After a couple of wonderfully hectic (or should that be hectically wonderful?!) days in Kathmandu, we flew back to India. Next on the itinerary: Varanasi, or Banaras as it is called by most of the Indians we spoke to.
In describing my experience of Varanasi to people, the word I keep coming back to is “magical”. There was just something about being in a place which is so ancient and so meaningful to so many people, even despite the lunatic traffic and incessant noise.
Our day in Varanasi was February 7th, and we started with an early collection so we could take a walk down to the Ganges for a sunrise boat trip. The Kumbh Mela festival this year was focussed on Prayagraj, but apparently many pilgrims choose to make a side-trip to Varanasi as well, and even at dawn the ghats were getting busy with people bathing in the river.
I always love being out on the water, and the views from our little boat were just beautiful as we puttered down river to one of the cremation ghats. As a Hindu, dying at Varanasi is pretty much the best thing that can happen to you (at the end of your life, at least)
We then turned around to head a little way upriver, back past where we’d boarded to boat to a second cremation ghat.
The sun was rising in a hazy sky., making for some beautiful reflections.
After finishing with the river, we stopped at the Bharat Mata (Mother India) temple, to admire the impressive carved relief map of India, before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.
Suitably refuelled, the next point of call was Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Today this is a fairly extensive site, with a small temple set in a pleasant park, an archaeological sit around the Dhamek stupa, and a museum containing a range of artefacts from the excavations.
Wandering around the ruins worked up a good appetite for lunch, and we had a particularly delicious meal at Surya restaurant, close to our hotel. Our guide explained my requirements to the staff, and actually they had a well-marked menu to begin with, so I went a little crazy and ordered two vegetable curries (plus rice) to try.
Having stuffed ourselves, we were able to rest a little at the hotel before rejoining our guide for a particularly crazy tuktuk ride back to the riverbank for the evening Aarti ceremony.
This involved seven priests on little platforms, with candles and incense and flower petals, and lots of chanting. We didn’t have a clue what was going on, but it was most interesting to watch, and our guide found us an excellent vantage point from which to take it all in.