The addictive sweetness of Varanasi

The addictive sweetness of Varanasi

“So, what’s your favorite city in India?” enquired my friend Diana, once I was finally back from my trip.

“Varanasi,” I replied, without the shadow of a doubt in my voice.

Who would have known that I would have enjoyed India so much (I can put it right there, in the list of my favorite countries), and that I would have fallen in love with Varanasi? Sure enough, I didn’t.

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A typical alley in the Old City of Varanasi: small shops, someone pushing a bike, dogs and garbage. And a fabulous light.

A slap in the face

I landed in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world, after 24 hours of traveling and with a pounding headache. No, I wasn’t coming from the other side of the world. I was actually arriving from the beautiful hill station of Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. My trip involved a bumpy bus ride to Bhopal airport that lasted almost 8 hours; a 90 minutes flight to Mumbai; a taxi transfer to the other terminal of Mumbai airport; a 7 hours layover in the freezing terminal without access to a lounge to rest my sore body (because the lounge at the cheap airlines terminal is only for VIPs, apparently); and a further flight to Varanasi.

As soon as the taxi pulled out of the airport, I realized I was in India. Yes, I had been there for over a week already. But Madhya Pradesh is hardly the kind of India one would think of – or at least, hardly similar to what I thought of whenever I tried to picture India. It was quiet; there wasn’t any of the big crowds or insane traffic that India is famous for; there wasn’t even that much dust.

Find out more about Madhya Pradesh on my post “Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh.”

Varanasi was a slap in the face. It was everything I had feared. It was that very India whose thought would make me wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night during the weeks before traveling, thinking “why am I doing this to myself, why am I forcing myself to go to India?” I was horrified by the traffic, the noise, the dust, the cows that chewed the plastic bags and then sat in the middle of the street, seemingly oblivious to the chaos, the dogs, the bikes, the tuc tucs, and the derelict buildings all around on the way from the airport. I was not even sure that I would be safe there as a solo female traveler. So horrified indeed, that I resolved to buy a plane ticket to go home as soon as I got to my guest house in the Old City, provided I’d actually make it there without getting lost in the mayhem.

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Orderly chaotic, that’s what I enjoyed about Varanasi

You have to get lost to find yourself

Indeed, taxis cannot enter the Old City of Varanasi. I had read this somewhere, but I was still hoping the taxi driver would get me to my guest house, somehow. I was India after all: there’s no such thing as respecting the rules there, and who cares if cars are not allowed in the Old City? The point though is that cars don’t go there because they don’t want to – oh trust me, they would want to, because if there’s something Indians seem to enjoy, that’s being stuck in traffic even when walking seems like the more sensible option. They really, truly can’t – because the streets of the Old City are so narrow that only pedestrians (which includes buffalos, cows, dogs and monkeys), bikes and the occasional scooter can actually go through.

Sure, I didn’t want to break any rule – even if I was in the country were rules are broken on a regular basis. But imagine my despair when the taxi driver pulled off and said he was going to stop right there, adding that he could not take me any further, and off I should go to find my place. Head pounding, exhausted for the long trip and the heat, I threw my backpack on my shoulders (and I thankfully had packed light this time, despite being an unsuccessful backpacker) and took out my iPhone – thankfully my friend Pranav, whom I had met in Madhya Pradesh, was kind enough to lend me one of his SIM cards and I could use Google Maps to guide me to my guest house.

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Monkeys are everywhere in Varanasi

I started walking, and after a few minutes I had to take a turn into a narrow alley. It looked like I was finally leaving the traffic behind, and I had entered the Old City. There were no cars, no honking. It was blissful.

I must have looked lost, and I surely was disheveled after 24 hours with no sleep, no real food and a headache that wouldn’t go away. So lost that a guy from what looked like a small café waved at me.

“Hello, come join us for coffee,” he told me in his strong French accent. He was the owner of the French Bakers, a recently opened lovely place that made the most comforting pain au raisins I could have hoped for, and where I ended up having breakfast every day during my time in Varanasi.

“I’d love to, but I really want to find my guest house, I am too exhausted,” I replied, and asked him if he knew where it was.

He didn’t, actually. But then the Marigold P. Guest House turned out to be just around the corner, tucked away in an even smaller alley. I walked up a few steps, knocked on the door, and was welcomed by Sonu, the young owner. He was all smiles and apologies because the driver he had hired to come pick me up at the airport did not show up. After handing me a bottle of much needed cold water and registering me, he showed me around his property. A few simple, spotless and comfortable rooms; a rooftop terrace with an incredible view of the city and of the river Ganges.

