Kite Festival Varanasi
The Kite Festival in Varanasi is one of those festivals that you don’t really realize is taking place until you’re right in the middle of it… and how odd it is.
Walking The Gangas
The Gangas is arguably the most sacred river in the world. Certainly it is to those that subscribe to Hinduism, and there is no place where this is more obvious than in Varanasi, India.
As you walk along the banks of the Gangas you are going to bear witness to all sorts of interesting spectacles. This is definitely no place to be turning up your nose in cultural relativism. Throw down those massive walls that you’ve built up by living in the west, and absorb all of the goings on…
Starting at the Burning Ghat is the most full-on introduction to Varanasi that you can imagine. As the story goes, the fire here has been burning for 3,500 years. Every day people use this fire to start multiple other fires that are then used for cremating their loved ones. There is an astounding 200-300 bodies burnt here every day.
Therefore, as you walk past the Burning Ghat, you are bound to see at least 5 and sometimes up to 8 or 9 different ceremonial fires going. You can stay and watch, but don’t take pictures of the people in mourning as it’s considered quite offensive.
On any day of the year, this might be considered quite odd, but during the kite festival it takes on a whole new level. I mean who wouldn’t want to use the updrafts created by crematoriums in order to get your kite that much higher in the air?!
As you continue on to the next Ghats be prepared to have all sorts of people coming up and offering you something. The boatmen will most likely be the first ones to get your attention, with a simple, “hello, boat?” greeting that will make you feel all sorts of warm and cozy on the inside. They’ll move to “cheap price” and “100 rupees only” without your acknowledgement.
Take a gander up at the incredible colours of the different temples along the many different Ghats as you continue your stroll. All of a sudden you are going to feel a very real pull. You’ll be amazed at how, even if you’re not a spiritual person, this place manages to catch you a little bit.
Oh, but wait…
As you come out of your little daydream, you’re about to find out that what actually snagged you was a kite string (forgot about the kite festival did ya?!)… Heads up (or down for that matter), this is going to happen a lot!
As you stop to untangle a kite string that you can’t actually see, you’re most likely going to be approached to buy some hashish… in between the boatmen, the hashish dealers and the fully grown men who get kite strings wrapped around you, you’ll swear that you meet half the people in Varanasi in your short walk.
You’re now approaching the Ghat where the pilgrims come for their cleaning. Take a seat on the stairs, watch the kites flying all around you and be enchanted by the spectacle of a different appreciation for life. The pilgrims will have their heads shaved and then jump into the legendary emerald green waters of the Varanasi. If you bought some of that hashish, you may even see the water as still being that colour… otherwise you may be inclined to believe that this river is quite a bit sicker than it was when that fire started burning.
If you can manage to grow a bit of a beard stubble, or full-on beard, (male or female… I don’t judge) then walking past the Shaving Ghat is going to be a whole different experience. First you will be greeted with a ‘hello sir, shave?’ multiple times in the span of about a minute. As you deny them, they will be very understanding and go to shake your hand… of all the tricky little approaches, this one still kills me. Shake a hand and you will immediately start to receive a unsolicited hand massage. You are going to have to get all sorts of creative to get your hand back. I found a spin move works very well but tends to be a little bit conspicuous and well… embarrassing. This is a situation where you’re going to have to embrace the awkward and figure you’re way through this mine field… shake some hands, it’s kinda fun trying to get your hand back without breaking stride… odds are you’re going to be pulling some poor barber along for a bit of a walk, but really he kinda needs the exercise!
Spinning your way out of your last handshake, you’ll think you’re free just as you get tangled by another kite string… damn! Go fly a kite would ya!
Don’t forget to take a look at all the beautiful street art around Varanasi as well. This is not just a sacred place for the Hindus, it seems to be a place very popular amongst expats of all sorts. After all, this is probably one of the best places in the world to learn the Sitar… so if you’re musically inclined or intrigued, it might be a great place to stay awhile. There’s also a great Hindi teacher named Raju where I embarked on my challenge to learn Hindi in one week.
You’re getting out of the chaos a bit, as you wonder why in the world people would play cricket right beside a river. With the sun beating down on you, you’ll realize that it must be laundry day as all the stairs in this part of the city seem to be draped with sheets and clothing of all colours.
Just as you enter the Laundry Drying Ghat, you’ll realize that it also doubles as the water buffalo ghat. Sure, there were a few water buffalo earlier in your walk, but this ghat is clearly where the water buffaloes come on their pilgrimage to this sacred river.
Stopping and attempting to get your feet back from the kid who was clearly trying to steal them with his kite string in order to sell them in some back alley or potentially offer them to the river dolphins… you may just want a break from the chaos. Head away from the river and get lost in the many back alleys that never seem to run straight. You’ll have a fun time passing cows and dogs along with goats that are mysteriously wearing sweaters en route. The only ones you really have to worry about are the bulls… There’s not many, but they are big and badass! If you’re really tired, you may attempt to hop on the bulls back and ask him to take you to the closest German Bakery…. but this is not really a suggested course of action as every bakery in India seems to be German and bulls are easily confused.
See if you can find a rooftop restaurant and you’ll finally get a chance to appreciate those little flying leg traps that have been getting you all day. Aahh… the beauty of a kite festival… But no time to waste, it’s most likely mid afternoon by this time, and you’re planning on going to the Ganga Puja in the evening.
You’ve probably heard about the Ganga Puja (the nightly ceremony to the river involving all sorts of sounds and sights). You don’t want to be irritable for the ceremony. If you arrive chilled out and curious, it’s incredible to watch and you’ll probably even have your favourite guy to watch, and you’re favourite part of the whole ritual.
So sit back on a rooftop somewhere, enjoy the afternoon and look out over the many kites floating on the wind. You’ll see hundreds if not thousands of these simplistic homemade flying diamonds. Looking from rooftop to rooftop you’ll realize that it’s not only the children involved either, the men are fully engrossed with the idea of just flying a kite.
And really, this is the beauty of Varanasi. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, confusion and cows, the people have the wherewithal to have a Varanasi Kite Festival.