I dipped my fingers in the Ganges water and felt like I touched the ages. I had heard of the sacred river for my whole life, seen it on maps, seen pictures and heard of the ceremonies and cremations, and there we were on its very banks. It was mind-blowing, but as usual in India and Asia, the commonplace rubs shoulders with the holy, and there are dogs and children running around, boatmen with their wooden boats, kids playing cricket, and about 80 ghats- temples with steps to the holy river. We hardly scratched the surface of this legendary, sacred place.
We were leaving India after replacing the laptop in Jaipur and researching our options to Nepal. Due to transport hub structure and the availability of train tickets, we were taking a 20-hour train arriving in Varanasi around 9am, and planning to leave for the border around 10pm the same day. By the time out train arrived two hours late and we figured out our bus options*, we had about six hours to see the old city.
We were stuck with our luggage at first (bus station had no luggage hold area, four hotels declined, train station would do it but seemed risky – they wanted us to sign a bunch of paperwork since we don’t have locks on luggage), so we took two auto-rickshaws to the southern part of the old city, Assi Ghat. It is about 4 km from the train station area. A backpacker hotel let us leave our luggage for 300 rupees, about $4.50, fair enough. And we could finally walk around unencumbered.
We didn’t see the river at first. We were near several ghats but behind them, since of course they face the river. There are many small streets winding around, and we followed one, looking for a restaurant we had heard of. We found the restaurant, but it was closed due to hot weather. Yes, it was summer now and really hot. The twins wanted to jump in the water but we said no. We had read the bacteria count is something like 3000% higher than is considered safe in the Ganges. Still, we did see plenty of people swimming and bathing and we were tempted a little. But not for long.
We went for a boat ride in a small wooden boat powered by the owner who rowed. I was conflicted, feeling bad because he looked older and tired but wanting to help him earn a living and wanting to see more ghats further north. Also, it was nice to go in a smaller boat without a motor. So, we went north from Assi ghat and saw many other ghats.
There was graffiti on some of them. There were things floating in the water, some trash and what looked like some buoys tied together towards the shore. The other side of the river, which may be underwater part of the year, had sandy river beds and some grass. We saw several ghats as we floated along.
There seemed to be a lot of activity at one of them and as we got closer we could see several small fires. There were funerals going on, but only two seemed to have a crowd of people. We guessed that the others were poor or people without families, maybe being cremated by a state agency rather a funeral ceremony with loved ones. We never found out about this. A little closer to the water I saw a group of people remove scarves from a body, exposing the white-cloth-wrapped corpse underneath. Then I saw them pick it up and place it on the stacked wood. Also during our boat ride, a small boy in a square, handmade styrofoam boat told us a little about the cremations as he sold us two floating candle and flower offerings. Similar to Loy Kratong in Thailand, we lit the candles then set the leaf-dishes afloat. The sun was setting as we were rowed back to our starting point.
As we floated by the ghats again, we came quite close to the buoys we had seen near the shore. Only now we thought it looked like a mannequin. Looking back, even at the time I think I realized we were looking at a dead body. This is a problem in this part of the Ganges, we later learned, as people place their dead directly in the river when they can’t afford the wood for cremation or when they give a ‘water burial’ to some segments of the population such as children and unmarried women. I didn’t want to alarm any of us in the boat there, and also the thing was so white and plastic-looking. Thank goodness it was face down and did not appear to be a child. None of us had ever seen a bloated corpse in a river before. It kind of haunts me still. But at the time we agreed it was maybe a mannequin and let it go at that. Cleverly later mentioned that travelers we met previously had told us of dead bodies in the Ganges, but I don’t remember hearing of it. I’m not sure it would have prevented us from visiting, but tourist offices probably won’t tell you. It is something visitors may want to know, especially visitors with children.
Anyway, after that we walked briefly around Assi ghat. There looked to be a stage set up there, and we had heard there was a music festival going on. We found a restaurant that turned out to have great falafel and hummus- something we had in Pushkar but no where else since beginning our trip- and dinner was nice. Then a very squished auto-rickshaw back to the bus station with our luggage. We passed a few wedding processions with costumed white horses and elaborate carriages for the newlyweds. It is the wedding season, we have been told. Fireworks went off, another wedding tradition we had seen in India. For us, it was our last night in the country and it felt bittersweet as we got on the bus uneventfully and headed to Kathmandu.
*Our guidebook said we could take a 10-hour bus to the border, Sunali, leaving every half hour. We planned on taking an overnight bus arriving at 7am to cross and continue to Kathmandu. Lies! There is a local bus to Sunali (we were told 8 hours), unlikely about it going every half hour. There is a government bus direct from Varanasi to Kathmandu, and that is what we took. About 19 hours all told, well-run, air-conditioned, and a discount for kids. Yes! It had reclining seats rather than beds but was very nice. They even played Bollywood movies (no subtitles, unfortunately). Highly recommend! Also, border crossing was smooth. Bonus: they didn’t charge visa fee for the twins- no charge under 10 years old! Previously, that only happened in Cambodia and we had to really fight for it.