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Walking along the Ganges, from ghat to ghat, is one of the nicest things to do in Varanasi

“You can join me here at sunrise, every day, when I practice yoga,” Sonu said eagerly.

“We’ll see…” I surrendered, knowing that there’s no way I can wake up before dawn to exercise.

He then prompted me to make sure to close the door to the terrace every time I went up, as monkeys were known for getting inside and steal stuff. Putting aside the thought of losing my stuff to a monkey, I could not hide my amusement: how cool can a city were monkeys are a threat to property be to a westerner like me?

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Boats move slowly along the Ganges right before sunrise in Varanasi

Varanasi and the circle of life

Sonu’s sweet manners made me feel welcome. It was as if, despite everything, I had arrived home. Varanasi was turning out to be not nearly half has bad as I thought it would be: I was hopeful.

Moments later, I was finally in my room, I took a much needed hot shower, downed the rest of the bottle of water and crashed on my bed. A few hours later, I woke up: the headache had finally gone and decided it was finally time to go explore Varanasi and see what it was all about and why everyone, including Derek of the incredible Wandering Earl blog (who I actually had the pleasure to meet in person right in Varanasi), kept saying it’s their favorite city in India.

So I walked out the door, took a right turn into the main alley, and walked straight for a minute until I found myself into mayhem once again. But this time it was different: I happened to be looking at a ceremony. There were a lot of people sitting (and standing) to admire the show; there was what appeared to be ritual music, and a ritual kind of dance, with the performers handling fire.

Varanasi

Fire, the Ganges, and colorful people make the Ganga Aarti an unmissable experience in Varanasi

Just by chance, I had ended up at the Ganga Aarti, a ceremony held at Dashashwamedh Ghat during which fire is donated to Mother Ganges. It was beautiful: the show, the people around, the colorful saris, the cheering, the music and the atmosphere. I loved it. So much so that in my time in Varanasi I ended up seeing it every day, each day from a different perspective: from a terrace, from a boat on the Ganges, from the stairs of the ghat (by the way, a ghat is a set of steps leading down to a body of water, usually a holy river: there’s 84 ghats in Varanasi).

As the ceremony ended, I joined the stream of people that were leaving the Ghat. I went through the market, then back into the narrow alleys of the Old City. It was time to eat dinner at one of the small restaurants – I became a regular customer of Spicy Bites and of Bona’s Cafe, which serve decent food at reasonable prices (but no alcohol: Varanasi is mostly dry: it is hard to find alcohol served anywhere, especially in the Old City) and attract a young crowd of backpackers, all eager to share their experiences.

Still quite tired from all the traveling of the previous day, I called it a day right after dinner and went to bed. Besides, I had booked a Varanasi sunrise boat tour with City Discovery, and my alarm was set at 4:00 am. Indeed, although I am more of a spontaneous traveler, I do enjoy guided tours and I knew that this time around I wouldn’t have that much time in the city, and I didn’t want to waste any time in scouting for a good guide: I wanted to make sure that my guide was a certified one, that he spoke good English, and that I wouldn’t have to haggle for the price.

Read more about why I like guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”

Varanasi, India

No words can describe the beauty of the sunrise on the Ganges

Where it all begins, and where it all ends

At 4:30 am sharp my guide was waiting outside Marigold P Guest House. It was still pitch dark outside, but as we made our way to a ghat to board a boat that would take us along the river Ganges, the sun was starting to rise. I can hardly find words to describe the amazing view of the sunrise on the river Ganges. Spectacular doesn’t begin to explain how beautiful it was.

Boats moved slowly along the Ganges. And just by chance I saw my friend Lakshmi (or rather, she photobombed my picture!), whom I had met the year before on a trip to Indonesia.

Lakshmi and I agreed to meet later to have tea and a chat, but as the boats went each their own way, I couldn’t help ask myself: “what are the odds of meeting someone randomly in a city that sees thousands of tourists every day, and even more so during the peak season?” It looks like anything can happen in Varanasi.

As we went along the river during my early morning boat tour of Varanasi, my guide told me about the importance of the Ganges – one of the greatest rivers on earth – to the Hindus. Many people bathe there throughout the day, to wash away their sins. Some slowly walk inside, some dive head first, some pour water on their head. This is the most auspicious place to hold funerals, too. It’s in holy Varanasi that the Hindus hope to break the samsara cycle, the cycle of reincarnation, to finally achieve moksa, liberation.

