INDIA, Jan. 2009

= VARANASI =

Photos © Ruud Leeuw

Our very first visit to India... After visits to several cities in Rajasthan, we had now entered the state of Uttar Pradesh for visits to Agra and Varanasi.

Varanasi, also commonly known as Benares or Banaras, is a city situated on the left (west) bank of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is regarded as holy by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Senthoo and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.[

Due to the changes we had made en route in our itinerary, we were to stay here 3 days (4 nights).

Click on the thumbnail images to view a larger image

Flying Delhi - Varanasi
The day started early in Agra, for a 4hr30 drive to the airport (domestic terminal) in Delhi, to catch a SpiceJet flight to Varanasi (Benares). The drive had taken place in a thick fog, so there was no opportinity to take any pictures. All road accidents were on the other side, so we had little delay.

Boarding a plane in India is a tedious process of many checks of ticket, boarding pass and stamped baggage tags on hand-carried bags. Women have a seperate security check.
We had one hour delay because of late arrival of the aircraft, probably due to the ever present fog here.
In spite of the many changes we had made to our itinerary recently, our transfer in Varanasi was on standby and we were taken in a vintage Indian cab swiftly, in about 45 minutes, to the Vaibhav hotel.

 

Hotel Vaibhav in Varanasi

The Vaibhav hotel is a modern hotel and a far cry from the decorative, stylish hotels we had enjoyed sofar on this trip. It was also the less satisfactory of the entire vacation. At first they put us in a room right over a huge boiler which provided the hotel of warm water and woke us up several times during the night; they got me a better room the next morning.
During the vacation I had become accustomed to include with my breakfast a cheese omelet and some fruit. They tried to charge me extra here for the cheese omelet and did not provide any fruit. The staff in the restaurant was inefficient and not very friendly, but dinner was ok.
The tv had a good selection of channels and we were able to witness Barrack Obama's inauguration for President of the USA on tv. Black outs are common and frequent in Uttar Pradesh.
We found that we had only one good socket with which we could recharge the batteries for cameras, cellular phones and laptop. It was the same plug the tv used, so it was either this or that.
It took days before we could take a hot bath (most other hotels we had stayed in, had a boiler in the bathroom, with sufficient hot water for one person - so one went evenings, the other in the morning).
The hotel did provide accommodation to enjoy one more Ayurveda massage (Rp 700). And the nextdoor internet shop had sufficient speed to get emails checked and a look at the news (no news) back home.

 

Ghats on Ganges River in Varanasi
The obvious thing to do is to take a boattrip on the Ganges... But we did not warm to the 05:30 sunrise idea, which is recommended, but instead went after a regular breakfast (with the sun nice and warm).

Varanasi Ghats on the Ganges
The average scene of the banks of the Ganges, at Varanasi.

Boats on Ganges
Boatride on the Ganges

In meditation at the Holy River There are of course many ways to meditate..

Viyaja Ghat / Kedar Ghat on Ganges

Viyaja Ghat/Kedar Ghat was where we were dropped by our tuktuk driver, to find a boatride.
Trule a water buffalo
Buffalo are used as draft, meat and dairy animals. Their dung is used as a fertilizer and as a fuel when dried.

Ceremony on Ganges River
Ceremonial burning about to start. This is at Harischandra Ghat.

Fishing on the filthiest river in the world
I wouldn't feel comfortable catching a fish from a river that is the most polluted river in the world..

Overgrown palace

I don't recall which palace this was.
I have to admit that we'd had our share of palaces and fortresses and did little to visit them here in Varanasi. During our stay in this filthy, crowded city we distinctly became aware that we were awaiting the day of our departure.


Catching fish on the Varanasi
Doing laundry in the river
Drying laundry at the waterside
Another Ghat on the Ganges

Mark Twain wrote:
"Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Clean laundry from polluted waters
   
Ghat in Varanasi on the Holy River
Palace on the Ganges

 

According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, around 5,000 years ago, thus making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country. It is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus.
Varanasi is generally believed to be about 3,000 years old. Varanasi was a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. [Wikipedia]

Boatride on the Ganges
Boatride on the holy river at Varanasi

 

