Varanasi – Where Chaos & Calm Collide

Ranthambore to Varanasi via Delhi

Twelve game drives and eleven tigers later it was time to leave Ranthambore. For the first time in our week there, we had a proper sit-down breakfast at the Kothi – and what a spread it was. From idlis and curd rice to bacon, eggs and sausages. Idlis with bacon was a first for me – they actually went quite well together!

Bablu with four bags at the tiger-themed Sawai Madhopur station. No, the lady next to him is not from our party…

Goodbyes were said to the lovely staff of the Kothi and to our guides and drivers, and then it was back to the railway station for the long train ride to Delhi. It was another full-of-laughs journey that involved much conversation, some sleeping and a smattering of sleep-talking by one of us who couldn’t bear to not be part of the conversation even as sleep took over.

The journey back seemed longer than our journey to Ranthambore – probably because it was (it took almost an hour longer) and we were ready to crash by the time we got to the Radisson – after another long car ride in the evening Delhi traffic.

The next morning, we had our latest start of the trip yet – 8AM to the airport for our flight to Varanasi. It was an uneventful flight and arrival at Varanasi…by now, schoolgirl pranks and the raucous laughter that followed were normal occurrences and no longer ‘events’. I should probably say ‘schoolboy’ pranks since the straight-faced Bablu was usually the mastermind of these…in this case, he started even before we got out of the airport, where we managed to all stay out of Penny’s sight as she emerged from the washroom, resulting in some slight consternation…

After checking in at the Gateway Ganges, a lovely buffet lunch while people-watching (a wedding was being prepared for in the grounds – tents were up, and people in their wedding-best were traipsing through the restaurant), and a short respite, it was time for our first evening in Varanasi.

Getting to the Ganges

On the agenda for today was the evening Aarti by the Ganges – so Shobs and I decided to ditch the safari look (and hiking boots) – much to Bablu’s amusement, and possibly approval – he called it the ‘cultural tour’ look (as opposed to the ‘tiger safari’ one).

In our two days in Varanasi, we did this trek to the Ganges and the ghats four times – the ‘getting to the Ganges’ trek on our first evening is the one I remember best, perhaps because it was the first and it was such a journey in itself. My senses went from being completely assailed to being completely at peace – it was quite remarkable.

The first 20 minutes or so of this journey to the Ganges was in our very comfortable mini-bus. We met our local guide, Ajeeth, born in Varanasi and lived there all his life – and “will die here”, he said. As I sat at the back of the mini-bus, looking out at life on the streets of Varanasi and listening to Ajeeth’s enthusiastic description of his city, my thoughts wandered to all that I knew of this place, India’s holiest city. If we played one of those word/thought association games, and someone said ‘Varanasi’ or ‘Benares’ (as it used to be known), I would say, “a good place to die in” (I probably knew this from my grandmother’s stories) – or I would say, “silk”, for Benares’ other claim to fame is its silk (I probably knew this from listening in to conversations on the merits of various sarees). I didn’t know it then, but these initial thoughts that swung from the spiritual to the secular, would be a common thread over the next two days.

We soon got to the next part of our journey to the Ganges – by rickshaw. There was no time or space for profound thoughts, as we sped through the streets (yes, it did feel like we sped – through the humanity that filled Varanasi streets), avoiding cows, cars and other beings while holding on to the camera, and wedging ourselves in the slippery plastic-covered seat, one foot braced against a centre metal piece (helpfully pointed out by our rickshaw wallah – “Put foot here, madam”) – if one could reach it. Penny had earlier given instructions, reminding us that we’d be moving and to make sure we were using fast shutter speeds – shooting from a moving, swerving rickshaw is not that much different from wildlife photography apparently. On this first wild ride, however, my focus was on staying in the rickshaw.

We were dropped off near a roundabout that said ‘Baba Black Sheep’ and then had to cross a road to get to a pedestrians-only road that led to the ghats. [It was supposedly ‘pedestrians only’…but there were cycles, motorbikes, rickshaws and once, a ‘VIP car’ carrying VIP passengers who looked like they could’ve done with a walk.] It was funny how quickly I slipped into ‘Indian road-crossing mode’ – steady pace, don’t look anywhere except forward, ignore horns, just walk. Here there was the added step of ‘stick with Ajeeth/Bablu’ (one of them was always in front, with the other bringing up in the rear) – some of us did the ‘stick to Ajeeth/Bablu’ step better than others.

