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Varanasi ... ancient city, trapped in time

Varanasi, India

Our company provided the following summary of Varanasi, which we want to pass on to you all:
“Picturesquely situated on the crescent shaped left bank of the holy River Ganges, Varanasi, is one of the ancient seats of learning in India. It is said to be a compound of the names of two streams, the Varuna and the Assi, which still flow into the Ganges from the north and south of the city respectively. Varanasi is probably one of the most ancient living cities in India. From time immemorial it has been a great religious center for Hindus and one of their most sacred places of pilgrimage, being visited by millions of people every year. To every visitor Varanasi offers a breathtaking experience. The rays of the dawn shimmering across the Ganges; the high-banks; the temples and shrines along the banks bathed in a golden hue …soul stirring hymns and mantras along with the fragrance of incense (and smoke) filling the air…and the refreshing dip in the holy waters gently splashing at the Ghats. Baths in the Ganges are suggested for locals only! Varanasi abounds in the art of silk weaving, an exotic work of art which manifests itself in silk saris and silk brocades which are cherished as collector’s items across the world today. “ To sum it up…an amazing place to experience.

The security at the airport in Delhi (in India generally) is much more strict. You are checked before you even enter the airport and multiple times on the way to the plane. There is a final check just before boarding of your carry on baggage. Our flight to Varanasi was filled with tourists. There were probably only 10 or so Indian people onboard. Arriving in Varanasi, we got a taste of what an ‘authentic’ Indian transportation hub might be like. There was very little security and the terminal is common for departures and arrivals, with nothing more than one counter, a few bathrooms and a luggage belt that is only 20’ long. It was frustrating and funny to watch people scramble to get their luggage from the belt before it landed on the floor in the mountain of luggage piling up at the end of the short belt. It really seemed like all the tourists were scared someone was going to run away with their luggage.
After being met by our guide and driver we dropped off our luggage at the Hotel Hindustan International. The hotel was dated to say the least. We were a little surprised by the dirty sheets and blood stained wall (from squished mosquitoes it looked like). We were alright with the hotel, it was the one recommended by all of the Indian travel companies that we received quotes from. Varanasi is one of the most unique and amazing places we have seen, and you have to take the good along with the bad. A few minutes later we were on our way.

Our first stop was the Bharat Mata Temple (Mother India), built in the early 1900’s. The temple features a big relief map of India and surrounding countries engraved in marble. The map is to scale and is nearly 100% accurate to the best maps of that day. Our next stop was the 18th century Durga Temple, commonly known as the Monkey Temple due to the huge population of the monkeys. In recent years the monkeys have been pushed out of the area by the local people. The monkeys have found a much better life in the rooftops of the town rather than in the temple. Now instead of scavenging for scraps, they sneak into people’s homes and steal food straight out of their cupboards and refrigerators. The Durga temple was previously closed to non-Hindu’s however the priests of the temple have opened it up for foreigners, as long as a donation is made. This was our first chance to get a Tikka, or a Hindu good luck blessing (red or colored dot on the forehead between your eyes). However, as Non-Hindu’s we abstained from this blessing because we felt doing it wouldn’t be right. It’s a bit weird to see tourists walking around with Tikkas on their foreheads and at some attractions even with turbans on; we don’t quite get it and therefore don’t partake.

We drove through the BHU University campus, which is considered the biggest residential university in Asia. There are over 36,000 students living on the university grounds. The grounds are huge and also extremely clean compared to the real world outside of the University gates. Inside of the university we visited the Mosque of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, where we were again unable to take photographs.
The end of our night was a trip down to Daswamedh Ghat. This is one of the main religious areas on the Ganges, where people make pilgrimages and are blessed by the local priests who sit along the banks of the river. In the evening, a special show is performed (admittedly for tourists our guide said). The show consists of ceremonious chants, rhythmic movements with fire and incense. The normal religious ceremony that this show mimics is supposed to be very plain.
The next morning we were up early to head back to the Daswamedh Ghat for a morning river cruise of the Ganges. We were glad that we bought new sweaters and jackets for this leg of our trip. The temperature at 06:00 when we left the hotel was only 13-15 degrees and there was a strong breeze blowing over the water. The sight is simply majestic. You are truly in another world here. We saw the cremation Ghats and witnessed the living traditions of one of the world's oldest religions. Thousands of faithful come daily to the banks to bathe and pray while in the background, temples and palaces rise in tiers from the water's edge. After the boat ride we walked through tiny winding cobblestone streets along the banks of The Ganges. The shops were just opening, and the place now turned into a beehive of activity as the faithful are coming and going. A few hundred meters from the Ganges is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This site is disputed between the Hindus and Muslims as there is a Hindu temple and a mosque built upon the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple. This site is one of the 3 most holy sites in India that is disputed between Hindus and Muslims. Due to terrorist activities at one of these sites the security for a large area around this site is strongly protected with many guards. We entered the restricted area and had to give up all potentially dangerous goods (anything electronic, all bags, any liquids, even pens). Then we had to go through metal detectors (which are common everywhere) and a physical search (males get searched by males and females only by females). Once inside there were guards stationed every 15-20 meters. The experience was topped off with not even being able to go into the temple or the mosque. However, our guide knew someone inside who sold essential oils, funny how that works. We bought some oils because the prices were much lower than what we would have paid in Canada. We still think we were ripped off, hahaa.

After our morning Ganges visit we were back at the hotel for breakfast before heading outside of the city to Sarnath, home of the first preaching of the Buddha. Later, Ashoka, the great Mauryan Emperor erected magnificent stupas and other buildings along with his mighty stone pillar, Dharmarajika Stupa. The 110 ft. tall Damekh Stupa marks the place where Buddha preached first sermon. The stupa was never destroyed as it was built over successive generations from solid brick and was too difficult to tear down. Despite the beginnings of Buddhism in India, there only remains ~1% of the population who practices. The Mughal Empire and Hindu aristocracy feared the non-hierarchical structure that Buddhism taught. This eventually stripped away the rights and privileges that this class structure provided them and the religion was forced out of the country. After our visit to Sarnath, we were back to the hotel for a night of relaxing. We walked around a bit after getting dropped off and noticed how much the Indian people were staring at us, we’re not the typical couple around these parts. Chad is way to tall and Ewa is way too white, a match made in heaven. For Indians it is something out of the movies, they don’t fathom that people like us exist, only in the movies maybe, and so when they see us they stare…big time

We were off to the railway station to for our train to Agra. We were told that we were lucky, the train was only 1.25 hours late, the same train had been consistently 10-14 hours late in the past weeks!

permalink written by  ECRadventure on January 31, 2010 from Varanasi, India
from the travel blog: ECRadventure's Travel Blog
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