Life and death in Varanasi
It is hard to get down in words how special Varanasi is, and how much it also means to me personally. Back in 1999, Robin took me on a 2.5 month trip which began with trekking in Nepal and finished in India. I spent my 21st birthday in Varanasi where we celebrated with one other couple with two beers, which I remember took a boy a good 2 hours to find. And my only gift was Indian sweets from the couple. We spent many days drinking it all in, from the burning ghats to boat rides with an old boatman Robin called 'Baba'. So blooming special. And now I found myself back, in January 2023, with my sharp as a button personal whirlwind, Tiger Robyn India Dimmock. There are some key parts of India which simply inspire me, and indeed inspired her name, and without question Varanasi was one of them.
We arrived at 6pm on 3rd January off the Indigo flight from Delhi. The airport was super swish and very impressive and the exit experience wonderful. I paid for a porter (200 Rs for inside the airport and gave him a further 100 Rs for delivering us to our car). Not strictly necessary, but it was helpful. Our driver, arranged by our guide Priya (1500 Rs each way) was there with a sign and we jumped into one of the nicest taxis we had been in. It was a fascinating journey as simply everything looked so new and shiny and built up. That, and Tiger had her face out of the window and her plaits swinging in the wind.
Our hotel was Banaras Guest House, 7,832 Rs (£77) for 3 nights. I had booked a triple room which was slightly more expensive that the standard doubles as I wanted a double and single bed. I am not a huge fan of us sleeping together, although I don't mind her getting in with me in the morning at all and all the Tiger cuddles! There were lots of steps to get to the room on the third floor, and the hotel manager offered us his 'family room' which had two sets of bunk beds as this was on the ground floor, but I preferred to stick with what we had. Although it was chilly at night, it was really nice to have 2 cold beers (Kingfisher, 250 Rs each) on the balcony once Tiger was in bed.
A few words about our guide, Priya. I had found Priya online first on Tripadvisor and then via her own website. I reached out to her and we agreed a 3 day tour totalling 19,000 Rs which was made up of 13,500 Rs for the tour + 2500 Rs taxi charges + 3000 Rs airport runs. The total cost ended up reaching 19,500 Rs which is £195. Additionally we paid 2000 Rs (£20) for the photographer for one day. It really was worth every penny.
Priya was wonderful, even before I had arrived in India, answering questions on Whatsapp and then she was actually the one to notify me that my flight had been cancelled before I checked my email! She first jumped in with us when we first arrived from the airport and after that became an almost second parent helping with Tiger at every turn. I was actually beyond grateful for everything to be arranged for us and to not have to think too much about anything.
On the first day, Priya met us at our Guesthouse, we were a little delayed by getting up late for breakfast but by 10am we were straight out on a boat on the River Ganges. Priya normally recommends an early morning boat ride but looking back on it, it was probably best we didn't because we were still struggling to get up and out early due to jet lag (this in fact lasted the entire two weeks!) and in addition to that the weather was quite cold and gloomy. Nevertheless it was great to be out on a boat. We were on our own but with Priya, the boatman, a photographer and assistant (the latter who had an impressive 'Press' lanyard around his neck so we did feel rather famous at times!). From our motorboat, we could see other tourists in rowing boats (which was how I had experienced the Ganges in years gone by, but that would have been too dangerous with all of Tiger's jumping around! We could also see other local tourists crammed into really big boats and across from the ghats a new tent city complete with camel rides! Although Priya explained that it wasn't fully open yet and was extremely expensive. Something that was also new to me was feeding the Siberian sea birds who are on migration in Varanasi - a new phenomenon for the last 8 years.
After chai and a quick auto rickshaw ride, we went with Priya to Banaras Hindu University and to the temple there where Tiger got two balloons.
After a much needed nap back at the guesthouse we went out again at 3pm, heading for a walk around the flower market in the North of the city, stopping off for a lassi (and a play with a dog!) at the Blue Lassi shop.
As night fell, we had our second boat trip of the day which was absolutely spectacular, seeing not only the burning ghats but everything lit up so beautifully.
We landed close to where our Guesthouse was (Assi Ghat) and walked to see the evening fire ceremony (Aarti), again something which is quite new but very visually impressive. What probably meant a lot more to us (me) though was the fact that we were able to let off two lanterns, one for Robin Batten and one for Claire Peacock.
On our second day with Priya, 5th January, we first headed out to Ramnagar Fort, on the western bank of the River Ganges. The current resident is Maharajah Anant Nayayan Singh who holds the title of the 'Maharajah of Benares'. We trundled around a hilariously ramshackle museum before ending up at the temple of the Ved Vayas where Tiger 'prayed' for a ballet dancing unicorn!
Our next stop, via taxi, was Nagepur vilage, 15km from Varanasi. The government had actually extended the Winter break for schools so the school we visited was actually officially closed but we met some ladies learning sewing there and some others who were making washing powder! Nagepur was actually the weaving hub of Varanasi but it has declined significantly in recent years due to the arrival of Chinese looms combined with electricity costs. Nevertheless we did see some hand weaving as well as some by machines. We had a good walk around the village, with the sun coming out for us, Tiger hand in hand with Gan-Gan her little friend one year younger than her. Tiger was particularly fascinated with a tiny new born baby and picked up baby goat!
We stopped for lunch in a roadside restaurant. I tried Tiger on noodles but they were spicy (the reaction - tongue out and gulping down water - was quite amusing) so we replaced the noodles with 'finger chips' and ketchup.
We carried onto Sanarth, a really well maintained site and the third holiest site for Buddhists because it was the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon. In case you were wondering the first holy place is Lumbini in Nepal where Lord Buddha was born and Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India (and where I have visited - it is incredible) where he attained spiritual enlightenment under a pipal tree. With Tiger, I would have to say our lovely guide who was trying to tell be about the site, didn't have a chance but it was a lovely, calm place to visit and we got a unicorn balloon so all good! We were all a bit shattered and got quickly to bed after a shower.
On our last day in Varanasi, we went for a walk from Assi Ghat to Dashashwamedh Ghat. We watched boats being built and people bathing in the Ganges, now far cleaner than I remember it from my first visit. We spent some very special time sitting beside the smaller of the two cremation ghats. We did not explain to Tiger what it was, and she didn't ask, but watched the bodies being washed prior to cremation on piles of wood, goats and cows roaming to eat the flowers which had come adorned the bright and beautifully wrapped bodies. We also saw one family taking the body of their deceased family member, completely wrapped up, into the middle of the river. Still to this day, Varanasi has a deep impact on me and I would love to be cremated there except it would be a bloody long way for my family to come, very expensive and they probably would not understand or appreciate it in the same way as me. Still, perhaps cremation at home is possible and to have ashes scattered here is another option a bit more attainable.
We went to Priya's house for a little lunch (and a sleep!) before heading to the airport for our Air India flight to Kolkata to visit my teacher Samapti,