Today without an alarm clock screaming into my ears I have automatically woken up at 5am. The sun hasn’t even fully come up yet, I can see through a slight break in the curtains that it is still fairly dark outside. Seeing as I am awake early I have decided not to waste this time, I get up and grab my camera. I remember a top photographer who took a trip around India told me that being up at unsociable hours is the best way to take your perfect picture from a lighting point of view, especially in time for sunrise. I step out onto the balcony and decide to wait patiently for a sunrise Taj Mahal shot. We are checking out of Amarvilas later this morning for the next leg of our journey so for the next hour or so I can have quiet moment to look at the Taj one last time.
When I sit outside I am glad I made this decision, the resort is completely silent, the sky has a mixture of colours but standing tall in the incredible morning light is the Taj. As soon as I see the view my camera is constantly snapping everything. The feeling I have right now, from the peacefulness to the view, cannot be captured in my camera. I eventually place my camera to the side and sit back to soak up this moment.
After a little while of having some alone time with the Taj, we have to get ready to leave. We’re going to Varanasi today and on certain days of the week there is a direct flight from Agra. Unfortunately, the date we have chosen does not have the direct flight, so we decide to drive to Delhi which will be approximately a 3-hour drive. We are repacking our cases and taking a smaller bag with us to Varanasi, our suitcases will remain in Delhi as we are returning here for the last leg of our trip. Domestic flights only include 15kg with the option to purchase more baggage if needed.
There is still time to get to Delhi airport and the drive is straight forward so we all meet at Bellevue restaurant. This is the main restaurant at the Amarvilas, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. After another enjoyable breakfast we check out and start our journey to the airport. I have noticed that our little heatwave experience from the day before has hit me today; I’m feeling very drained out and have a case of the famous Delhi Belly. I use the car journey time to rest as much as I can, visiting Varanasi has always been a dream of mine and a main highlight for me on my trip, feeling unwell is not going to be an option.
We reach Delhi quicker than I expected and still with quite a bit of time to spare before we need to be at the airport. As we approach Delhi, we pass a very famous Mandir (Hindu Temple) called Akshardham. I have heard a lot about this Temple; it is a beautiful building with hundreds of worshippers already here, waiting to enter. If you wanted to visit, which I highly recommend, try and spend quite a bit of time. There is a lot of history surrounding the temple, and a lot to learn from the religious stories in fact there is an exhibition that you can walk through or you can take a boat ride. If you time the visit well there is a water and light show in the evening from around 6:30pm.
We reach central Delhi and Ishveen comes to life pointing everything out to us, we are in Ishveen’s home city. There is still a fair amount of time before we need to be at the airport so we decide to do a mini drive around tour of Delhi. We pass several large secured mansions that belong to high profile military men or politician’s. Ranjit tells us that the current prime minister, Narendra Modi is also scheduled to fly to Varanasi today! I try to convince him that he is going to Varanasi because I will be there, I really don’t think he bought my story.
Eventually we arrive at Delhi airport in time to catch our domestic flight to Varanasi. The flight is only an hour and a half but this again is the part I loathe. Check in is very quick and we manage to allocate our seats together, I pre warn Ishveen of my nervous flying and that she perhaps should not offer me her hand in support as I may accidently break it (I have caused bruising to my poor travel companion Dipali in the past). The flight turns out to be pretty quick and uneventful, although landing was rather bumpy for my liking but this is due to our good old friend, “Mr Rain”. It appears the rains are back in full effect for this part of our journey.
Varanasi airport is a very small airport so the baggage reclaim takes no time at all and we are through the airport and greeting our driver and rep. We are heading to our hotel the Radisson where we will stay for two nights. The transfer to our hotel from the airport takes around 40 minutes. The rain has stopped briefly however you can tell as we drive around that it has been raining for a few hours as there are small build ups of water along the side roads. The scenery in Varanasi is extremely different to the areas we have been staying in so far. There are a lot of areas that we pass which I notice needs a lot of improvement and developing and this shows that a lot of money has been invested into the main cities like Delhi/Agra/Jaipur etc. as these are the main tourist cities. More and more tourists are becoming adventurous and looking to venture off the beaten track, other than seeing the major cities, they are now in search of the religion and spirituality in India so Varanasi, being one of the oldest and holiest Hindu cities has put this area on the tourist radar. The current prime minister is originally from Varanasi and is bringing in positive changes to the area so watch this space.
