personally, I don’t enjoy that kind of travelling – I like to get a feel for a place, to bed down for a while and experience life away from the photo-spots. The problem was that no-one else seemed to share my point of view – all of the hostels were empty (in fairness, it is the off-season now). That was, until Leander came into my dorm. After talking for a little while, it became clear that we had very similar plans and aims for travelling in Rajasthan. We decided to go to Jaipur together. He’s a couple of years older than me, from Utrecht in the Netherlands and is on a gap year after quitting his course (he’s going to a new university in September). It turns out we’re very similar people, something I’ve noticed happen quite a lot out here – maybe India attracts the same kinds of travellers? So we decided to stick together at least until Jaipur. We saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise the next day (the 17th) – which is beautiful, though smaller than you’d expect – and the ‘Baby Taj’ in the evening. We’d given ourselves an extra day in Agra, despite it feeling empty, so we ventured into the real city beyond the red fort with CJ (a photographer from Malaysia). It felt like I was back in Varanasi or Kathmandu – all smells and dirt and people pacing through the streets. Agra is notorious for annoying, pushy salespeople; as soon as we hit the local areas, however, all of that disappeared.
That night, we watched a sound and light display in the Red Fort about the history of the city – protip: if you don’t want to pay the 500 rupee tourist price to get into the fort and are happy to see it at night, go to the show. It’s only 150.
That was last night. Today, I’m sitting on my bed in Jaipur after a four hour bus ride. I would say it’s been pretty hot – surprise: it has – but it also rained today. Weird.