The colorful city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges in North India, has been a city of learning and spirituality (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) for over 3000 years. The Ganges river is central to Varanasi’s culture and economy.
Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. Pilgrims come to the ghats (embankments with steps of stone slabs along the river bank) lining the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. To die in Varanasi offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Being released from reincarnation makes Varanasi a desired place to die. Walking through the city we saw families carrying their dead relatives on flower decorated platforms to the cremation site. We visited the burning ghats where the cremations take place twenty-four hours a day.
Since the Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away sins, the ghats are busy with people coming to bath and pray. Our early morning boat ride gave us the opportunity to see how busy the river front is.
Each evening a Hindu ceremony using smoke, fire and flowers is held to honor the Mother Ganges.
Varanasi’s narrow streets and alleyways are packed with shops, restaurants and food stalls making it extremely crowded for walking. Add in the cows that are wandering or laying everywhere and it is a challenge to get around. We saw much of exotic India in Varanasi.
A marathon travel day took us from Varanasi to Darjeeling. We took a car over a road that was more pothole than road and what normally would have taken thirty minutes took us three hours. We boarded our last long distance train looking forward to an 18 hour ride. Our two-tier sleeper car (think giant bunk bed) was fairly comfortable allowing us to get a few hours of sleep. And finally another three-hour ride took us up to the Himalayan hill station of Darjeeling.
Darjeeling, which the tea is named for, is located in the Lesser Himalaya at an elevation of 6,700 feet. Huge, well manicured tea plantations cover the hillsides. In 1849, the British annexed the area and Darjeeling became a part of British India. Because it was a popular hill station during the days of the Raj (British control of India), a lovely Victorian town was built among the Himalayan foothills, and Darjeeling remains a popular summer and fall resort for those who live on the hot plains.
We took a very early morning tour up to Tiger Hill (8,497 feet) to see the sunrise over the Himalayas. Along with hundreds of Indian tourists we were treated to a panoramic view of Mount Everest and Mount Kangchenjunga (third highest peak in the world).
A walk through the Darjeeling Zoo took us to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and museum. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay along with Sir Edmund Hillary were the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest in 1953. Tenzing used his fame to create the institute which is a destination by and a pilgrimage for all the climbing enthusiasts. He is buried in the courtyard of the museum. The institute offers month long courses, weekend training and the museum contains memorabilia from various Everest climbs.
It is interesting that both Varanasi and Darjeeling draw many Indian tourists but for different reasons. Varanasi is religious whereas Darjeeling is for cool vacation fun.