Trucks and trucks everywhere. Our bus was amidst all the trucks and nothing was moving. Everything stayed liked that for fifteen minutes. When the traffic started to move, it was a race to make up for the lost time!
Since the train to Varanasi was cancelled all of a sudden, the last-minute option was to take an overnight bus to Varanasi from Agra. It was a comfortable multi axle AC semi sleeper bus.
The bus started at the right time. Everything was fine. But then there was this big traffic block starting from Allahabad. We lost quite a lot of time in the block.
The bus was driven by a hot blooded Sardarji. Probably quite typical, but maybe I am stereotyping. Whatever it may be, I enjoyed his driving skills! If it wasn’t for him, we would have gotten delayed much more than that.
It is not at all recommended, but at times I do enjoy the highway racing. Randomly picking someone who tries to overtake or honk too much and challenge them can be fun at times. But equally dangerous. Then it is a skill to know your machine and control it.
Our driver was trying to compensate for the lost time and maneuvering this big long bus like a small car! I have great respect for people who know the exact length and width of their machines and how to maneuver it through the seemingly impossible gaps. I was so excited that I went and sat in the front seat to see his mad driving skills.
Without many incidents we reached Varanasi. The room that was booked in Varanasi was near the Ghats, just a couple of hundred meters walk. Thus, I got my first glimpse of the Ghats of Varanasi.
For the uninitiated, the term Ghat refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river.
It looked peaceful at first sight. Not chaotic at all as I had expected. Maybe it was a less busy time of the year at Varanasi. Maybe it was too hot to have any chaos at all! It was always at least 35 degrees plus after the less hotter morning time.
On the way to the guest house, I had spotted a corner shop which served breakfast. At first sight itself I had decided that I wanted to eat from there. After a “South Indian” breakfast from Varanasi, it was time to explore the famous narrow lanes of Banaras aka Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India.
Somehow these narrow lanes reminded me of the narrow lanes I saw in Paris. Probably a century ago, Paris also looked the same! Maybe it could be true for any country with such narrow lanes and streets.
Those narrow lanes definitely had a character. The character came from the complete sensory indulgence. It was filled with vibrant colours of the clothes, doors, houses, diverse smell from burning incense, drainage, cow dung, various sounds from people talking, shouting, ringing bells, dogs barking, accidental touches from the lack of space. Checking out each and every shop and what they were selling was a very interesting past time activity. Some were selling clothes, purses, jewellery, even chillum and lassi.
To make the life in these narrow streets more interesting and busier, there were people riding scooters, motorbike and bicycle through these paths. There were some who took their vehicles through some of the impossibly narrow gaps!
To give it more characters, there were monkeys too, apart from the cows and goats.
After walking through many lanes, at one point we reached the cremation Ghats. Most of the Ghats in Varanasi are used for the people to take bath in Ganges and to perform ritual ablutions while a few of them are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites. Photographing it was not allowed by some of the locals but one can always try it from the boats from far. Lifeless bodies were burning there. Cows and dogs walking past the very scene. It wasn’t a pleasant scene at all to look and watch, though it was a very essential part of that place.
Then under the scorching sun of midday I walked through the Ghats almost till as far as I could see. There were boats floating on the Ganges at almost every Ghats. New boats were made in some of the Ghats. People were sitting in some Ghats while others found shades to take a nap. Kids were playing on one side while on the other side a few meters away dead bodies were burned. Goats, cows and dogs were roaming freely while gods were worshiped quite nearby. The Ghats gave a wide spectrum of lessons which even dealt with life and death.
After this long tiring walk under the hot sun, I only had just enough time to take a nap before the evening boat ride through Ganges to see the Ganga Aarti.
Ganga aarti is a daily ritual which happens at Dashashwamedh Ghats. In a blasphemous term, the young priests will be playing with fire which is well choreographed and executed in a very synchronized way. Basically, Ganga aarti is a religious ritual performed by young Hindu priests, by using fire as an offering and it’s been offered to the Goddess Ganga by facing the Ganges river.
The whole ambience takes one to a different level. Then chanting, the ringing of the bells, the conch shell sound at the beginning, the warm light from the lamps, the smell of incense, camphor and many other things, the people all around both on the land and on the boats and the peaceful Ganges river. This will give you yet another sensory indulgence.
One of the best way to witness this magnificent view is from a boat in the Ganges river. The boats men would take you through various Ghats and would explain you about each of the Ghats and would take you near the Ghats where Ganga aarti is performed promptly before the start of the rituals.
This could be one of the most memorable experiences in your life if you are new to India and its colourful celebrations. I am still not sure why I didn’t feel this to be an out of the world experience as contrary to my expectations. Maybe I had seen more than enough pictures and videos of the same event and didn’t feel the novelty or maybe I grew up seeing similarly colourful rituals such as Theyyam and Thira.
Nevertheless, Ganga aarti at Varanasi is an incredible experience one should witness at least once in their lifetime. Chants still ringing in my mind, I called it as a day and went to sleep early in order to catch the sunrise the next day.