Varanasi seem to elicit all sorts of responses even in normally fairly sane travelers. It’s described by guide books as a sort of hell-on-earth cum awe-inspiring, exotic-India in overdrive. Annoying travelers on backpacker forums describe it as “the real India”.
With all these descriptions in mind (none of which I was very inclined to believe in), I had a sort of negative anticipation when arriving from Bodhgaya at 5:30 am. Some place described so vividly by all sorts of people can’t be anything but disappointing. Prepared to be screwed by the numerous auto-wallahs at the station, I was surprised to easily find a rickshaw taking me to my intended spot for less than 30 Rs. Furthermore, he only half-heartedly tried convincing me that I wouldn’t be allowed to carry my bag to my hotel and would need an extension of his services.
Arriving at this early hour to the city proved to be a great move. Not only could I start exploring without any people around, I also managed to catch the sunrise from the mandatory boat ride on the river.
Varanasi is located on the river Ganges, and is the holiest place on earth according to Hindus (less than 8 hours away from the Buddhist’s holiest place on earth…). It is a city you come to be cleansed (by bathing in the not-so-clean Ganges water), be cremated (at special cremation sites from which your ashes is spread into the river) as well as study and practice religion. It’s an incredibly old settlement, and somehow you can feel that in the air of the place – even though the buildings in the old city often aren’t older than 300-400 years (must be something oozing from the river then…).
After spending a few days walking the, albeit rather dirty, streets of Varanasi I neither hated nor particularly loved the place. The best part of it is the fact that the streets of the old city are so narrow that they’re practically reserved for pedestrians (and the occasional two-wheeler). The worst part is probably the old raja’s house – Ramnagar Fort – a museum patched together of unlit exhibits showing dusty rifles and the odd object from the life of the maharaja. There was a ban on all photography in the palace – I imagine that the reason must have been to stop people from showing what a complete and utterly horrible state the museum was in.