There are a handful of good hotels in Varanasi however they are not what you would class as luxury but perhaps experiential. However, there is one luxury property in Varanasi that stands out by miles, with no current hotel competition around is the Taj owned hotel Nadesar Palace, this is a boutique all-suite hotel. Located adjacent to the Nadesar Palace is the next best hotel, the Taj Gateway.
We have now pulled up outside our hotel after a 40-minute drive from the airport. The Radisson has a large lobby and check in area, it is large inside and has a seating area near the main check in. We are led to the seating area with a welcome drink whilst the check in is completed.
I start to feel so excited to be here, the religion, spirituality and culture is what has drawn me to Varanasi. The river Ganges is very sacred for Hindu’s; you will witness many religious rituals being performed along the banks of the river or along the famous steps that lead to the river (known as Ghats). I have always heard and seen the best stories and pictures from this area. The rooms are ready for us and our bags are being taken for us. Upon entering the room we are surprised with the size as it is a lot bigger than I expected, there are two large double beds and a sofa. The rooms do not view onto anything amazing plus it has been raining which makes it pretty dismal.
After we have settled in for a few hours we have a tour arranged for 5:30pm along the river. There is an evening prayer that is a must see that happens every night known as Ganga Aarti, part of your tour will be to take a boat and witness the prayers. It is advisable to witness the Aarti from the boat because it can be very crowded on the main ghat where it takes place, called the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Each ghat along the river are individually named and the Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main area where most of the holy rituals take place. The Aarti commences at 7pm so give yourself plenty of time to get there and be in a prime position to witness the ceremony. It is very famous and will draw hundreds of people from all over. Our driver whose name is Guddu explains that we will be met by our guide at the entrance of the walkway which leads to the river, the walkway is closed to large cars so this is the closest point that Guddu can drop us to. The drive from the hotel only takes approximately 15 minutes, we stop at a busy area where we get out and meet our guide who is patiently waiting, he flags us down with an umbrella (Mr rain is joining us this evening).
Our guide introduces himself as Anoop and then begins to walk us towards the main ghat, Anoop is walking at top speed to secure us a good spot whilst skilfully dodging the small crowd who are walking in the same direction as us. We are trying to keep up with Anoop, as well as dodge both the crowd and motorbikes that are still allowed to use the walkway. There are small stalls along the walk to the ghats selling religious items, they also sell small plastic water bottles for people who may want to take the Ganga water home to use for prayers or blessings.
The Ganga water is very holy for Hindus and is believed to have a lot of healing and cleansing powers. Another item you can purchase from the stalls are clay Diya’s (clay lamps), you can light the lamp and ask for something important from God and then place the lamp into the water to float away with your prayer. When everyone does this the whole river lights up and it looks incredible.
The walk to the main ghat is about ten minutes, it has started to rain heavier as we approach the top of the steps. I am overcome with a great feeling as I stand on the step and look at the grand roaring river before me. I am thinking to myself, “I am here, I’m really here!” It looks exactly like the pictures I have seen and I cannot believe I am now standing at this famous spot. Along with the incredible scene before you, the sounds are a mixture of people chattering to religious music playing. There are holy men already by the bank of the river known as Sadhus, dressed in their orange robes and cleansing themselves in the holy water. Your eyes will constantly wander as there is so much to see, you start to understand how spiritual a place Varanasi is.
Everything around me has a religious feel to it, we even see a dog running by the steps with a bindi (a dot placed on the forehead) on his or her head, this makes me chuckle, they even have a holy dog ready for prayers. Even with heavy rains, this hasn’t reduced the number of devotees arriving for the Aarti. Anoop asks us if we would still like to watch from a boat because it is raining and it will be a “wet bottom” situation, we opt for the boat as wet bottom’s isn’t a deal breaker, the river is calm and with a private boat the view will be better without a lot of people crowding around you.
The boats are all lined up and waiting for you to hire them, it is well worth going for the private boat option as the cost is minimal. Anoop finds a boat man and negotiates the best rate which totals up to about 1000 rupees (Approximately GBP £10 or USD $14).
