Varanasi is a 7000 year old city. A day can seem like a lifetime here. This post takes you along on an exotic, exhausting and exhilarating day that I recently experienced in this most holy of Indian cities.
0430 hours – the alarm sounds. No groaning, no moaning at the hour – a rising sense of curiosity sets your feet on the floor without hesitation.
Landing the night before, making your way to the hotel and to dinner left you tired but still reeling. A Bollywood movie calmed and distracted. You slept some but now that pent up energy is back.
You realize it comes from a set of expectations pressed upon you by other’s stories of this place. It took three previous trips to India to feel prepared but now you know you are ready to experience whatever Varanasi will reveal to you.
Stories of streets filled with beggars, lepers, pushing throngs and putrid debris make you wonder what you’ll actually see as you journey through the city to the river. For some reason people like to paint India as one big slum. You’ve not found that in other areas and you suspect it won’t be Varanasi’s story either.
Night ebbs closer to day as you board a bus. Thirty minutes later, it’s taken you as far as it can in a city this old and worn. Cycle rickshaws careen you threw what seems like a series of vortexes transporting you from modern to ancient times. You make progress through warrens for a bit but then cut loose to walk the last kilometre as the passages get tighter still and turn to dusty dirt paths lined with stalls.
You reach broad steps worn with the tread of countless footsteps. You sense the river is at the bottom but a mist shrouds it while blaring street lights cut with harshness to illuminate painted taxi boats and small bits of scattered refuse. So far, nothing has jarred or assaulted your senses.
You reach the bottom and climb into your boat. The oarsman nudges from shore and through his competitors. Your sliding out into the mist now and it too is sliding away down the river’s backside. The water is a murky grey green but it flows freely and there’s no smell or garbage afloat. Another myth is debunked.
Small boats sidle up and you buy an offering. It’s a tea light in a bed of fuchsia hibiscus on a woven palm frond cup that will float. Pujas (prayers) are said and as the sun rises in the east, you set the fuchsia and flame afloat on the Ganges and start to say a prayer but ask instead, for what? For all the humanity that’s been here before you? For your own small life? For all those that will come after you? For India and her people? You decide it’s better to still any thoughts and just let your offering join and flow with life.
The sun brings a gentle pink light in answer to your release. It adds highlights to the Pepto-Bismol pink turrets on the buildings back at your point of departure. It spreads its warmth to the blues, ochre and whites of the others that huddle and bunch around the perky pink ones.
The steps are called ghats. Activity rises with the sun. Pilgrims come to bathe at this time. They’ve come for Mother Ganges to heal and/or bless them. Mourners come as well, to see their loved ones cremated on a funeral pyre. The dead are dipped into the river and then set upon the 250 kilograms of wood it will take to burn them to ash. The ashes are returned to Mother Ganges.
There’s a constant contrast between those engaging in joyous preparations and mourners with their deliberate and purposeful movements. They express great solemnity but tragedy is noticeably absent. Acceptance had taken its place. Others, nearby, simply do laundry. The Ganges is where they work.
It’s a great blessing to be a Hindu and to end your life on a funeral pyre here. It is believed that the Ganges will help you break out of the cycle of reincarnation. Joining with the Ganges you may at last escape from the return to mortality and its inherent suffering. It is a Hindu’s dream to afford and attain this burial ritual here at the end of your life. Death comes to us all. This is death done in style – it seems.
The sari-wrapped women and bare-chested men in sarongs bathe and believe in the healing powers of this water. This is the place where Shiva – the only God who could contain Goddess Ganga’s powers – helped control Ganga’s flow to earth as she descended through his matted hair. She would have otherwise crushed the earth – as water often does – with her force but Shiva contained and then channeled her into seven quiet rivers.
Ganga is Goddess of Purity and so all whom bathe in the Ganges receive purity to their core. The reverence or open smiles of joy on the people’s faces as they enter and submerge is manifestation of that belief.
