Varanasi – Maybe the Oldest Living City on this Earth?
The stench of history and the detritus of millennia assailed me as I picked my way gingerly towards the boat at the water’s edge of the ghat. This spiritual place of pilgrimage and prayer has long fascinated me but I had never been in my adult life. Varanasi is almost in the centre of northern India but even today though accessible by train it only has a limited connection by air which is a shame.
We arrived by Spicejet from Delhi on a beautiful afternoon in February 2010. I had arranged to stay at The Clarks Varanasi and their jeep with driver was waiting to greet us and take us efficiently to the hotel. It is worth talking about the Clarks Group as modern young people will be unaware that this was the first pioneering hotel group of India other than the Taj and the Oberoi, and before the ITC Welcomgroup came into being. Clarks Varanasi moreover was their first hotel bought initially from a British woman who ran a guest house for officers in the Cantonment district of Varanasi. Post independence the family who own Clarks obviously had their thinking caps on with regard to where Indian tourism might increase and very sensibly developed this hotel and one at Lucknow called Clarks Avadh; the Clarks Shiraz at Agra, the Clarks Khajuraho and the Clarks Amer. As it happens way back in 1997 and 1998 I stayed in the Clarks Shiraz at Agra and the Clarks Amer in Jaipur and that was before I had even written my first book! Now these hotels are being gradually renovated and redeveloped and indeed with some lateral thinking they have developed some business hotels in Gurgaon which are very modern. There is also a connection to Aguada Anchorage in north Goa where we stayed at a villa belonging to the Leisure Hotels Group last year which was very enjoyable.
The hotel is comfortable but now to undergo modernisation; it is the favourite venue for weddings and concerts and indeed seemed fully booked when we stayed for three days in early February. On our last night there were four big weddings taking place all over the gardens and also inside. We found the preparations for these events intriguing and watched the deft way the floral artists worked to transform the various areas of garden into magical areas of lights and flowers.
Boat ride on the Ganges
We arranged through the hotel to be taken to experience the boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise the next morning. Both of us found this a very enjoyable and indeed even a moving experience. The little boatman was a decent man with an unenviable story of widowhood and lazy children it seemed, but he was most diligent in his oarsmanship on our account and we arranged that we would return that evening to him and his boat to experience evening Arti from the river. There is quite a long walk down to the ghat side and this is fascinating, but I would also urge caution to people who might be alone, certainly lone women. Be careful with your belongings and wear sensible footwear as the going gets challenging and Varanasi and its long history can catch up with you on your shoes.
Sunrise on the Ganga is a very moving and beautiful moment and I was as moved as a Hindu believer. The enterprising youngsters came and sold us various bits and pieces but mostly Graham and I were content to watch and observe and see the dawn light change into the blush pink and then be quiet and see the sun…rise and peek at us and then slowly majestically become the full wonderful morning sun. The devout amongst Hindus and Buddhists were involved in their devotions, but even we were respectful of this sunrise on an ancient spiritual centre of belief; a magnificent river, heritage buildings, people, people and more people and cameo visions of men and women bathing, praying, and interacting with each other. Once we returned to the ghat, having also taken in the burning ghats and considered the sombre business of death and its rituals which affect each one of us, we strode up the street to our car and then back to the hotel for a comforting and relaxing breakfast.
We went to Sarnath in the morning which was very enjoyable. Sarnath is the place to which Buddha came after his enlightenment. In Buddhist literature it is known as Rishipattana and Mrigadava. In this ancient seat of learning, Buddha preached his first sermon on the four noble truths to the five ascetics who had left him in despair. The noble eightfold path is a practical way shown by the Buddha for tensionless tranquil and peaceful life. It is the path of self purification. In essence Buddha said ‘Abstinence from all evils, fulfilment of all good, purification of one’s mind’. The Deer Park of Sarnath is one of the most special and sacred centres for Buddhists and the heritage site is well maintained and clean and quiet and full of respectful people. The adjoining museum is also good.
In the evening we returned to the centre of the city; this was a real challenge as the rush hour traffic was a grid lock and for us of course being driven it was diverting and amusing, but not for all the poor people affected. We had to walk quite a way to find our boatman because of the crush but soon we were out on the water and preparing for the Arti. This was very interesting. We had witnessed Arti at Hardwar in January 2008 and this was very like that of course. My gallery of photos show it all.
The next morning we went around Varanasi and looked at various sites; this city is shabby and dirty and the Chief Minister of UP should really make an effort to clean up such a special place that garners so many tourists. We visited the Muslim quarter and went into a silk factory and then visited a silk showroom. The Sanskrit University was also interesting but it is in dilapidation and desperately in need of restoration. I find that totally reprehensible in this ancient and most important of India’s cities. The ASI should really work with the university to restore it to its former glory.
We left Varanasi by train which I would not advise. We were going on to Kolkata and thought the train would be efficient. As it was, we had a nightmare wait on the platform of a dirty filthy rat ridden station with overflowing latrine. My friends who live in India say that Indian Railways have deteriorated and this was a frightful example of how right they are; I have promised myself that I will never travel on Indian Railways again….or certainly never on a train that starts its journey in the west and then comes to your place of embarkation and continues for a considerable length. The potential for delay is too much. As it was this awful train journey left us without proper food and water for hours on end and took a whole day out of our time – moreover trains in India are now becoming the focus for terrorists.
Varanasi – ancient spiritual home to millions can still work its spell but please plan your trip with care and then take a plane back to Delhi or perhaps on to Khajuraho.