At about half past 6 we set off in the boat which allows us half an hour to sail along the river and see some of the sights before finding a prime position to watch the Aarti. The sun has already set and it is getting darker, as we pull away from the banks of the main ghat we notice how much quieter it becomes, it is a contrast from the crowds and noise as there is almost silence now. When we pass a few areas, Anoop points out the names of some of the other ghats. We pass Scindia Ghat which has a temple that is half submerged in the water and tilted to one side, this is due to the heavy construction of the temple causing it to tilt into the water. A lot of people visit this ghat as the temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Lord Shiva. I raise my camera up to snap a picture but just as I do I notice a ritual taking place just beside it. I don’t immediately know what ritual is being performed but then I realise! The Ganges is also where worshippers will come and do cremations, they perform the last rites and then cremate the bodies, the ashes are then gathered and scattered into the holy river. I put my camera down as the funeral is taking place as we speak, this happens a lot along the river so be prepared to see this. We move away quickly and back towards the main ghat where a small boat crowd is gathering.
The Aarti begins, we see all the Brahmin (high caste of Hindu) Pandits (Priests) performing the prayers at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, if we thought it was busy when we arrived, well now it’s filled with thousands of people. I’m so glad we opted for the boat, we would not have seen this as clearly, the rain has even eased off.
The evening Aarti is a must see experience in Varanasi. The start of the prayers is announced when they blow what is called a Shankh, which is a conch shell used in prayers, it sounds like a long drawn out horn, you will hear the ringing of bells and then you will hear the singing of Bhajans (religious songs). What you see are a line of Pandits stood at the banks of the river with prayer trays and lit Diya’s (lamps) that they are moving in a circular motion whilst they sing the Bhajans. You will want to capture every sight and sound around you and you cannot help but feel this overwhelming sense of calm, you don’t have to be a spiritual or religious person, the experience will definitely have an effect on you.
The three of us have become quiet as we watch the prayers and we are getting into the spirit of things. We forgot to buy any of the Diya’s beforehand so that we can light one and place it in the river. There is still an opportunity to buy them. I know what you’re thinking, how can we buy it when we are in the middle of a river on a boat, right? Well, there are a group of young boys who are very skilfully hopping in and out of everyone’s boat and selling Diya’s for ten rupees. We call one of the boys over who hops into our boat to make his sale. One by one we light our lamps and say a little prayer then let them drift away with our wishes down the river.
After about an hour we start to sail back to the bank of the main Ghat, I am sad the tour is over and I know that I have some of my best photos and memories from here. The Aarti isn’t quite over yet but Anoop suggests we start to make our way before we get caught up in a crowd. Once we reach the steps, I stop again briefly to have a closer look at the prayers being performed but after five minutes we manoeuvre through the crowd of devotees and back onto the main walkway. After walking ten minutes we are back at the meeting point where Guddu dropped us off. Guddu is parked up and waiting for our return, as he sees us approaching, he is already out of his car and opening the doors for us. We thank Anoop for the tour and arrange to meet here again for a 5am boat tour along the river to see everything we missed this evening.
After a short drive we are pulling up to the Radisson where we head straight to the hotel restaurant. On the way to the restaurant I pass a mirror and notice how shockingly awful I look after sitting in the rain for all that time (along with a wet bottom from the boat), I hope the restaurant does not refuse me entry for looking like a grease monkey. The main restaurant offers a choice of a set buffet or à la carte, the cuisine is a mixture of Indian food or continental and Chinese choices. The staff at the Radisson are very friendly and on standby to help, if there is something you would like but you can’t see it available, it is worth asking as they are ever ready to accommodate your requests. We order a few dishes off the menu which we devour in record time (praying builds appetites), we notice a large desert table with cakes that is included with the buffet. We like the look of one of the cakes in particular and ask the waiter what cake it is, he insists that we must help ourselves and try the cake, we wouldn’t want to be rude so of course we oblige.
This has been an amazing experience today, I feel like I have seen the real India, I know that the memory of today and what I have experienced will stay with me. Now off to bed in preparation for our 5am tour, I am now processing the agreed start time, am I slightly bonkers? We shall see..