There were many photo-stops on the twenty-minute walk down Gowdalia Chowk. It was a mass of people – from barefoot pilgrims to roadside stall owners selling all manner of trinkets, flowers, fruit, paan and plastic containers (for water from the Ganges); from orange-clad sadhus to homeless people stretched out, asleep on walkways; from beggars with missing limbs and digits, to Benares silk-clad ladies with purposeful strides, heading in the same direction as we were. It was crowded, noisy, chaotic – and yet, it felt ‘easy’ as long as one ‘went with the flow’. It was when I stepped out of ‘the flow’ to take a photo that it ‘jarred’ – and then I had to find a gap to get back in…almost like those skipping rope games I played in school.

Smoking Sadhus

As we got closer to the ghats, the sound of bhajans over loudspeakers wafted over me, as did the sweet – almost sickly sweet – smell of bhang (aka cannabis). At the top of the first set of stairs leading down to the Ganges, was an alcove, in which sat several sadhus in a cloud of cannabis. I have to admit I was a bit conflicted here – it was all quite incongruous. For one thing, I associated sadhus with ‘holiness’ (whatever that means – ‘clean’ living? selflessness? ascetics with a more direct line to God or some higher consciousness?) – people who have renounced worldly goods and material possessions (ok, these men seemed to tick this box). I had to remind myself that bhang is as old as time in this part of the world. Varanasi aka Benares is also known as Kashi, whose most famous ‘homie’ is Lord Shiva, The Destroyer in the trimurti (the Hindu Trinity) – and whose association with bhang is legendary.

Whether these were ‘real’ holy men on the fast track to God, or men out to make a quick buck as they posed, some clad in ashes, rudrakhsha (prayer beads), marigolds and little else, I would never know…but then again must they be one or the other? Lord Shiva apparently used bhang to “focus inwards and harness divine powers.” I suspect the chillum-smoking sadhus were using bhang of a far less godly quality – the not so heavenly hash only served to make my eyes smart as I knelt there trying to focus (outwards) and get some decent images, these confused thoughts swirling in my head.

The Ganges – A River Felt

Standing at the top of the ghats, smoking sadhus and cannabis clouds behind me, the Ganges before me and Shiva bhajans permeating the air, as the sun got lower in the sky…it was an unexpectedly joyful moment (and no, it wasn’t because of what I was inhaling for the previous few minutes). I can’t explain it but it was akin to that moment at Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan – a feeling of inexplicable, almost overwhelming, happiness.

Apropos of nothing, I noticed a metal detector off to one side of the steps – when or why it was put there I have no clue. People walked casually through it or around it – and from my bubble of happiness I wondered what paperwork went into installing it, who approved it and if it was on some ‘asset management’ list…

There was a bit of time before the evening aarti began, and I found myself doing more absorbing of the atmosphere than photographing. Young, old and everything in between were walking down the ghats to the water – some immersing themselves more fully than others into the sacred river which Hindus believe has the power to wash away one’s sins and, perhaps more importantly, get us off the life-death continuum.

In the continuing pattern of my thoughts swinging from the spiritual to the secular, Atul Gawande popped into my head – and his description in ‘Being Mortal’ (his best book, in my view – if you haven’t read it, you must!) of fulfilling his father’s wishes to have his ashes scattered in the Ganges at Varanasi. Having done his homework and knowing how high the bacteria count is in this river, and foreseeing that he would be made to drink a bit of the water as part of the ritual, he prophylactically dosed himself with various antibiotics…then promptly came down with Giardiasis, a parasitic infection (and therefore, not touched by the antibiotics).

Aarti – Dispelling Darkness, Giving Thanks

The highlight of Varanasi, for me, was being at the Aarti ceremony on the Dashwashwamedh Ghat. We were there early that first evening and chope-d our places on platforms facing the ghat on which the ceremony takes place, the Ganges behind us. There was a carnival-like atmosphere as the spaces filled up – there were people in proper seats facing the river, there were our platforms, and there were people in boats moored on the river. Young boys went around selling flowers and oil lamps, and some older ones, chai.

