An Anxious Visit To Varanasi; Burning Bodies & Rats Galore
Varanasi is not a traditionally beautiful city, but it’s spiritual. It’s by far the most crowded we’ve seen in Northern India so far, and with the dense population come many buildings squished tightly together, most in some kind of disrepair. You get the distinct feeling of being in a cattle herd as you walk down the street, helped of course, by the fact that roaming cows do actually walk alongside you on the odd occasion. We arrive in Varanasi via overnight sleeper train, which was an uncomfortable adventure in itself, leaving us tired and unprepared for the busyness of the city.
The reason Varanasi is on our itinerary though, is its location alongside the River Ganges; a place where millions of Hindus journey every year to bathe and wash away their sins. That evening we will take a boat trip out onto the famous river, but first our tour leader takes us to have passport photos shot, ready for our border crossing to Nepal the following day.
The first of too many rat sightings
I should probably start this part of the story by telling you that I am absolutely, completely, petrified of rats. I can’t even watch a rat on television, it gives me such major anxiety. At this point in our trip around the North of India, I’m actually feeling pretty lucky to have not seen a single rat. Well, my luck ended. As we sit inside a photography store that is no bigger than a large closet, our recently taken photos being photoshopped by the owner (which I’m sure you’re not meant to do), there it is. A large, hairy, grey rodent bravely scuttles through the men lining the doorway and climbs it’s way up and into a cupboard on top of the computer.
Needless to say, I scream and jump straight up onto the nearest bench with my hands over my face in terror. The rest of the group are a little weirded out but much calmer than I am, and I refuse to come off of the bench until we’re walking (I’m running) out of the doorway.
Time to watch some burning dead bodies
After my heart stops racing and I manage to control my panic, it’s time for us to make our way down to the Ganges River. Our tuk-tuks weave erratically in and out of the swarm of people also heading in the same direction, but after a swift ten-minute drive and small walk we arrive.
The river is actually gorgeous. It has a layer of mist hanging over it, and groups of people in bright coloured saris and shirts sit at the water’s edge. Our tour guide tells us that there is a festival taking place tonight, and we can see large elevated areas decorated with bright orange cloth, illuminated by small torched flames as dusk sets in.
We spend some time walking up and down the riverside, marvelling at young boys fishing, small puppies being fed by generous locals, and the many old men dressed up in religious clothing for the perfect tourist photo. These old fellas are actually known as ‘Mr Twenty’, because you’ll need to give them twenty rupees for a picture.
Then it’s onto the boat. A medium-sized wooden thing, that comfortably seats all of us and ferries us out into the middle of the river. Our destination is quickly revealed to be a spot just a couple of hundred metres out from the land, where boats can sit and watch funeral processions taking place, with actual bodies burning in individual bonfires after being washed. So, we’re going to be spectators at a funeral. Weird, right? I can’t quite get my head around it. It feels so disrespectful. And gross. Maybe I’m a little sensitive though, as I’m the only person who can’t watch and I sit facing the opposite way, trying to ignore the smoke that billows towards us.
Time for another rat appearance
After leaving the funeral site and watching a festival of dancers take place from the comfort of our boat, we head back to mainland and out to a restaurant for dinner. The restaurant is a small rooftop place with basic amenities, and we’ve not long ordered our meals when a bizarrely loud tapping starts to happen at the cupboard next to us. “It’s OK, it’s just a rat”, says the restaurant owner. Just. a. rat. Is this guy for real? Immediately my feet are on the chair and my heart is pounding. It turns out that not only is a rat being in a restaurant totally acceptable here, but the owner explains that he cannot try to shoo the thing away because rodents are considered sacred.
It takes about five minutes of consistent tapping for me to break down in tears and my boyfriend realise he needs to leave with me. I practically run from the table, and try to control my shaking and not imagine rats everywhere as we make our way through dark alleys to the hotel.
Barbers with explosive equipment
Seeing as we’re home from dinner earlier than expected, Dave decides to take advantage of a cheap haircut in a nearby barber shop. The shop is pretty untidy, with 80s looking hair colourant bottles and packages littering the sides. Still, Dave’s not fussy so he sits in the traditional barbers chair and receives his haircut, which is actually pretty decent. Before he can get up though, the owner is proposing a full beard trim and facial, and Dave’s all for it. So the guy starts to massage a lotion onto his cheeks, then places a wet flannel over his face and rubs his head, then arms, then fingers. Next he starts to pull each of Dave’s fingers so they click loudly. I’m in hysterics and Dave looks completely confused at what he’s let himself in for!
Finally the “facial” is coming to an end and the owner takes out a small machine that actually looks a little like a wall sander. He plugs the machine in and the small plastic disc at the top begins to rotate. Just as the owner begins applying the machine to Dave’s face, there’s an almighty bang! Smoke and sparks fly out of the machine and the plastic disc propels off. The owner starts to laugh as though it’s an everyday occurrence, and Dave takes that as his cue to decline any further treatments.
As I mentioned earlier, today is our last day in India, as tomorrow we’ll be crossing the border to Nepal. I can’t even begin to describe the unforgettable experience we’ve had in this country. It is truly like another world. I don’t think anybody could grasp the uniqueness of India until they’ve been themselves. Particularly the northern parts. I’m not sure that I’ll return a second time, as it’s pretty exhausting, but I’ll certainly recommend it to every single traveller that asks.
Are you thinking of visiting India and have questions? Leave them in the comments below, or send me a direct message on Instagram. I’m always happy to share tips and advice!