The holy city of Varanasi. You can't remove Varanasi from your memory if you saw it once, its smell, its look, its people, its narrow alleys, numerous ghats and the calmness and surreal color of Mother Ganga is imprinted on your memory like a glimpse into another world.
It's truly beautiful, grotesque and romantic. You can feel its sprituality come from people around, buildings, even buffalos. It has its own mood which is hard to describe but it's pleasant to submerge in it. It's ancient, hot and humid, it offers splendid river views from hundreds of roof terraces, balconies and stairs. At night the warm breeze and the view from a roof top takes all your worries away (especially when enhanced with a chillum)
But don't get me wrong - this is also the place where they burn corpses in the open air and you can smell the burning flesh day and night, this is also the place where you can step into animal and human feces about as many times as you can step on an ant, this is also the place where they wash next to live (and dead) buffalos and consider it clean, and where they can do anything you want with the food, except cook it in an eatable way.
Varanasi is arranged between range of ghats, one side being called Varana and the other - Assi, and behind the ghats there is also a newer bustling city part that is full of markets, food carts and stalls and rikshas. The part that is older and closer to Ganga is the old one, the holy one, so holy that you can't buy beer there, well...you can actually buy it here and there but only under the table and brought to you from the new city part. The holy part of the city is full of strolling sadhu's and people who prepare themselves for being a sadhu, buffalos who occasionally take a dip in Ganga, and children playing cricket with hand made bats.
Our hostel was a great place to be, kinda DIY, kinda old and damp, but really really pleasant to stay, with great staff and the owner, and with puppies, rabbits and occasional monkey trying to steal a book or a piece of cloth from the common area.
During the day we went to the burning ghat and took a boat ride along the coast of the river, during the night we hanged out on the rood top terrace watching the river, drinking beer and discussing loudlythe whole thing about muslims and hindus.
The burning ghat was 5 minutes walk from our hostel - it's a place on the coast of the river made of stairs and stone terraces, and in each of those stone terraces there are 3-5 burning spots (you can call it a campfire I guess), and every 10-15 minutes there is a new body brought by family, washed in Ganga and laid into the fire place. Family is supposed to buy the wood by kilo, different wood costs different money, rich people buy sandal wood, and it means spending about $100-$500 to burn your family member. Poor people are left for the mercy of the volunteers who buy the cheapest wood for them from donations and use the wood that is left over from other bodies fire place. Volunteers who work at the ghat then bring the wood, set the fire from the ancient Shiva fire place and instruct the family about the ritual. When all the body burns down, they take a hip (from a woman) or a rib (from a man) and throw it into Ganga. There is also a hospice next to the ghat where people who are ready to die spend their last days and are taken care of by the volunteers. There are also workers who filter the water by the coast with wowen baskets trying to find jewellery of the dead (they don't take off the jewellery of the dead as it's a bad sign) which also works as donations for volunteers and the hospice. It's a pretty organized operation and I must say it runs very smoothly and efficiently 24/7.
People wash themselves, their children and animals in Ganga and it is considered to be purifying, our boat "captain" also took a sip from Ganga in order to demonstrate us that ashes, dead people and animals, washing clothes in the river doesn't make the water undrinkable. We refused politely when he offered us a sip too right after we passed a dead buffalo's body floating on the water.
You can watch the bodies burning from any place in the ghat, and it doesn't actually feel disgusting or anything. However, there is another ritual for sadhu's which is much more disturbing than the body burning. Since sadhu's are already pure without the need of burning, they don't burn them, they tie a rock to their bodies and let them flow into Ganga. Needless to say, many times the rope or the rock don't work so well, and you can see colorful orange "package" floating on the water - those are the sadhu's, the holy men.
Varanasi is generally nice for a couple of days, then for a foreigher it probably becomes a tiny bit overwhelming, we stayed 2 nights and were very happy with the experience we gained.
From Varanasi we took a flight to Delhi and then Singapore. India trip was over, but we do hope we get to see next time Himalaya, Goa, Mumbai, Chennai, Rajasthan, Sri Lanka - those are only couple of places that shouldn't be missed, and India is so different in every of those places.
Stay tuned for the Singapore story!