Most people there were from out of town, or foreigners like us – Ajeeth said the locals don’t usually come down to the ghats for this ceremony, preferring to do their own aartis at home or at the various temples dotted across Varanasi. I happened to talk to a boy I was sitting next to on our platform – he and his family were indeed from out of town, from Madhya Pradesh. He was there for darshan (blessing), ahead of his school exams.

It was all very friendly, as people found their spots – and certain people in our group were incessantly invited to take selfies. Shobs and I, given our novelty factor of zero, were usually asked to move out of the frame – except once, when a polite family generously said, “You also be in photo.” and we didn’t have to find a space to move out to – which was a good thing, as the area was so crowded by then, we may have needed to step into the river.

The ceremony began as the sun went down. It was a ceremony of thanksgiving to the goddess of the Ganges – Ganga – and it involved 7 young priests, resplendent in matching kurtas and dhotis. The synchronised long-form aarti (it lasted more than an hour) was quite different from the abbreviated ones I know. That the priests need to be young is probably a job requirement, given that the choreographed aarti requires some degree of strength – those tiered brass lamps must weigh a ton, especially when having to be held with one hand, arm straight out.

There was symbolism a-plenty –

  • the five elements of nature were invoked – water (sprinkled from a conch shell), air (the peacock feather used as a fan), space or the sky (akash! represented by the movement of a yak-tail fan), fire (the flame from the brass lamps) and earth (represented by flowers).
  • incense – to dispel negativity and represent a pure state of mind
  • burning of camphor – to destroy the ego
  • an orange cloth – representing civilisation and material comfort

And if all that is too high-brow to absorb, think of it as welcoming the Goddess Ganga to your home, as Ajeeth said – what would you do if you were receiving an important visitor at your home? All the symbols then take on a slightly simpler meaning, making them easier to remember –

  • the water to clean Ganga’s hands and feet as she enters your home; water too as a thirst quencher (always better than those sugar-sweetened beverages)
  • incense to make one’s home smell nice (think of it as air freshener or those aromatherapy sticks)
  • flowers – because which lady doesn’t like flowers
  • camphor – to take away the evil eye – as Ganga is really beautiful, can’t have anyone ‘casting eyes’.
  • fire from the lamps – to brighten one’s home (lighting is important)
  • the orange cloth – an offering of new clothes for the visitor (this one I’m not so sure of – maybe one could think of it as offering pyjamas to someone who’s forgotten to bring her own when she comes to your home for a sleepover).

It truly was a beautiful ceremony – the chanting and mantras were joined by a (relatively) cool evening breeze; the incense and camphor smelt wonderful enough to provide a worthy welcome to the Goddess of the Ganges. The silk-clad priests, framed by the lovely-smelling smoke from the incense and camphor, their faces lit up by the oil lamps, made for some wonderful photo opportunities.

The ceremony was long enough to allow me to put the camera down and say a prayer for family and friends. There were crowds of people, we were sitting pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder – I normally would’ve felt quite discomfited at having my ‘personal space’ invaded, and yet here it felt like I was in my ‘own space’, both physically and mentally. Maybe it had something to do with everyone being in the same ‘head space’, or the fact that there was a confluence of prayer…whatever it was, it felt good and right.

The magical moment for me happened during the flower bit of the ceremony – the priest tossed rose petals in the air, and as they floated down around him, the breeze keeping them in the air longer than usual, I squeezed the shutter – as I did, it felt like ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ segued into a singular moment where time stood still, and I just knew in that millisecond that this would be The Varanasi Image for me.

Buddha Was Here Too

The next day, we were supposed to go on an early morning boat ride on the Ganges – however, it was a special puja day for the boatmen so none of them were working – their one holiday of the year. Arrangements were made to go on the river the following day, our final morning in Varanasi; and instead of the boat ride we went for an early morning walk on the ghats (more of this later) and then back to the hotel for breakfast before visiting Sarnath.

