varanasi, the holy city (in the off-season)

After over a month in Nepal, I was so excited to go back to India. My first stop, Varanasi. When I shared my plans with people, literally the only response I got was, “Now? Don’t go there now.” I went anyway. Despite temperatures well over 100, and humidity upwards of 80%. Monsoon rains provided brief relief from the heat, in exchange for very flooded streets. Because tourism comes to a halt this time of year, only one of every three storefronts was even open. What doesn’t slow with the heat is death. Year round pilgrims come from all over India to send their loved ones to the afterlife on the holy river Ganges. To die in Varanasi is said to allow a person to reach moksha (or nirvana). If not to die, to be burned by the Ganges is beneficial, and some believe necessary, in sending a loved one to their next life. While tourists are few and far between, the fascinating rituals around death are as alive as ever.

Varanasi was really really cool. And as a bonus, I was able to meet up with two of my yoga friends from Rishikesh and Manali! Even in the summer, there’s a lot to do and learn in Varanasi. Below are some activities that filled our time. Some are more serious than others, but all are real things we did.

1.) A boat ride on the Ganges – we woke up for sunrise, but unfortunately cloud cover meant no sun.

2.) Every morning there is yoga at sunrise at Assi ghat – a fun procession of fire ceremony, singing and chanting, breathing exercises, and laughter yoga. And hundreds come out for it, young and old alike!

3.) Watch a cremation, usually many at a time, at one of the burning ghats.

4.) Have a lassi (or two) at Blue Lassi (still open even in off-season!). My favorite, and very unique flavor – mango cashew chocolate. Yum.

5.) Go into hotels that are clearly out of your budget and haggle for “off-season” deals. (haha)

6.) Watch how silk fabric is made on a traditional loom.

7.) Trek through the narrow streets during a rainstorm – knee deep in the dirtiest water you’ve possibly ever seen.

8.) Attend a fire ceremony at the main ghat – every night.

9.) Go to a Bollywood movie.

10.) Talk to people. You can’t stand or walk anywhere near the ghats without people coming to talk to you. Most are touts and will ask for money. But we talked to them anyway, and learned a lot! Here are some interesting tidbits about Varanasi, cremations, and the Hindu belief system around death.

  • Anywhere from 70-300 people are burned in Varanasi every day.
  • Six types of bodies are not burned: small children (because they are already innocent), pregnant women (same reason, innocence), people who die of leprosy (the smell of the corpse burning is too strong), animals (because of their place next to God), those who died of cobra bite (because of their potential to have second life if a healer finds the body), and holy men (because of their closeness to God). All of these types of bodies are wrapped with rocks, rowed to the middle of the river and sunk, except for the cobra bitten bodies – they are wrapped in banana tree leaves and floated down the river, hoping that a healer will find it and bring second life.
  • Women and children are not allowed at cremations because they are more likely to weep, and weeping doesn’t allow the deceased soul to leave its body.
  • Priests and holy people are burned on platforms high on the gat; on the river bank, the poorest people are closest to the water, middle and upper castes higher up on the bank.
  • In old times, wives were expected to jump onto their husbands burning bodies; if not, they were thrown on.
  • Cremations don’t smell bad at all because oily wood, like sandalwood, is used.
  • Cremations only last 3 hours, which usually leaves part of the hip bones of women, and chest bones of men – these along with the ashes are thrown into the Ganges.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited end cities in the world, the 12th oldest. Its narrow, winding alleyways are famous for getting lost in. There are beautiful old temples around every corner. Cremations happen openly throughout the day, and you often see bodies wrapped in colorful cloth being carried through the streets by chanting family members. The introduction of motor vehicles and packaged foods means a lot of noise, and a lot of trash. But it’s a beautiful city, and its wealth of tradition and ritual made this an amazing city to visit, even in the off-season.

chitwan to varanasi in 22 hours

In my (almost) 3 months in India and Nepal, I’ve had some very intense travel days. Getting around India I spent up to 17 hours on local buses from place to place. But getting from Nepal to India overland was the longest travel day I’ve had yet. It included an overnight train, a tourist bus, 2 local buses, a shared cab, a tuk tuk, and a bicycle rickshaw. It also included a ~2 hour or so stop at Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. To my surprise, this was one of the easier and more enjoyable travel days I’ve had.

7:30am – left hostel in Chitwan to walk to the bus stand (a little over 20 minutes)

8:00am – arrived at bus stand for the 9:30am bus (this was unnecessarily early, since the bus wasn’t even there until 9; during on-season you’d buy your ticket ahead of time, but I had no problem buying on the bus when it arrived). 600 rupees.

9:30am – 2:00pm – bus ride from Chitwan to (near) Sonauli, a border crossing for Nepal/India (about 4.5 hours); compared to the bus ride into Chitwan, this one was much smoother. The ride in was so bumpy I was flying out of my seat every other minute. This bus ride was much more crowded, though, as it acted like a local bus. We stopped several times, letting locals on and off. The bus will filled almost the whole way. I’m so thankful it wasn’t too hot of a day, and an early rain cooled us off even more.

2:00pm – from where the bus let us off, I took a shared cab to Lumbini, which was about 20 minutes. I spent about an hour in Lumbini, I walked to the temple at Buddha’s birthplace, but decided not to go inside. It was 200 rupees entrance, and I was in a hurry because I’d left my backpack in a random travel booking office. The shared cab was 500 rupees 😦

4:00pm – took a local bus back to the bus stop for only 50 rupees (apparently this bus runs every half hour or so), then switched to another local bus to get to Sonauli, 15 rupees. About 30 minutes total.

4:30pm – arrived at border crossing, hired a bicycle rickshaw for 100 rupees to take me to the Nepal immigration office for my exit stamp, the India immigration office for my entrance stamp, and then to the bus stop. About 30 minutes total.

5:10pm – 8:20pm – local bus from Sonauli to the train station in Gorakhpur. About 3 hours, 97 rupees. When I arrived at the train station, I skipped all of the lines because I’m a tourist. I got one of the last two seats on the overnight train to Varanasi, and had to pay for 1st class. I was lucky because it’s off season in this part of India too, during on season you’d be extremely lucky to get a train ticket only a couple hours before departure I think. 

10:45pm – 4:45am – 1st class AC train from Gorakpur to Varanasi. The train station was extremely confusing. At around 10:40, I was still waiting for my train at the platform listed on my ticket and on the electronic departures board. I looked back at the opposite platform and noticed a tiny sign on the side that said “Varanasi.” For the next 5 minutes I ran frantically down almost the entire length of the train looking for my car. There were no conductors or train station employees. Luckily people were really helpful, even though almost no one spoke English, several people looked at my ticket and pointed me in the right direction. I finally found my car, and my sleeper bunk. I was exhausted and slept like a baby. Setting an alarm for 4:35 was absolutely necessary, as there were no announcements, the lights stayed off. I definitely would have slept until the end of the line (wherever that is). 1,160 rupees.

4:45am – arrived in Varanasi; it took about 10 minutes to walk out of the train station, and from there took an 80 rupee tuk tuk to my guesthouse.

5:30am – arrived at guesthouse!

Total time on the road from hotel to hotel was about 22 hours. The stop at Buddha’s birthplace was completely unnecessary, but I would have just spent the extra time at a bus and/or train station. I was really intimidated by all of the bus and train changes, but it was actually kind of nice to break up the trip that way. I got really lucky with the timing of all of the buses too, I never had to run after one, but I never had to wait that long either. All in all, not a bad travel day, and definitely not the miserable and confusing trip that I’d read about online.