India Adventure: Varanasi Walks This Way


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Why just visit when you can EXPERIENCE?? Varanasi Walks: An Intimate Experience in the Holy City of Varanasi, India.


If you've been following along with my India Adventures, and I hope you have, you'll already know I had a travel bucket list of things I wanted to see and do. I wanted to visit Varanasi, cited to be the oldest living city in the world. To the see the Ganges River and to experience what the city is very well known for: cremation. 


"Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

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While the cremation aspect may sound kind of morbid, it's truly not in the sense that every Hindu in India wants to be cremated in the Holy City of Varanasi as it's the way to attain eternal salvation. But of course, I wanted to treat this aspect of everyday life in Varanasi with the utmost respect, so I set up 4 walking tours with the eco-friendly Varanasi Walks, who, by the way, are rated #5 of 62 tours in Varanasi by users of TripAdvisor (October 2017).

Let me start of by saying, these guys are great. The walking tours were a completely interactive experience with no, repeat, NO stops for shopping. How refreshing! I really don't like getting shuffled into 'recommended' stores when that's not why I go on tours. Unless they're designated shopping tours, then I'm all over it ;)

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I had initially planned to take the train from Delhi to Varanasi, but for the sake of maximizing my time in this unique destination, I flew with Air India. As a solo woman traveler, I also thought about exploring Varanasi by myself, but thankfully I didn't attempt this on my own as for me, it would have been so easy to get lost in the snake-like cobblestone streets of the Old City. And in fact, I did not see ONE other tourist during my first 3-hour walking tour. Not one. So that would have been a bit uncomfortable for me, had I done otherwise. 

My first guide, Laotse (a local and full-time organic baker during the off-season - how cool is that??!), took me on the City of Light, Sunrise Boat Trip, and the Death and Rebirth Night walks. Absolutely amazing. Laotse was so knowledgeable and proud of his heritage, I could just feel it with every insight he offered me. It was lucky that all of my tours ended up being one-on-one personal walking tours, where I really got a feel for everyday life in Varanasi. 


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I was free to ask any questions along the way, and there were no off limits topics. We discussed different religions, saw the beautiful Ganges at sunrise, and laughed when I told him my tuk tuk driver kept falling asleep on the way back to my hotel. Not really funny, obviously, but it was all the same. Laotse knew all the best photo ops - and also took some photos of me, so I'd be in some of the shots as well. Such a nice guy! I even got a quick chance to meet his daughter, just adorable. 

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My second guide, Micheal, (a former Quebecer and fellow Canadian) who holds a Master of Arts Degree in Indian Philosophy, was incredibly smart. Like super smart. He took me on their brand new Devi Walk, which was fascinating. Micheal explained the basics of visiting temples, which includes removing your shoes and touching the threshold before entering, followed by paying your respects. 

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We visited multiple intricate temples where we observed, made offerings of fresh flowers or coins, examined the architecture - and even a very well behaved (and adorable!) goat who had a piece of his ear removed as part of a sacrificial ritual. I have no idea of why I was so drawn to this goat, but he was so cute. And a survivor, just like myself. In one temple we gave an offering and in return, it was a great honour when the priest gave us flower leis and blessed fruit, which meant he was essentially giving us God, as the fruit given to us by him was now Holy. There was a marble bull statue, who just may grant your wish if you whisper into his ear, and a workshop where artisans were constructing statues of Durga, in preparation for the 9-day goddess festival.

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Michael spoke of mudras (hand postures) whereby the 5 great elements of life (pancha mahabhuta) are represented in your hands: thumb (fire); index finger (air); middle finger (space); ring finger (earth); and pink finger (water). I hope I got these right! And the way you only use certain fingers when giving an offering, and rituals such as cleansing/splashing oneself with water 5 times. 

The Varanasi streets were full of honking tuk tuks, taxis, vans, motorcycles and even sacred cows. Did I mention the cows?? Michael also told me to wear my sunglasses when ever I was attempting to cross any busy street so as to make drivers slow down for me, as they couldn't tell where I was looking while wearing glasses. I learned to just bravely step up, step out and extend my arm and hand into a stop motion. Definitely worked, but still, definitely unnerving at times ;) And yes, I got, uhmm, nudged? by a cow. Twice. The first was a horn into my backpack, and the other was a horn to my backside, which gave a little extra spring to my step and a pretty colourful bruise as my trip went on. Live and learn.

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My last Varanasi Walks tour was a nighttime trek along the ghats of the Ganges with Laotse, where we ended up covering about 5 km in total. Though I had some knowledge of the Indian caste system from our Intrepid tour guide, Laotse explained about the dedicated lives of the lowest caste known as the Scheduled caste (formerly referred to as the Untouchables, now a derogatory term outlawed in the late 1940s), who are born into and will always work in the crematoriums. Depending on your means to pay, a cremation can be free, or can range from 200 to 10,000 rupees.


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At the main Manikarnika ghat, a man approached Laotse with the story of his sister who was being cremated in front of us. My initial thought was that I was disrespecting him - or the entire cremation process just by being there - but he wanted to express his happiness that even though his sister was hit by a bus (!), he was so extremely grateful that she was being cremated in the Holy City of Varanasi. 


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There were stacks of wood all around the crematorium ghats, and as the bodies burned near the river's edge, more room was needed so additional fires were lit on terraces higher above. Female bodies wrapped in red and males in white, to reflect their wedding day color, are placed upon the carefully stacked wood. The male head of the family will walk around the body 5 times (re. the 5 elements of life). The cloth cloaks and any trinkets are removed before the bodies are slathered in purified butter (ghee). More wood is then placed on top of the body. A sacred flame will be brought from a nearby burning shrine to the Hindu God Shiva, which then sets the funeral pyre alight and burns for about 4 hours. The Varanasi cremation ghats run 24/7, 365 days per year, and typically a body is cremated within 8-12 hours of death. The ghats were an incredible site to see, and I was humbled to be able to witness this most intimate of experiences along this most sacred of places.


The smell of the wood was intoxicating, like being drawn to a morbid campfire, and every now and then, larger pieces of ash would come raining down, as if they were reminders of death, and the infinite significance of what I was witnessing. 

And even though general Indian society places little or no value on the Schedule caste, both Laotse and Micheal expressed their sincere respect for their hard and most honourable work. I agree.

I'm so glad I visited Varanasi in this most unique way with Laotse and Michael. I couldn't have asked for any better tour guides, I'm so impressed! Varanasi Walks is a top-notch eco-tour company that I highly recommend to anyone visiting the city, plus it was such great exercise! And as I said, Laotse and Michael were excellent in every way - thanks so much to both of you for absolutely amazing walking experiences. And experience we did!

For more information or to make your reservations, visit: Varanasi Walks.

And be sure to read my entire India Adventure travel series:


   
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