The city is filled with tourists but they are not all foreigners. We are outnumbered by the Indian pilgrims. They arrive in terrific numbers with each bus and train that pulls into the stations. Many arrive on foot. The city teams with the industry of housing, feeding and transporting them. Each time you take a rickshaw ride, you feel you could easily collide with some other moving human, animal or vehicle every 30 seconds and yet you never do. The locals say that the sacred energy of Shiva still controls all the flow around here and where there could be thousands of accidents daily, there are in fact very few.
The boats who’ve been your early morning companions on this tour of the ghats head back to shore but yours heads to the east bank of the river instead. There’s nothing here but a sand delta. Each year it looks different. It gets left behind when the annual monsoon season’s fat bulge of water shifts and shrinks. Nothing can be built here because the waters will come to wipe the beach clean always.
You carry blankets up a hill to face east towards the slowly rising sun and do yoga for an hour.
It’s only a quarter kilometre leap to the city across the water but it’s far enough to be quiet here. Laying in the sand, breathing in and out, moving with your breath, chanting OAM, you slow enough to feel gravity holding you in place. The hollow your body makes in the sand feels as if life itself is cupping you gently in its hands. For an instant you become that speck of sand you’re staring at. You know your place in the vast universe and you feel the miracle that you are actually here at all. It’s enough for today. It’s enough for all time. The hour slips and you fall back into place in your boat.
Returning to the west side you climb all those steps and find street vendors arriving to feed the masses. Women lay blankets and set up a market to sell produce. You stop at a chai stall and watch thick creamy milk come to a boil with tea leaves, ginger, cardamom and tulsi – holy basil. The boil roves and a few scoops of jaggery (cane sugar) are added. Clay cups are ladled full and passed around. It’s five cents worth of soul steadying goodness. The chai walla (tea stall worker) becomes a friend because he sees how happy he’s made you and that you genuinely like his recipe. You promise him you’ll return and he believes you. Somehow you’ll find him again – and you do – later that same day.
Back to the hotel for the morning buffet and more, but less tasty, chai. A hot shower revives. The air catches on a crag in your throat. A soreness is starting from constant exposure to the smokey haze. The thought creeps. Is it “just” the burning of garbage – like in so much of India – or are you actually breathing the ashes of deceased humans?
And now you’re off to a factory to learn about silk for a few hours. The shift from spiritual pursuits to arts and crafts illuminates life in Varanasi beyond the banks of the river. Besides, a little shopping is a welcome juxtaposition in the middle of a day that holds visits to the river as bookends.
Varanasi is famous for its silks and you visit a family run business and buy – a lot. Gifts of scarves, bedding, table cloths, wall hangings and a sari in fuchsia meets magenta red—like the flowers of your morning puja—are packed in parcels to be delivered to your hotel. The tailor takes your measurements. The sari’s blouse and slip will be sewn and delivered that evening.
Back to the river at dusk and now you feel the full presence of PEOPLE. Like grapes funnelling into the press, you flow down together. A sacred cow squeezes up the stairs as you squeeze down. You keep your eye on the back of your group members in front. If you get separated here, you’ll be adrift in this vat of bubbling, fermenting life.
It’s loud. Music wails from loudspeakers. Drums pulsate at a steady thrust. Hawkers wave arm loads of prayer beads in front of you. All teenage boys, they begin conversations. They’ve marked you as theirs and will never give up until you buy something – anything. They tell you how they’re at school in the day and how they must pay for that schooling and the feeding of their family by selling trinkets in the evenings. They want to go to university. Their English is excellent. You escape onto the waiting boat.
I’ll wait Miss.
I’ll be here when you come back.
Your new friend’s voice trails after you as the boat casts off. The river is crowded. You have a motor boat this time and it putt, putts along spewing diesel. Burning votives, torches and those blaring electric lights act as beacons. The drummers beats vary in rhythm every few hundred metres and an encroaching mist braids the sound waves that reach you.
From the darkness of the river you join a flotilla of small open boats that grapple together to watch the priests offer the nightly aarti – a prayer to the Ganges. This is Dashashwamedh Ghat. You watch the waving of fire offerings unifying the elements. Bells toll to the greatness of the Goddess Ganges.
