After a week in Mumbai, Justin and I thought it would be fun to spend the weekend seeing a new city in India on our way to Rishikesh. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a rich and intense culture. I didn’t know much about it before coming, since most of my planning and focus was on my residency. If I only knew what I was in for…
Varanasi is the WILDEST place in India. That is the only way I know how to describe it in one sentence. It is known in India as the place for salvation. People come to Varanasi to die, and to bathe in the holy river water of the Ganges. The pollution was worse than Delhi, and the streets were packed with people like I have never seen. The homeless population here is very large, and I was frequently hassled and grabbed at. We stayed in Old Varanasi, which is where all the action takes place. This area is a huge network of tight alleyways with only foot traffic and some motor bikes. The high volume of people with no sanitation measures makes for an interesting scene. All of the sewage runs straight into the river, which you can see as it forms thick plumes in the water surrounding those who are bathing. The alleys are about half concrete, half feces. Sometimes, the ground cannot even be seen because of the amount of trash and feces. One of the nights we were there it rained… I’m not even going to get into the description of that.
The cremation ceremonies are famous in Varanasi and take place around the clock at the ghats on the river edge. Bodies are piled up with firewood and set aflame. There is a constant haze in the air. Watching the cremations was fascinating, and it was easy to get caught up staring at such a culturally shocking sight. Until you realize you are breathing in burning human flesh, the sight becomes less appealing. I never watched the cremations for long enough to see where all of the ash goes, but I was told it is usually dumped into the Ganges.
Along the river there were also groups of Naga people. They are known as extreme Hindu devotees, and will paint their faces, dread their hair, dress in elaborate attire, and sit along the river to pray from dawn to dusk.
The food in Varanasi was crazy delicious, and crazy unsanitary! Thankfully meat is banned from the city for holy reasons, which reduced our risk of pathogens. Justin and I dove right in (not recommended) and had our best street food experiences up the road from the Munshi ghat. Our favorite dishes were at this little stand making various chaat. Three men stood over a large griddle mixing dahl, puri, vegetables, masala samosas, and a bunch of other things I will never know. They continually used their hands to scrape sauce over the food and toss in herbs and spices. Dishes were washed in a large hole in the ground with standing water. Every night we said a little food poisoning prayer and hoped we would wake up healthy. I’d be lying if we said we made it without getting sick, but both of our incidents were short-lived.
I’m happy we got to experience the untamed side of India in Varanasi. But, one and done. Not sure if I will return there, but never say never.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.