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I hesitated on going to Varanasi. A site of deep Hindu religious significance along the Ganges, pilgrims visit the riverside ghats to bathe in the waters and perform religious rituals. Most known to tourists are the riverside cremations of deceased. I had seen similar rites in Nepal and felt deeply uncomfortable about being a tourist bystander, regardless of what those involved may or may not feel about public viewers. What finally drew me in, in discussions with many travelers, is the hum of activity along the Ganges, where only a small part is related to the funerals.
I did not have much time to spare, fortunately there was a midday flight from Khajuraho, where I had spent the morning with the succulent temple carvings, and an evening flight from Varanasi back to Delhi so I could see sunset along the Ganges and be back for late conference calls.
Varanasi’s airport is some 30 km from the city on traffic-choked, narrow, crumbling roads. It was a slog up to Buddhist site Sarnath, 10 km north of Varanasi. The Dhamekh Stupa and Chaukhandi Stupa are of historical interest but there is little to see and the only sign of active religious practices was a class led by monks in the shade of a large tree. The nearby museum I never saw as I lost my temper in the slow, security check hassle. There was no security to to visit the actual site, yet at this little museum they wanted to go through everything in my pack, even though I was going to have to check it in a locker, then they insist everyone check every camera and phone in a locker as well. I don’t have reason to expect dishonesty but I am not taking the risk to give up everything I have with, and it was over the top for a humble museum with no particular pieces of fame or controversy. My lost temper and storming off only produced the iconic, carefree sideways head shake from the two security guards. Sarnathi is only worth it, given the traffic, for those with deep interest in Buddhism.
The 10 km down to Varanasi proper took nearly an hour. I had the taxi from me off at a far northern ghat, near the train station, and chartered a lonely boat for the ride down. I enjoyed the quiet upper reaches with locals taking their evening respite amid the towering, elegant riverside buildings. I drifted by the main cremation ghat, and its ring of tourists. I got off in the center of the action and walked the riverfront down to the south. Perhaps because it was an off-season weekday there was minimal tout or beggar hassle.
The people watching is extraordinary, more so the foreign visitors that come to hang out, seek enlightenment, or get high.
I was enjoying the evening enough that I broke one of my cardinal travel rules: don’t stop for a meal before a flight until safely checked in and waiting for departure. I lingered over my apple pie and ice cream, the proud specialty of Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe, only to then find it difficult to locate a taxi. I settled on a tuk tuk, with an inkling that I was in for trouble…
Is Varanasi worth it? Despite initial reluctance, I liked it more than expected and think it is worth a day stop on circuits for which it is convenient. In the middle of the pack of Indian destinations I have visited.