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Even buffalos bathe in the Ganges

I could see several fires as the boat moved along the river: bodies were being cremated, the smoke adding up to the unique smell of Varanasi – one made of spices; of the fried jalebi sweets, pakoras and samosas; of cheese being made in random shops in hidden alleys; mixed with the acre stench of garbage rotting, garbage being burned, cows excrements and exhaust. It didn’t bother me. I learned to associate it with a city I loved.

Cremation ceremonies in Varanasi are held throughout the day and night. Taking pictures of the funeral pyres is prohibited, and I would have thought that even if it wasn’t, nobody would dare take such morbid pictures and lack any respect for the dead, their families, and the whole culture. I soon learned that is not the case, and saw one too many a tourist pushing their way through to get the ultimate shot.

Varanasi

Jumping in the holy river

As the sun made its stubborn appearance for the day, the boat approached a ghat and we disembarked. We started walking along the river. People kept bathing there. I could even see some men using the miswak, a toothbrush made of salvadora persica. The business day had started: barbers started shaving their customers; others did laundry for guest houses and hotels right on the river and hung it to dry on the ghats; cows and dogs kept on chewing on garbage bags, undisturbed.

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Sadhus can be seen at almost every street corner in Varanasi

Sadhus (Hindu monks that live an ascetic life dedicated to prayer and to the achievement of liberation) walked around, in their saffron-colored clothes, posing for pictures in exchange of a small fee.

Our last stop was at the temples, although I could just about peep in from the outside, and only after having secured all my belongings in a locker and having gone through a security check. Tourists are indeed not allowed to enter the holiest temples in Varanasi.

After saying goodbye to my guide, I made my way to the French Bakers, for a much needed cup of coffee and a freshly baked pain au raisin. There, I befriended Kusti, a sweet Estonian beach volleyball player. We’d meet at the bakery every day for breakfast then spend the rest of the day wandering the galis, the narrow streets of Varanasi, or hopping from ghat to ghat, and enjoying a cold lassi (a delicious Indian yogurt drink).

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Enjoying a cup of delicious ginger tea with old and new friends I met in Varanasi

Each ghat appeared different from the other. Some looked almost abandoned. Others, full of life: artists painting on one side; somebody making tea; children jumping in the river, putting up a show for us; dogs laying on their backs to cool down; and buffalos fully immersed before walking back up the ghat.

The Assi Ghat appeared like a wholly different place: lovely and quiet, here teenagers sat on the stairs to have a chat; kids played around in their bikes and life went on, undisturbed by the passage of a few tourists.

Assi ghat

The Assi Ghat has a whole different feel

On my last day in Varanasi, I took a boat to the other side of the river. It didn’t even feel like Varanasi at all – though I could clearly see the city as the sun set behind it. There, horses carried tourists around as if in the desert. A small group cooked under a tent. And a way too large group of kids played an improvised game of football.

Every now and then one would approach me.

“Where are you from?” he’d asked, not even bothered to hide his curiosity.

Then, the rest would wave at me to join in the fun. Who cared if football teams are supposed to be of 11 players, after all?

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A football game on the banks of the river Ganges

That football game summed up what Varanasi is: an incredible, eclectic mix, where everything and everyone meets, where everybody is welcome and at home, where everything begins and then ends.

Little by little, Varanasi crawled through my veins, reached my heart and set up shop there. Each and every city I visited in India was special in its own way, but none of them gave me that sense of peace, of achievement, of being welcome and feeling like I was home that Varanasi transmitted.

Yes, Varanasi remains my favorite city in India and one of the best places to visit there, and I can’t wait to go back.

Have you been to Varanasi? What was your experience there?

To read more about India, check my post “A selection of the best places to visit in India.”

Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh

Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh

When I told my family and friends I would be visiting Madhya Pradesh, in India, they looked buffled. They didn’t even know where Madhya Pradesh is. Best yet, a friend of mine who’s spent 3 years in India on and off, suggested there really isn’t anything interesting to see in Madhya Pradesh and asked why would I even bother going when there are so many more interesting places to see in India.

Read more about the best places to visit in India

That was enough to actually convince me I’d want to visit Madhya Pradesh. I liked the idea of exploring a lesser visited part of the country and to start my exploration of India from there. I applied for a my India visa before going, and I was set.

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The interesting Bhopal is Madhya Pradesh largest city – photo courtesy of Patrick M. Loeff (flickr)

So I landed in Bhopal, the capital – all in all a small city in Indian terms, with “only” around 2 million inhabitants, yet historically known for the gas incident (the Bhopal disaster) which in 1984 caused the death of thousands of people when gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant.

