Sunday Spotlight – Varanasi

Howdy all and a happy Sunday to you! Today it’s time to shine the ol’ spotlight onto a city for ‘Sunday Spotlight’, and today it’s over to India and destination: Varanasi. What is there to say about this city on the banks of the Ganges, which is the holiest of the seven holiest cities for not only Hinduism but also Jainism. On top of that historically it’s been a major trading spot for Muslims in fabric, perfume and more.

Morning on the Ganges, Varanasi.

On top of that it has roots for Buddhism too, dating back to 528 BCE and Buddha is said to have a delivered a sermon here and in fact this is where some believe Buddhism to have actually have been founded! So the significance of Varanasi is indisputable, you might say!

But what is it like? When one arrives on the train, from one chaotic Indian city be it Kolkata or Delhi, is it like arriving at some sort of beautiful serene holy spot? Well… no it’s just as chaotic as any other city in India! But that’s half the fun! Right?

And so really above all else, the thing about going to Varanasi is just to be there. Because it’s such a special place, a place for peace yet a place full of chaos. A place that really says ‘India’ in every way conceivable. A mixture of faiths, with Hinduism being the predominate one. Pilgrims coming from far across the land, the life that is the Ganges – which you know, is a curious place where people bathe and even brush their teeth, others drink the water because it is ‘holy’, and yet it is one of the dirtiest rivers in the world, sadly (I guess, but an argument can be made that it’s not a sad thing) there are bodies in the river, people will send their loved ones to peace by putting their body in the river. 2021 and with the surge in Covid deaths apparently it’s been happening a lot more.

But the river is the thing, you know. To the people and to the city, it oozes more life than death. The banks of the river are populated by the busy ghats, stone steps leading to buildings, roads and the city. And in Varanasi there are two main things to do, and one is walk the ghats. Because you’ll see the river, and you’ll see the life. The cows, kids playing cricket, people sending out offerings with a little floating bowl with flowers and candles. You may get the chance to interact with people.

The second and the real ‘must do’ is to get on a dawn boat ride on the river. Now – don’t fall in! I think that’s probably the last thing you want in this river at this point in its flow, but despite the fact that every visitor who’s not a pilgrim (and probably plenty who are) does this should not dissuade you!

I was on a small wooden boat with a few others from my guesthouse which happened to be riverside. I think we were waiting for the boat at around 430 – 5am, and we left in darkness. We seemed to be one of the first boats out there, and before long the sun started to rise. Sadly, India is a pretty polluted place, not just the water but the air too. What this does do though is to give some incredible sunrises and sunsets. And this sunrise was spectacular. We saw the colours changing and changing again, from reds to a brilliant gold.

By the time the sun appears and a little light spreads, the river is now full of boats, all different sizes. What started with just the sound of the oars hitting the water, is now a fuller orchestra with life appearing, the sounds of perhaps a motorised boat or too, tourists clicking their cameras in greater numbers and chatting to each other on the many boats, and some of course use flashes for no apparent reason.

It was 6 or 630am and we were back at the hotel, and time to try and get a few hours of sleep. Later Varanasi’s markets and alleyways are there for exploring too. Find a temple if you like. The alleyways were clearly designed for people to get lost in – I certainly did! But you can find your way to the odd temple or too.

In some ways I could say that Varanasi shouldn’t be special. It’s crowded, noisy, crazy even, polluted and there are plenty of scammers at work. But yet, you do feel you are in a special place regardless. Thanks for reading today, take care wherever you may be. And May the Journey Never End!

16 thoughts on “Sunday Spotlight – Varanasi

  1. Your pictures have captured it really well. We took a boat ride on the river in the evening to see the pujas and crematoriums from the water. I’m glad we went to Varnasi, but I’m not sure I’d go again. Maggie

  2. Andy, of all the many places we’ve been, Varanasi remains one of the ones we still talk about most. Incredibly different, so much so that we really don’t know how to describe it to other Brits when we try to talk about it. Our opening line is usually that it’s the most “different” city we’ve ever visited, but it’s different in so many ways, to the point where you just about scrap every concept of “normal” and start again. We absolutely loved it, and loved that feeling of disorientation. Yes we did the sunrise boat trip – and the orange glow on the city, swathed in morning river mist, was so incredibly atmospheric. Good to read those memories.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. The sunrise boat ride looks spectacular. I visited India once in the past and loved the experience there but didn’t get to Varanasi. Sometimes, I have FOMO when reading about places I *should have visited* simply because I was in the region but I’m simply happy only to be reading about this place.

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