Posted November 7, 2008 by Rahul Aggarwal

5am and it was still dark outside except for a few flickering lights. I joined the other shadows and headed towards the ghats which had already come to life. As my boat glided along the water it was as if a whole new drama was unfolding in front of my eyes. Women were huddled in small groups offering flowers and fruit to God and the river. A sadhu with his eyes closed and partially submerged offered prayers. Men and women dipped their heads beneath the water in deep contemplation. Newly lit candles started their journey down the river. Just as I was starting to take in the tranquility of the river in the early hours, there was a sudden boom of laughter… and again… some men had gathered for ‘laughing yoga’ which is supposed to be a fantastic stress reliever and work out!

Further along the ghats people were doing ‘conventional’ yoga, some were singing the morning aarti, others washing themselves and some even brushing their teeth! One of the saddest things about this river is the pollution. There is no denying that the river is heavily polluted with effluent, plastic and other rubbish. But this is no ordinary river... It is revered by devout Hindus who are able to look beyond the dirt and consider the river nothing but sacred. Mind over matter, or however you want to put it.

As the boat ride was coming to an end, I witnessed something that words cannot describe. A lady was praying on the ghats when a stray cow wandered down and started to nibble at the fruit in her bag. Now cows are considered sacred by Hindus, so she appeared to be in somewhat of a dilemma as to how to get rid of the cow in a polite way. She was holding a small bell in her hand (which is commonly used in Hindu rituals) and she started to gently hit the cow on the head with it… at the same time another lady was throwing flowers on the cow from behind and asking it for blessings… all the while the cow continued to munch happily away! Absolutely classic! Nothing is quite what it seems in Varanasi!

After breakfast I headed off for the Temples tour, starting with the impressive Benares University, the world’s largest Hindu university with some 20,000 students. It also houses the New Vishwanath Temple which contained many beautiful idols of Lord Shiva and other Hindu deities.

From there I moved on to Sankat Mochen Temple, which pays homage to Lord Hanuman and then the Monkey Temple which is devoted to Goddess Durga. It’s named as such because there are monkeys everywhere, most of which seem to be after prasad (food blessed by God). One of the fascinating things about India is how religion is intertwined so tightly with daily life. Varanasi is perhaps the truest example.

Varun, my guide for the day, was excellent – knowledgeable, humorous and polite – definitely someone we should use on future tours. He then took me across the river to the small fort town of Ramnagar. The former king had built up an interesting collection of relics and memorabilia, ranging from stuffed animals to a cadillac!

I had the evening to myself and I wanted to sample more of this intoxicating city at night, so I ventured into the market once more. Despite the constant chaos, everyone seems so calm here. People bump into one another and don’t bat an eyelid, strangers gladly do favours for each other… it made me realise that back in the West we seem to have lost something. I seemed to walk endlessly criss-crossing the tiny alleyways avoiding the numerous obstacles in my way and finally I found the Lotus Lounge, an open-air chillout style restaurant overlooking one of the ghats. This place would be great at sunset, but unfortunately by the time I got there the sun had long gone. The vegetable curry went down a treat and I reluctantly headed back through the dusty streets and grabbed a rickshaw back to the hotel. It was another mind-blowing day.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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