Bhopal was the starting point of my exploration, which made me discover an incredible State and its beautiful, genuine and welcoming people.

My advice to anybody visiting the country is to make sure to include Madhya Pradesh in their Indian itinerary, for at least five reasons.

Madhya Pradesh

To me, any place where there’s monkeys is worth visiting. And there’s many in Madhya Pradesh!

Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh

Madhya Pradesh is the land of tigers

There are many national parks in Madhya Pradesh, and in each of them it is possible to admire the local wildlife. Among the animals to be sighted there is the spotted dear, the sloth bear, various species of monkeys, buffalos, various species of birds and snakes, and even leopards and tigers. A safari in the Satpura Tiger Reserve, located at about 4 hours drive from Bhopal and part of the Satpura National Park, is a great way of trying to see these mighty felines.

I wasn't so lucky to see one, but Satpura Tiger Reserve is one of the best places to spot tigers.

I wasn’t so lucky to see one, but Satpura Tiger Reserve is one of the best places to spot tigers.

There’s more than 40 tigers living in the reserve, but they are not easily sighted. The best months to see them are around the monsoon time, when they do spend more time hanging around by the water. In any case, even the attempt to spot tigers (and seeing all the other animals that live in the reserve) make the effort of going there worth it even during the dry season.

In Madhya Pradesh, nature is at its best

Madhya Pradesh is the second largest State in India, and there are incredible natural attractions. The Pachmari reserve is included among the UNESCO biosphere reserves for its flora and fauna. Here the weather is much more pleasant than in other parts of India – it is one of the few hill stations of the country. At night, temperature drops and it is nice to wear a jacket and sleep with a blanket, something which doesn’t go without saying in the South of the country.

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Nature is gorgeous in Madhya Pradesh – there was nobody around at this viewpoint!

Close to Pachmari there are the Rajat Prapat waterfalls, among the highest ones in India. And the view of the surrounding mountains from Dhoopgarh is simply stunning. The highest peak here is the Hathi Shikhar, which is well above 1300 meters.

And what about the sunrise at Madhai? Seeing the sun rising above the forest here, while on a boat going to the Satpura Tiger Reserve, is an unforgettable experience. The sun rises slowly, and its paints the sky of colors which are gradually brighter, almost as trying to welcome visitors who are about to embark on a safari.

The people of Madhya Pradesh are welcoming

People in Madhya Pradesh are incredibly warm and friendly. From the ones working in the tourism industry to anybody I met in the street, to the ones who helped me through the incredible ordeal I went through in order to get a SIM card in India, I found everyone to be kind and curious towards the few travelers who visit their State, of which they are very proud. They think tourists are sacred, and they always help those in need.

Friendly faces at the market in Bhopal - photo courtesy of Ales Drainville (flickr)

Friendly faces at the market in Bhopal – photo courtesy of Ales Drainville (flickr)

It’s not invaded by tourists (yet)

I am hardly obsessed with off the beaten path places. After all, an unsuccessful backpacker like I am usually ends up there! Madhya Pradesh is a perfect place to visit for those who like to get a bit off the beaten path. It is as far as it gets from the traffic and pollution of Delhi and from the crowds of tourists of Varanasi. It is the best place to get to know the Indian culture and spirit more in depth, and to get closer to the locals and get that feeling of being one of the few privileged persons to experience something special.

Find out why I am an unsuccessful backpacker.

Madhya Pradesh

There’s still a few tourists in Madhya Pradesh – I was one of them

It’s a great introduction to India

Whether one likes to admit it or not, India is a difficult country to travel to – what with the infrastructure which are still lacking compared to those of Europe (although this is changing very fast thanks to the government efforts) which are often combined with very ling distances; or because of the crowds and the enormous cultural differences compared to the rest of the world. Madhya Pradesh is a gentle introduction to India: there’s less people, less traffic, less noise. It gives the chance of getting used to the country, to get to know the way of life in a more gradual manner.

Madhya Pradesh

A gorgeous sunrise on the boat on the way to Saptura Tiger Reserve

These are only five of the many reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh. I know I will want to visit it again, to explore more of this amazing State, starting from Khajuraho, a magnificent complex of Hindu temples which is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to the Buddhist Sanchi with its many stupas, to Madhu to explore the Jahaz Mahal and to Orccha, a historic town along the banks of the river Betwa.

Besides, I would want to have a second try at spotting the tigers!

Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of Madhya Pradesh as part of the #heartofindia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

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Learn why you should visit Madhya Pradesh - via @clautavani

The top temples in India

The top temples in India

After toying with the thought of going for a long time, and never feeling quite ready for it, I have finally made up my mind: I am going to India next week! I am incredibly excited at the idea, and a bit nervous as I feel I will have a bit of a cultural shock. India was not in my travel plans for 2016, but I was given a chance to go and I couldn’t pass out on this one.

One of the thing that scares me the most about it is that India is the country with the highest population density. I was already shocked to see the amount of people in Indonesia, the first country I visited in Asia, so I can only imagine how it will be like in India!

Find out more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

Yet, I know that there are so many places to visit in India, and that it is full of marvelous temples that deserve a visit, dedicated to each of the different faiths that make up Indian religious beliefs. But since it would take a lifetime to tour every one of the thousands of temples dotted around this vast country, here are a selection of the ones that I will try to visit.

Le grand stūpa de Sanchi, face arrière du Torana ouest (Inde)

The Sanchi Supa – photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (flickr)

Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh

This Buddhist temple can be found in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The Great Stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) is the oldest stone structure in India. Madhya Pradesh is the first state I will be visiting, so this will be my introduction into Indian temples.

Kumbakonam, Kumbeshwara Temple

Adi Kumbeswarar, Tamil Nadu

Whereas Tungnath appears quite modest from the outside, Adi Kumbeswarar is an extraordinary construction covered with colourful sculptures of the deities. Another Shiva temple, it consists of four gateway towers and is in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. I am very curious to check this out.

Dilwara Jain temples, Mt Abu

The intricate carvings of the Dilwara Jain temples – photo courtesy of Rakhee (flickr)

Dilwara Temples, Rajasthan

The Dilwara temples are sacred to Jain worshippers, and comprise five temples. Each one is full of stunning carvings, with one (Vimal Vasahi) carved out of marble). Dilwara is in the north-western state of Rajasthan. I will be touring Rajasthan, so I won’t miss out on this one. And having a Rajasthan guide will surely help out. 

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The Badami Cave Temples – photo courtesy of Harsha Vardhan Durugadda (flickr)

Badami Cave Temples, Karnataka

Religious buildings often pop up in the most inventive locations, and the Badami Cave Temples are (not surprisingly, given the name) carved into sandstone hills. Located in the south-western state of Karnataka, the caves present some of the earliest known instances of Hindu temples.

Stone Chariot - The Icon of Hampi

The Vittala Temple – photo courtesy of Mahesh Telkar (flickr)

Vittala Temple, Hampi, Karnataka

Also in Karnataka lies the temple of Vittala. It is famed for its ‘musical pillars’, each of which makes a different musical note when tapped. The area once held a horse market, and this history is represented in the temple’s sculptures.

Ramanathaswamy Temple

The Ramanathaswamy Temple – photo courtesy of Ryan (flickr)

Ramanathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu

Another stunning temple in Tamil Nadu, Ramanathaswamy is one of the main holy sites for Hindus. It is associated with Lord Rama and his wife Sita, who built temples here in order to atone for Rama killing the demon Ravana, a fellow Brahmin.

Tugnath Temple, Uttarakhand

I had never heard of the Hindu epic the Ramayana until I went to Bali last year, and saw a representation of it in a Kecak show. It was fantastic.

Check out why I think watching the Ramayana is one of the main attractions in Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”

Anyways… Tungnath is the highest Shiva temple in the world, and according to the poem it is where Lord Rama meditated. Unlike many others, the temple is tiny and therefore limits the number of visitors allowed in at any one time. But its unusual location (12,000 feet above sea level) makes it worth seeing. Tungnath is also in Tamil Nadu.

Morning light on the Golden Temple. IMG_7241

The Golden Temple – photo courtesy of bookchen (flickr)

Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), Punjab

In the north of India lies the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs. The temple projects out onto the river, making it an impressive site even without the golden colouring that gives it its name. This gold plating was added in the 19th century, but the temple dates back to the 16th century.

Akshardham, New Delhi

The Akshardham, New Delhi – photo courtesy of Gaurav Trivedi (flickr)

Akshardham Temple, New Delhi

Unlike many other Indian temples, Akshardham is a very recent addition to India’s rich heritage of religious buildings. Built of pink sandstone, it was opened in 2005 and is dedicated to the Swaminarayan sect. Akshardham offers light shows and many educational exhibitions on the Swaminarayan beliefs. It may be a good place to visit for families traveling to Delhi with kids.

Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh

Located just out of Tawang City is the largest monastery in India and the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world. To me that is enough to visit, and while there I may as well go backpacking in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Sure enough, I can’t wait to explore India!