Burning ceremony at Harischandra Ghat
Ceremonial burning at Harischandra Ghat
Harischandra (a.k.a. Harish Chandra) is one of the oldest Ghats of Varanasi.
It is named after a mythological King Harish Chandra, who once worked at the cremation ground here for the perseverance of truth and charity. It is believed that the Gods rewarded him for his resolve, charity and truthfulness and restored his lost throne and his dead son to him.
Harish Chandra Ghat is one of the two cremation Ghats (the other being Manikarnika Ghat) and is some times referred as Adi Manikarnika (the original creation ground).
Hindus from distant places bring the dead bodies of their near and dear ones to the Harish Chandra Ghat for cremation. In Hindu mythology it is believed that if a person is cremated at the Harish Chandra Ghat, that person gets salvation or "moksha".
The Harish Chandra Ghat was somewhat modernized in late 1980's, when an electric crematorium was opened here. [www.varanasicity.com/harishchandra-ghat]

 

Our 'sailor'

Back to Kedar Ghat Our sailor takes us back to our starting point.

This may be a good place to describe what it takes to visit anything...
As soon as one walks out the door of the hotel, one is stormed by men who offer themselves and their vehicles take take you to the other side of the world. Adressing one of these men, one starts to bargain and come to an agreement. It is not uncommon that another man gets in the auto rickshaw with the driver. If you agreed to be brought somewhere, the driver may stop after 100 meters as if it just occurred to him that you need to be brought back too; and the bargaining will start again.

Soon 'conversation' starts with inquiries 'where are you from', 'are you married', 'how many children', etc. This is to establish a friendly relationship, as on the way back to the hotel you will get offers to make sidetrips or take trips with this driver on future expeditions.
We declined on all side trips, as these are trips that are merely offered because the driver will get a bonus to bring in customers and serve shoppers only.

Upon arrival at the ghat people will storm you for boattrips and the bargaining will begin again. When you go to a temple, a guide will offer his services. In the process you get many an outstretched hand in front of you for 'baksheesh'.
It was of no great surprise that we got only 45 minutes in the boat of the agreed one hour. But we had seen enough so we did make any trouble.

We paid the rickshaw driver Rp 200 (about 3 euro) and that boattrip cost me Rp 500. Plus a few tips.

 

Streets of Varanasi Back to the streets of Varanasi.
These streets, in the old city, are very narrow and no cars can access these small streets. Even the tuktuk needed to be left behind to make our final way to the ghats.
The Lonely Planet guide warned about this area after dark, supposed to be not safe for westerners. But our hotel, in the Cantonment, was on a considerable distance from the river banks and we felt no inclination to go out during the night anyway.
Selling vegetables on the street

Selling vegetables on the street sof Varanasi

 

Tuktuk transport
Tight fir in small streets
The streets are so narrow that sometimes only centimeters seperate the passing traffic.
Note on the photo left that oncoming traffic exists of a buffalo, people and carts. It was no surprise that we sometimes hit something.

 

Woman in Varanasi

 

Business in the streets of Varanasi
Business in the streets of Varanasi.

Business in Varanasi
It doesn't take much to open a shop here.
Kids to school
Kids going to school.

Seller sin streets of Varanasi
Streets of Varansi / Benares

Sour face
If this is your monther-in-law, waiting for you, you'd better run!


Woman in Varanasi
Been shopping..

Traffic in Varanasi, India Do you notice that all traffic is oncoming?

Happy smile!

Waiting for business to come along
Transportation for a handicapped person


Transport the Indian way
Doing deliveries, Indian-style

Business in streets of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Schoolkids on the 'bus'

Getting transport in Varanasi There are many ways here to get from A to B

Holy figure
The Hotel India, a few doors down from our hotel, had an excellent rooftop garden restaurant. We took most of our lunches there and/or had tea while reading a book. There was this shrine, perhaps of Shiva?

Shiva is the Surpreme Hindu god. Followers of Hinduism who focus their worship upon Shiva are called Shaivites or Shaivas (Sanskrit Śaiva). In some other Hindu denominations, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva represent the three primary aspects of the divine in Hinduism and are collectively known as the Trimurti. In this school of religious thought, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer or transformer. [Wikipedia]

Patel Nagar, Varanaso Cantonment

The road our Hotel Vaibhav was on: Patel Nagar, in the Cantonment.
We noticed that a lot of people, including the doorman of our hotel, used the area across the road as an open air toilet...
For lunch or dinner we often went to the nearby hotels here. I dared to divert from my vegetarian diet a few times, without any negative effects. Spaghetti, pizza, all on offer in the international cuisine here. The beer (Howard's 5000, 8% alcohol!) was excellent too.
We also enjoyed a sunny morning in the gardens of the deluxe Hotel Taj Ganges; the price of coffee was the same as a meal in town.

