Staying in hostels give a false sense of tranquility. Waking up in Go Stops 14 bed dorm room felt peaceful. We enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast on the balcony before venturing out for the free market tour organised by our hostel.
The moment I stepped into the street drivers yelled at us, cows walked past and people rushed around manically. We jumped on a rickshaw (carriage pulled by a young man on a bike) and headed to the first market.
Our fellow travelers overtook us in their rickshaws and before we knew it ours was pretty far behind. I felt bad for our driver – he was struggling. His flip-flops were falling off and he couldn’t muster the strength to peddle up the small inclines.
Also, it appeared that he didn’t know where the market was. He randomly stopped on a main road. We took a deep breath in, decided that we had lost the tour group and that we should explore alone. The puzzled driver asked shop keepers.
Just as we let go our tour guide came running round the corner talking in fast hindi to the driver. We had found our group, which we were thrilled about.
The first stop was Paan dariba market (selling Betel leaf). It was opened in 1953 and sells all kinds of chewing leafs which can be addictive and cancerous. They are grown all across India. One can purchase a basket of leaves for anything between five-hundred and several thousand rupees. It depends on the quality.
Following this we walked through the spice market. Frangrences greeted my nostrils. I couldn’t place them all but I could smell fresh herbs and rich flavours.
The colourful after dinner sweets serve as mouth fresheners. They normally have aniseed and mint in them.
As my friend was tucking into her juicy orange a man came up to her pointed and took a segment. This made us giggle. Sharing is obligatory in India, even with strangers. He wasn’t a beggar or a child but a middle-class man.
The metal market was next. Cooking utensils and manufacturing tools were sold.
We had a Chai tea break which was very much needed. In many places chai is served in mud cups that are made by farmers in the countryside. You can taste the clay in your tea – part of the charm. Once finished you bin or smash the mud cup on the street. It shortly returns to earth after being run over by vehicles and trampled by cows. Chucking your cup gives good karma because the farmers will then stay in business as there will be a demand for more cups to be made. Per cup it costs just 1 or 2 rupees (a couple of pence).
One use products are shunned in the environmental world but interestingly here they are promoted for social well-being. I thought it was a shame to smash a quaint hand made mud cup. I wanted to use it again but then if everyone did reuse, the farmers would lose their income.
The milk market sold chunks of typically Indian condensed milk soaked in water. They are used for cooking desserts, curries and chai tea.
My favourite market was the flower one. We visited just before the start of a 9 day festival. Consequently, it was extremely busy. People were keen to buy flowers for the upcoming ceremonies. No matter what season it is there are always flowers being sold in India.
On returning to the hostel we bumped into two of our friends we met in Jaipur. The girl is from Delhi and comes to Varanasi once a year to pray and take a dip in the river. Washing in the Ganges is said to rid any sins you may have. It purifies your soul (which is eternal). Our friend usually makes the pilgrimage with her family and they go to a temple between washing in the river. This time she was with us.
We sat on the steps next to the river while our friend cleaned. She looked into the river held her hands up and recited a short mantra. Many others were washing their hands, feet, arms and splashing water over their faces and hair. Covering the holy river water on one’s body is a special ritual. Thousands of people travel long distances to do this.
We were just in time for another aarti ceremony at 6.30. It was very impressive. The young priests dressed in bright orange robes lifted up a series of spiritual instruments. They blew a horn at one point. They must have trained for a long time to be able to do it.
Many people watched the ceremony from a swarm of boats while others sat on the banks, like us.
The atmosphere was special. While the priests chanted melodic matras an overwhelming energy could be felt. The massive audience simply focused on the 5 luminous preists.
We strolled to Deena chaat bhandar for some dinner. What should have been a 10 minute walk took double the time due to pedestrian and road traffic. A mass crowd slowly walked down the main road. It felt like after a busy concert trying to exit the stadium.
On finally reaching the restaurant we waited for a seat before enjoying divine food. I’m not sure what all the names of the dishes were but our friend ordered a perfect selection.
Following a tasty dinner we walked to the Blu Lassie cafe for a yoghurt drink. I had a papaya, chocolate and cashew nut smoothie. While sipping my cold beverage three dead bodies were carried past. It was surreal. They were followed by a procession of relatives.
Roaming down the undiscovered lanes we found another Ghat (Riverside area). Here there was a fire that had been burning for 100s of years. Next to it more bodies were being burnt.
There was a crowded house over looking the river. A gentleman told us that people flock there to die. Poor people pay all the money they can to get to Varanasi so that when they die they can be burnt and go to Nirvana (after life). Imagine going on a pilgrimage to a destination to die in.
Be careful when people talk to you next to the river. They seem friendly explaining the features of ceremonies but straight after they might demand money for sharing their knowledge.
We went to the main temple for an evening ceremony. However, security were so strict that we were not allowed in. We needed passports. Nonetheless, I saw a glimpse of a crowded room and heard loud chanting and singing. The temple was huge but hidden down the back streets.
Before we knew it the time was 11pm and we were all exhausted and ready to return to the hostel.