I remember learning about Sarnath during History lessons in school back in the ‘home country’ (that was a time when children were taught a bit about all religions – and all it did was broaden our minds). After Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya under the Bodhi tree, he went to Sarnath where he met up with five of his friends whom he had known when he’d first renounced his princely trappings and all material comforts. As the story goes, when the five saw him, they noticed that he didn’t look like he had been living a very austere life – they made it known that he didn’t seem legit and that they weren’t about to support him. Buddha then launched into his first sermon at the deer park in Sarnath.

He spoke of what he had learnt when he attained enlightenment – that there is neither a need nor any value in embracing extremes – whether extreme self-indulgence or extreme sacrifice or deprivation. In this first sermon he spoke of the ‘Middle Way’ – about avoidance of extremes; if the aim in life is to add the greatest value to our existence, and to relieve suffering, extremes need to be rejected. And with that, credibility was regained, his 5 friends became his biggest fans, and the word was spread.

About a hundred years later, Aristotle spoke of the ‘Golden Mean’, where every good thing or virtue is a function of its two extremes on either end – both these extremes being vices. Not too different at all from the ‘all things in moderation’ line that we keep repeating at the Health Promotion Board.

While I knew about Sarnath, I didn’t know it was so close to Varanasi – just about 10 kilometres away. The park couldn’t have been more outwardly different from the ghats. It was spotlessly clean, well-manicured, and quiet. The huge Dhamekh (or Dhamekha) Stupa marked the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon. This stupa was built around 500BC to replace an earlier Ashoka-era stupa which was said to contain some of Buddha’s ashes (which were divided and initially placed in 10 stupas across North India).

Dhamekha Stupa

Life on the Ganges – Death Comes Somewhere in the Middle

Besides the two evenings of aarti (we went on the second night too), we had an early morning walk along the ghats and a boat ride, when the boatmen were back to work. Both offered fascinating and quite different perspectives of life on the Varanasi part of the Ganges – one up close, the other from a slight distance.

Life starts early on the Ganges. That first morning we were there by 6AM – it was already bustling with pilgrims preparing for various rituals; barbers shaving heads (likely the heads of oldest sons preparing to cremate a parent); families cooking in makeshift tents, preparing food as offerings of thanks to the Goddess Ganga (Ajeeth explained that these offerings must be freshly cooked on the banks of the Ganges, and not brought from home); individuals doing their own mini-aartis on the steps – we were blessed by a local lady who had her own aarti going – no money was involved. One of the more photogenic priests from the previous night was doing a more elaborate morning aarti.

What struck me was that despite the bustle, everyone once again seemed to be in their own space. There were several individuals meditating on high platforms as the sun rose over the opposite bank of the Ganges – nothing distracted them, not the people or the dogs that walked around some of them.

The only slight ruckus was when there was almost a dog fight as a pack of dogs defended their ghat territory against a presumably outsider pack.

Looking down the stairs to the river, we had a birds-eye view of the river rituals – as men and women made their way down to the water, treading carefully on the slippery steps, older folk being helped by younger relatives. There seemed to be no qualms about being completely submerged in the water; little oil lamps with flowers were lit and sent off on the river. The men definitely had an easier time when it came to changing out of their wet clothes – there was no real place to change; the women showed amazing skill and dexterity…and to think of the problems I have with getting into a saree on dry ground in front of a mirror!

There was one little area at the top of the stairs which had a mirror – presumably for those who’d taken a dip to check that their hair and face was in order before they left the ghats? Most people walked past with barely a fleeting glance at the mirror or their reflection; a couple of teenagers stopped to examine their teeth and (I think) zits. Then came along this straggly-bearded man in a dhoti, kurta and a shawl, all of which had seen better days. He stood still in front of the mirror, staring at himself for a good half or one minute. I wondered what he saw – himself at another age, another life? When I looked later at the image I’d taken, he didn’t seem to be that old underneath his beard and long hair. As another friend commented, “He looks like a tired soul…someone who has seen more than his fair share of life.” I wondered what his story was.

Man in the mirror

The morning we were out on the boat was another beautiful morning. Our boatman was a young boy whose slim frame belied the strength in his arms as he quite vigorously rowed us up and down the river – we had to tell him to slow down or stop several times as he raced past photo opps.

