Varanasi Journal

Kids fly kites on the ghats in Varanasi. Copyright Simon Bonneau.


Walked almost the entire length of the Ghats today, including the aptly named ‘Burning Ghats’, where the funeral pyres burn 24hrs a day. The wood used for the pyres was stacked high in the streets around the Ghats. We went up into a building with a vantage point over the area. We saw a body presented in its shroud, placed on the pyre. The flames went up around it. Cremating a body like this is a lot of work. It takes 4 hours or so for it to burn, and more wood will be placed on the fire throughout the process.

We have made friends already with one of the local café owners and he introduced us to a sadhu that he simply calls Baba-ji. He was not your ordinary sadhu perhaps. He drinks coke like the rest of us and has some modest possessions such as a mobile phone and a small portable radio.

The story he told us of how he came to be a sadhu was hard to believe. He was promised to another sadhu before he was even born. He left his family in Himachal Pradesh at the age of nine and came down to Varanasi.

varanasi babaji and leon
Leon and Baba-ji. Copyright Simon Bonneau.


Third day here. Leon has gone to play cricket with some kids that we met yesterday and Oihana, a Spanish nurse and yoga instructor we met in Delhi, has gone to find somewhere to take a djembe lesson.

It is nice to have some time to myself. I walked down to the café by the Ganga where we met Baba-ji, drank some tea, chatted to the owner and simply watched life go on around me. The Ghats are an ideal place to do this. The river has supported life for thousands of years. The things that it must have seen are beyond reckoning.

At the moment, down below at the water’s edge, I can see people washing, washing themselves and their clothes. Just before I saw a man swimming butterfly stroke, forging out into the water with powerful, graceful strokes.

varanasi cows
Cows (and people) resting on the ghats. Copyright Simon Bonneau.

Later in the day, I walked down to the Ghats and ended up meeting another sadhu. This one was much more like people imagine them to be: he sat across from the temple he guards and maintains, covered from head to toe in ash, wearing only a loincloth. He had just begun a twelve-year vow of silence. The only way that he could communicate was by writing in a little notebook he carried with him.

He sat in front of a small fire, watched the temple and prayed. At one point, he suddenly rose to his feet and chased a man away with a stick. I looked on in disbelief. The man had broken an unwritten rule: he walked between the sadhu and his temple. He walked back, caught sight of us and invited us to sit with him. A notebook Q&A session began. It was fun, but difficult. Much of his writing was hard to read and his responses were cryptic. At a point he asked me to buy him some milk, bananas, cigarettes and a coke. I obliged. We sat back down with him and he peeled one of the bananas and offered us some. He watched us and only began to eat his once we had. The same occurred with the cigarettes.


This morning I woke up early to the sound of wails and chants from the banks of the Ganga, where ceremonies are performed every morning. This has been going on forever – everything here has been going on forever. People have been here for more than 10,000 years and you can feel it. The continuity of life. What were people like here all those years ago, long before even the Vedas were written?

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