Varanasi is always a head spinner and heaving with Hindu pilgrims but when we arrived in the holy city from nearby Allahabad, we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people within the city limits and down at the bathing ghats. Like us, many of the pilgrims in Varanasi had been attending the massive Maha Kumbh Mela (Holy Fair) in Allahabad and, again like us, had then decided it was a good idea to continue to the ancient city of Benares (as the city is sometimes called).
The atmosphere on the banks of the River Ganges and in the Old City of Varanasi was electric. There were pilgrims everywhere – dancing, bathing, praying and generally enjoying themselves. At some point during our stay we decided to visit Vishwanath Temple, the holiest temple in the city. The temple is located back from the ghats and when we arrived we could see that there was a bit of a queue to get in. So we asked where the back of the queue was, got the answer with the obligatory head wobbling and started walking around the corner. Here we saw another line of pilgrims so we walked to the next corner and then the next, and then another…
We never did get to the end of the queue. Even if we had found the end of the line and then decided to remain in it until we reached the entrance of the temple, I don’t think we would have got into it until at least 12 hours later. This is no exaggeration – charities were handing out food and water and most people seemed to have a bedroll and their own supply of food with them.
In true Indian-style, most devotees were happy and smiling and we spent a wonderful couple of hours talking to people from all over India about where they were from, what football team they/we supported, and so on, and of course taking photos of them. These six happy guys (*) were all from the same village in Rajasthan and enjoyed posing for the camera. I estimated they had about 8 hours to go before they got to the front of the line.
There is no doubt in my mind that Varanasi is the most fascinating city in India.
(*) If you have read the 2003 novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, the Rajasthani in the tartan turban (below, top left) is exactly how I would imagine the character, Prabaker, to look.