From the boat it was much clearer just how many people were in the river. There were some who were washing their clothes in the river, others washing themselves – complete with very sudsy soap. There was an elderly man who seemed to be going for a leisurely swim and very casually avoided an oncoming boat and its oar – I was convinced he was going to get whacked on the head.

The opposite bank of the Ganges was very different – just a sandbank with no physical structures other than a few flimsy tents. We saw a man on a galloping horse, and one on a slow-moving camel. Members of the Aghori sect are said to live on that bank – they are known to smear their bodies with ashes from cremations, eat the flesh of partly cremated bodies and drink from skulls. They are shunned by orthodox Hindus; from our boat we really couldn’t see very much of the goings-on on the other bank. I am sure the history of the Aghoris would be quite fascinating – but it would be something I’d probably need to find out for myself as no one here was willing to say very much about them.

For all the press about the polluted Ganges, the water didn’t appear obviously dirty – all we saw floating in it were prayer lamps and flowers. The believer in me (and maybe a bit of the kiasu Singaporean in me with FOMO) put the tips of my fingers into the water, and did a quick sprinkle on the head…this was after all the Ganges…

There were friendly folk who smiled and waved at us as we floated past, cameras up – and there were others who made it clear that they didn’t want to be photographed – and so, cameras went down. There were a pair of elderly ladies, standing on the bottom-most step of one of the ghats, bending over almost double, and in unison, to complete a ritual involving lamps and flowers – good balance…I might’ve tipped headfirst into the Ganges if I had to do that.

As we went further downstream (or maybe it was upstream), the mounds of rubbish on the banks became more obvious – and still people were in the water. Their immune systems are obviously far more advanced than most.


Ajeeth pointed out the new electric crematorium, built to take the load off the open pyres which were cremating up to 300 bodies a day. Despite being less expensive and quicker, the preference was still the open pyres – which continued to work 24/7. Possibly because the word is that being cremated on the ancient Manikarnika Ghat assures moksha – liberation from the life-death cycle – a promise an electric crematorium is unlikely to fulfil.

Ajeeth had earlier described Varanasi as the city to die in. Rishikesh, which is described as the place where life starts, is located at the start of the Ganges’ journey through the plains of northern India. So why wasn’t the ‘city to die in’ near the end of the Ganges, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal?? (aside from the fact that it would be in present day Bangladesh and not India). Some literature says that the site was deliberately chosen – to underline the fact that death is not the end, but is in fact the middle of one’s journey – an idea that I like.

Sinking Shiva Temple as we approached the Manikarnika Ghat

Further down the river were the funeral or burning ghats. I did feel a change in atmosphere as we approached – or perhaps the change was in us. Hindu funerals, even in ‘sanitised’ Singapore and Malaysia, are quite ‘in your face’, with very personal rituals that don’t happen in most other faiths. Here, in Varanasi and on the Manikarnika Ghats, ‘in your face’ takes on a whole new meaning – wrapped bodies are carried on stretchers through the streets, dipped in the Ganges for purification, left to dry for a bit before being put on the pyre – we heard of, rather than saw all of this.

Several pyres were burning, the men-only crowd watching. There were huge piles of firewood – I couldn’t tell if it was the more expensive sandalwood or the more ubiquitous mango wood. It takes 300KG of wood and three to four hours to completely burn a body. Often, the family is unable to afford that amount of wood – according to NatGeo, an “estimated 100,000 bodies of varying cremation levels are tossed into the Ganges each year.” I was quite relieved not to have seen any of these during our boat ride.

Ajeeth pointed out a large-ish house flanked by tiger statues next to the funeral ghat – the house of the Dom Raja – the chief undertaker of Varanasi. The Doms are said to be the ‘lowest of the Untouchable caste’ and only they can handle the dead. Apparently, all funerals must get the Dom Raja’s approval before they can proceed. Rumour has it the Dom Rajas used to be some of the wealthiest people of Varanasi – charging for each pyre lit, as well as taking some of the payment for the wood. The Dom Raja is the keeper of the ‘sacred fire’ that has been burning, as myth has it, since the end of Satya Yuga (which was about 3000BC) – the ‘Golden Age’, where all things were morally right and good (as opposed to the current Kali Yuga). All funeral pyres at the Manikarnika Ghat are lit from this one flame – I can see why the electric crematorium is so under-utilised.