An excursion to the temples of Sarnath:

Mulgandh Kutti Vihar at Sarnath
Guard at Sarnath Temple
The modern monk

Sarnath is located at a distance of 8 km from Varanasi.
Sarnath is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples, preaching the middle path for attaining 'Nirvana'. Realising the sanctity of the site, emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century B.C. built some of the finest monuments and legacies, a rare site to appreciate.

The week before, the Dalai Lama had been here on a visit. Imagine!

Prayers in the wind

Prayer flags wave in the wind, very colourful too.
Rasing prayer flags

Monks and mobiles
Sarnath is one of four holy Buddhist sites sanctioned by the Buddha himself for pilgrimage...

Ancient stupa at Sarnath
Ancient characters

The 34-metre-high 'Dhamek' stupa stands as an imposing & remarkable structure. It is said that it contains the remains of Lord Buddha.
This is a special place for Bhuddism, hence the recent visit of the Dalai Lama.

Jain Temple
Jain Mandir, a Jain temple
.
Jain guide
We were offered photos of holy men; it came across strange that all these photos showed men in full nudity.

Jain temple at Sarnath

Jainism originated and evolved in India under the aegis of 24th Tirthankara Mahaveera, who lived in the 6th century BC and gained enlightenment after 13 years of deprivation. And it certainly is a lot about deprivation, this Jain religion..
It is quite similar to Hinduism and Buddhism and pursues the cause of non violence and peace. Jainism flourished in India mostly in Uttar Pradesh, parts of Orissa and parts of Rajasthan. The Jain Temple Sarnath is one of the most well revered and holy places in Sarnath.

Sarnath
The Buddha went from Bodhgaya to Sarnath about 5 weeks after his enlightenment.

Tibetan temple
There is also a colourful Tibetan temple at Sarnath.

Tibetan temple
Prayerwheels
Tibetan temple at Sarnath

Streets of Varanasi
Back to the streets of Varanasi.
This excursion to Sarnath (12 km from Varanasi, 30 minutes from our hotel) took less than 3 hours and cost me Rp 235 including tip (less than 4 euros).

Burka in Varanasi streets
A women dressed in a burka, we did not see many of them.

Old woman in Varanasi

Brownie Restaurant and Bakerie This restaurant was recommended to us and we had an excellent lunch (pizza!) here. And a latte macchiato, just like home. It wasn't far from our hotel, we tried to walk it but got lost so we hailed a tuktuk to get us here. We took a pedicab (cycle rickshaw) to get back. [Rickshaws on Wikipedia]

Old Indian taxi These old-style cabs look really nice and are spacious.
We were transported from/to the airport and I got a feeling that they look older than they really are.
Maybe they are even still being manufactured?

I tried to contact the agency that was responsible for the airport transfer, wanted to bring it forward an hour, but the list of contact adresses proved useless. It made me anxious but it turned out ok.

Going home, part one, on SpiceJet
The day had come to leave Varanasi, that filthiest of holy cities! SpiceJet took us to New Delhi.

Packing bags one final time
One more night at the Hotel Sunstar Grand in Delhi. We liked it better this time, having grown accustomed to hotels in the third world. We could have had it much worse, it all takes a little getting used to. Like how normal it is to avoid those complimentary (refilled) waterbottles and go out to buy some yourself to be able to brush your teeth. Water here is something that you cannot take for granted.
And you always need to ask for extra toiletpaper, so you need to tip the guy who will bring it to you.

It had been dark when we landed at New Delhi airport and we took a prepaid cab (desk in the terminal) into town. People had to push the taxi to get it started: that is India for you! The driver found our hotel in the confusing myriad of streets of Channah Market, after much asking around and I was able to help him when I recognised a nearby cornerstore.
We had one more vegetarian meal at a deserted restaurant (in the hotel next to ours, which we thought would be nicer but wasn't) and repacked the bags for that final flight with Virgin Atlantic the following day, to London-Heathrow.
The taxi from hotel to airport costs me Rp 350, but the driver said he had no change of my Rp 500 banknote. Never go anywhere without change!
The flight was excellent, far from fully booked, very friendly staff and excellent inflight entertainment. Hope to fly them more often.
It was only in the weeks afterwards that 'India' really began to grow on me and I now look back on this vacation as one with a serious impact. Hope to return some day!

 

AGRA BACK

Helpful links:
Indiaonline.nl (Dutch)
Indian Temples Portal
www.india-tourism.com
www.bharatonline.com
Lonely Planet
Wikipedia