“Madam, I am warning you, it is not advisable to be out after 6pm tonight,” Kush, my pop-eyed guesthouse manager, says, wagging his chubby finger at me. Then, with a Hindi head wobble, he adds: “It’s Shiva festival. Big festival! 100,000 people coming to Varanasi.” And, with that, I misguidedly choose to ignore travel rule number one – always listen to the locals.
At about 9pm, after a leisurely curry and a cuppa at a small café in the company of a handful of other backpackers, a strange, collective unease begins to flow from table to table.
Beyond the café, in the ancient, dung-strewn alleyways, are long lines of men. A ragged bunch, barefoot and red-eyed, they’re walking conga-style, in the direction of the Ganges River. Some are punching the air, others are thwacking handmade drums with sticks.
Varanasi’s lanes are so narrow that they usually only accommodate two people abreast, but now the number is five, six, even 10 across. The marchers don’t appear aggressive, but the sheer number in the thronging lines is intimidating.
The café’s sociable owner, Bablu, gathers his diners into the corner for a quick heads-up. “Shivaratri is the mother of all festivals here. It is celebrated all over India, but as this is home to the Ganges River and Lord Shiva, many come here to walk tonight, visiting different temples.”
Questions erupt. The main one being – how on earth will we get through the crowd to our guesthouses? The Old City stretches several kilometres along the western bank of the Ganges, and we are all staying in digs in different parts of the city.
With no answer for us, the proprietor turns on his heels, and tells us to “stand back” as he slams down the blue metal shutters with us inside. “These young men are high on bhang (cannabis, Shiva’s drug of choice, is legally bought here from government-approved shops), I think it will be very hard for you to get home from here.” Bablu tells us that the men have come from remote villages and that it’s likely “they’ve not seen Westerners before”.
‘Big Sean’, from Los Angeles, bravely dives in first. We travellers quickly form our own ragtag gang and slip into the crowd. Our pace is painfully slow. With paths blocked and groups coming at us from all directions, Sean shouts: “This is just like a zombie movie!” I grimace in response as I’m pushed through the mucky lanes. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it shows its age through its little-changed passageways and temples.
After half an hour of elbowing, pushing and trying desperately to avoid groping, we spy the guesthouse – glimmering on a raised bank like a mirage. Finally, sweating, cursing and in fits of laughter, Sean and I bowl through the front door and collapse. Kush looks at us in a fatherly fashion, then at his watch, and gives us a shrug that simply says: “I told you so.”
Most travellers to India have Varanasi on their itinerary. It’s well known as a good spot to sign up for a crash course in Indian cookery, and is a photographer’s dream with its high-octane mysticism and a heady mix of saffron-robed sadhus (ascetics), pilgrims, drifters, beggars and tourists.
Then there are the mourners. Hindus believe that if they are cremated here, out in the open, on the banks of the Ganges, at one of the two burning ghats (steps to the holy river), they will achieve moksha – liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Most of all, though, Varanasi is famous for the Ganges, which is worshipped (quite literally) as a goddess, and is where pilgrims wash, swim, pray and bathe.
With this in mind, the following day, after dodging a big-bollocked monkey that had crept on to my tiny balcony, I meet with Ragu, my guide, who promises to let me in on some of Varanasi’s special secrets.
We start with a walking tour, as strolling the pungent galis (alleys) is the best way to get initiated in the different temples, stone palaces, cafes, shops and ‘chaiwallas’ selling tea. Lines of men cross the paths carrying dead bodies to the burning ghats on bamboo stretchers, chanting, “Ram nam satya hai” (‘The name of Rama is truth’).
Finally, we pop out into the sun. “This is the smaller burning ghat, called Harishchandra,” Ragu says. “Here, you can see the dead body’s feet are painted pink – that means it’s a woman.” Firewood surrounds her as flames lick at the muslin shroud she’s partially wrapped in. Her feet and legs quickly turn from a bright-pink flesh colour to a sinister black charcoal. Another body, burnt to a cinder, lies a metre or so away from us. The cremation ground is a terrible carpet of ash, discarded clothes, burnt wood, mangy dogs and rubbish. Flecks of black ash stick to my sweaty shirt.
Behind us is an electric crematorium, in addition to the traditional pyres, which are directly in front. Mortality is inescapable here, but far from being morbid, the atmosphere feels natural – and positive, even. The sound of crackling, a bit like a barbecue, is faintly audible. About 30 metres away I spot a group of pilgrims dropping into the Ganges like penguins.
As I am digesting all this, Ragu points to the centre of the Ganges. “You see that?” An animal appears to be bobbing up and down. I nod, nervous of what is to follow. “That’s a dog,” Ragu says. “He is eating a body. Some people we don’t burn, like holy men, pregnant women, lepers and children.” He rolls off these exceptions like a shopping list, so familiar is he with this peculiar place. Sensing my thoughts, Ragu looks at the ground and philosophically says: “Life is just a memory.”
We stop to relax in a cool courtyard of the Nepali Pashupati temple, close to Lalita Ghat, created from wood and rich with erotic carvings. Ragu divulges some insider information on where to eat masala dosa (the VSR restaurant) and where to drink the tastiest yoghurt-based lassi (Blue Lassi, near Vishwanath temple).