The Galis of Varanasi – If Walls Could Talk

Walking through the galis (or alleys) of Varanasi was quite an adventure. We entered the maze somewhere just above the funeral ghat, passing piles and piles of pyre wood – the wood was stacked so high, it was a wonder it all didn’t come crashing down.

The alleys were narrow, and pretty filthy – slush and sludge mingled with refuse, dung and an occasional dead rat – we really had to watch where we stepped. I was glad I’d chosen the safari look (with hiking boots) today over the cultural tour one which would’ve involved open-toed sandals.

But life in the alleys was as normal as life anywhere else – old men sat on the steps chatting, kids played, cows blocked the path, children in school uniforms walked or cycled to school, making their way around whatever obstacle (human beings, electricity poles, cows) that was before them. Shopkeepers hawked their ware, tea and snack sellers did good business. Men and women stopped to offer prayers and flowers at little altars set within the walls of the galis; men in crisp white dhotis walked briskly to work – I was reminded of a long ago visit to Madurai to visit my grand-uncle. In his pristine white kurta and dhoti we navigated the lanes of Madurai as he showed me the sights, and took me to the library to meet his friends. I wondered then how the bottom of his dhoti remained so white while the ragged edges of my jeans legs gathered all manner of grime. Looking at my trouser legs as we walked the galis of Varanasi, I realised I obviously haven’t found the answer yet.

I remember reading about the widows who come to Varanasi to die; they come from reprehensible communities where a woman has zero value once their husbands die. They wear white, shave their heads and are often reduced to a life dependent on the benevolence of strangers. They live in ashrams or on the streets nearest the Manikarnika Ghat – to shorten their final journey to the pyres – or directly to the Ganges, if they can’t afford enough wood for the pyre? I wondered if some of the women we saw were these poor ladies.

As we walked, Ajeeth mentioned a government project to form a ‘corridor’ between the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the ghats. To do this, several buildings along the lanes we walked in were acquired by the government and demolished. In the process, they found several ancient temples, within the walls of people’s homes. I still can’t get my head around this or picture how these intricately carved structures could be ‘within walls’.

Temple in walls
Just how thick would the wall have been??
This was within a wall?? How???

This Journey Ends

In a stotram (or ode) to Marnikanika, it is written that “Brahma once weighed the heavens against Kashi. And Kashi, being the heavier, sank downward; while the skies, despite all the Gods that lived there, rose upwards.”

That this is a special place, was without doubt. There was chaos and calm, life and death, the spiritual and the secular – often all happening at the same time; I certainly felt like I was in my own time warp, despite the invasion of personal space, noise, incessant honking…all things that would, in other circumstances, have given me a splitting headache.

The ‘middle path’ lesson was one that resonated – by the end of the trip it was no longer about being spiritual or secular, and more about being ‘spiritually secular’ or ‘secular-ly spiritual’…I think the temples in walls did my head in. This journey also just reinforced to me, how miniscule we are, in the scheme of things.

A journey like this is best done either alone or with good company – I’m so glad to have done this with the best company possible…Penny, who was far more than a ‘photographer-guide’, Bablu, who always had our backs (even when ‘pranking’ us), Debs, Astrid and my longtime travel kaki and BFF, Shobs – conversations and silences were both easy and comfortable. It seemed fitting too that our last meal in Varanasi was a fabulous vegetarian thali complete with sandalwood sherbet (yes, there’s such a thing!)

The Bandit Queens – and Bablu

More photos from this Varanasi journey here. For more information on this particular itinerary or other photography expeditions please visit the Oryx Photo Tours website.

April 2019

6 thoughts on “Varanasi – Where Chaos & Calm Collide

  1. Thank you very much . It is very interesting and you have taken some good pictures too. We too have been to India and visited Varanasi and the rivers Ganges a long time ago and walked along the Galis of Varanasi. Those lanes were just as filthy.We went with another couple, both Doctors and both now deceased. I have to read your blog again. Beautifully written. Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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