After freshening up, we headed off in tuktuks to Old Varanasi. Sachin from the train had warned me that things may be more congested and chaotic in Varanasi than Delhi, just because of the narrow streets. He was not wrong. We arrived at our destination in about 15 minutes after dodging a few cows, dogs, people and vehicles. We walked along the streets of the old town, staring at the buildings, the monkeys, the cows, the dogs, the temples, the store fronts with mannequins dressed in beautiful Indian gowns, all the while making sure to stay out of traffic. Our first stop was a silk shop which we found off the main narrow road, down a narrow alley, off another narrow alley and up the stairs. The owner of the shop gave us a very interesting lesson about silk, cashmere, pashmina and blends. He also treated us to Masala Tea and samosas – both were delicious! After our lesson, he encouraged everyone to look, touch and try on any number of scarves and sarongs. They were all so beautiful! As we are still travelling light, I could not justify buying anything but it was definitely tempting.
Following the silk shop, we headed to the Ganges River. The Ganges is the most holy river for the Hindu people. Many Hindus from all over the world make a pilgrimage here to pray and cleanse themselves of bad karma by submerging in the water. It is also the final resting place for most Hindus. They either make the trip before death and are cremated along the river or they are cremated in their home country and a family member will make the pilgrimage to the Ganges with their ashes. We arrived at the river about 4:30 PM and crowds were already starting to gather for the evening prayers. We walked along the river watching the people, admiring the architecture of the buildings and the wide steps leading down to the river. We witnessed a number of cremations taking place and somehow, it did not seem out of the ordinary. We boarded a small boat and headed out onto the river. We were each given a bowl of flowers with a lighted candle that we made a wish on and put into the water (much like we did in Chiang Mai). We then made our way over to the area where the prayers were being held. There were a couple of thousand people along the shore and we estimated that there were probably about 200 boats like ours crowded on the river. We watched the ceremony of fire, music, and dance. The riverbank was lit up with flaming lamps and the smell of sandalwood filled the air. It was an amazing sight and hard to believe that it happens there every night. Tomorrow morning we will be going back to see the morning rituals that happen along the river. I am told that it is much quieter and solemn. We are certainly looking forward to that.