“But you want to know the best secret of Varanasi, so have you heard of the Aghoris?” I shake my head and answer that I’ve never heard of them. “They’re a little-known Hindu sect, who hide out in the forests, but I know one that lives nearby.” I ask what makes them different, and without missing a beat, he replies, “they eat corpses”. With raised eyebrows, I guffaw at him.
“Really!” he insists. ”They practice black magic. At midnight they go waist-deep into the Ganges and look for bodies and they eat certain parts of the flesh to give themselves strength. They also drink from the skulls. Come, I will take you to the one I know.His name is Baba Naganath.”
We walk behind the ghats until we reach the north end of the Old City. En route, we stop at an akhara (wrestling arena) as an energetic bout of Indian wrestling (kushti) is going on. Oil-slathered men, in the tiniest of red shorts, grapple with one another and strike poses when they spot us watching. The pehlwans’ (wrestlers) arms are rounded with thick muscles and their movements look refined and well-practiced. Ragu tells me that wrestling competitions,
or dangals, regularly take place.
Soon we arrive in front of a small Shiva temple. Inside, a tiny, dreadlocked man is sitting next to a flaming mound of coal into which he has stuck a cluster of tall forks. The air is thick and soupy with smoke. Baba Naganath looks incredibly thin and he shoots me a hungry, fangy stare.
Wearing only thin cotton trousers and a black synthetic bum bag, he sits on a filthy, thin mattress. Once I join him, he smiles freely and hands me some prasad (temple food), a squidgy, fudge-like substance that he’s been mixing with his hands. I eat it, tentatively, fearing what it may have been mixed with. I wash the buttermilk taste down quickly with steaming hot chai.
We chat and drink more chai as Ragu translates. It seems Baba is fasting in protest, as the government, he says, “is not taking proper care of Mother Ganga”. I long to hear more about his life, but the hot coals of the fire, combined with the sun outside, are unbearable, and soon Ragu and
I slide back outside.
After this perplexing episode, I’m keen for a more typical Varanasi experience. At dawn the following morning, we are pulled along the Ganges by a cheerful boatman, who sings devotional songs as he rows us past smiling pilgrims washing in the holy river. The waters in the early morning are thick with floating turds, bands of black bubbles and white soap suds.
The pale sun rises over the desolate east bank and slowly turns a deep red. Hundreds of camera’s snap away as tourists “ohh” and “ahh” from their boats. With the warm sun on my back, I feel very much at one with Varanasi. Like much of India, it’s essentially a welcoming place. Hindus reverentially call it ‘the city of light’, but to outsiders it is perhaps more than that – it is another spellbinding world entirely.
KEEP READING: For an Insider’s guide to Varanasi
The Insider’s guide
Born and raised in Varanasi, Raghvendra Agrahari, 24, works as an official tour guide in the city.
What’s your top tip for Varanasi?
A tourist once tipped me £300! Just kidding. My top tip would be to learn some simple rules that will stop you getting duped by salesmen. For example, don’t follow the young guys that hang around the main burning ghat (Manikarnika), who’ll suggest you go with them for a good view. If you do, they’ll get aggressive unless you give them a large amount of baksheesh (a bribe). Also, try ‘puri sabzi’ – fried puffed bread and fried vegetables – for breakfast. It’s a Varanasi staple.
Where’s best to chill out?
At Assi Ghat, head to the Lotus Lounge, which has Ganges views and tasty smoothies and decent coffee. Alcohol is not that easy to find in Varanasi, but head to the Palace on Ganges at Assi Ghat where they have a roof-top restaurant and you might get a drink – some places will serve it to you wrapped in plain paper as alcohol is not really allowed on the river.
Where’s good for an adventure?
One little-known adventure is that on the east bank of the Ganges, where there is the chance to ride horses. Agree a fee with a boatman to take you across the river and after 10am you’ll find a few boys who let tourists ride their horses for a small fee. Expect to pay something like Rs70 (£1) for 20 minutes. Remember to fix the price with the boatman first and ask him to wait for you and take you back across the river.
What do you like to do in Varanasi?
My friends and I like to go to IP Mall – which was the first large mall to open in the area – as it has McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza as well as IP Cinema, which shows Western and Bollywood films.
KEEP READING for our Varanasi fact pack
WHEN TO GO: Visit Varanasi in the cool, dry season, between November and March.
CURRENCY: £1=INR79.8 (Indian rupee)
ACCOMMODATION: Ganpati Guesthouse is fantastic value, with helpful staff, good river views and a great location. From about £7.50pn (ganpatiguesthouse.com). At Scindhia Guesthouse, the most expensive rooms are overpriced, but are spotless and come with an awesome view and little balcony. Located by the main burning ghat, with rooms starting at about £5pn (scindhiaguesthouse.com).
GETTING THERE: Flights from London Gatwick to Varanasi cost from £654 return with British Airways and Kingfisher Airlines. (britishairways.com; flykingfisher.com)