As the ceremony climaxes your boat slips away and drifts to nearby Manikarnika Ghat. This is where the most funeral pyres are. They burn hot and fierce. It’s a somber moment. A sadness wells inside as you bear witness to the fact that life must end. It’s a non-sublte reminder to be grateful for your own life. You vow to live it fully.
The boat circles back past the spectacle again and try as you might to take it all in, the activity overwhelms. It’s one part swarming hive of Hindu devotees meets born-again baptist revival tent meeting and one part ecstasy-induced electro dance haze meets punk rock mosh pit. Just when you wonder how you’ll make your way through such a gathering again, your boat passes by and takes you further down the river to Raja Ghat.
Raja is all aglow. Thousands of oil lamps have been lit to welcome you to a dinner Clark’s Hotel is catering for your group. You make your way through the path of light, and up through more and more light. A large door slows the group and as its your turn to pass through its arch you feel the shower of rose and marigold petals that floated down to check their progress. They land in your hair and to tickle your face.
You follow your host up through uneven hand-chiseled stone stairs and dip through a door to find a wall where monks sit chanting a blessing to welcome you. A traditional Indian rangoli welcome symbol on the floor of the great hall is designed with more flowers and lights. They echo the effusive welcome.
Professors from the university give a classical music and dance performance. You mingle with them after and then dine on the best pure veg (no garlic or onions) food thali you know you’ll ever eat.
It’s quiet inside the thick stone palace walls and you feel yourself relax. Your hosts and servers hover. They’re completely devoted to your enjoyment of the meal. There’s no alcohol but you leave calm and centred once again. The building seems to have absorbed the prayers of the monks and bestowed them on you as you dined. Out on the ghat again, the bead-selling hawker boy is there.
Mam, I waited for you to come back. Will you buy my beads now?
But that was three hours ago.
Yes, Mam, I waited.
You can’t believe he followed your boat’s progress along the banks to this ghat and that he waited. You buy all of his beads. He can go home now without disappointing his family and without being disappointed in you. You remember that you stand out. You are a foreigner and easy to spot as the minority here. You dole out beads to friends.
An awkward moment presents as you walk straight past the still-burning, always burning it seems, funeral pyres at the “less important” Harishchandra Ghat. Families are huddled together in the dark on the steps. You keep your eyes on the ground until you make it to a street leading away from the river. Here’s the squalor that a day’s foot traffic left behind. You step carefully between dog and cow defecation and smelly little rivers of fluid and waste flowing down towards the Ganges.
There were no beggars or lepers in your day but there were LOTS of people, persistent hawkers and yes, some gross pollution here on this street but still you need not have absorbed the tales of others. It’s better to just see for yourself – always.
Back to the hotel. You let yourself into your room and stop to wonder if there are ashes on you? You think about the annoying moths that were thick in the river’s night air. If there’s anything to dislike about Varanasi, it’s the air. Your shoes are also not looking too great either. You strip, bathe, blow your nose clean and fall into bed.
The word excess pops into your head. Was it excess people, noise or emotion? You go back to the moments of complete calm and joy in the day. The offering of light, the first glimpse of the sun, the yoga, the chai walla and his tea, the new silk sari, the inner sanctum of sturdy walls, soft lights and pure veg food at Clark’s. You yawn.
Tomorrow will be less intense. Yoga, a visit with a Hindu scholar and time you know will be quiet at Sarnath where The Buddha gave his first sermon. Varanasi is holy for more than Hindus.
Tonight the exhaustion of your 20 hour day wins out over the exhilaration of this exotic life. Somewhere on the edge of awareness comes the knowledge that each breath you take is a gift from life and that your breath is really all that holds you here.
Breath is the thin thread that gingerly ties you to this impermanent state of being. You pray for another day and let go. You float from awareness safely cupped in the hands of life. Those unseen hands use the thread that is your breath, your life to sew the fabric that is the cosmos.
Though it would not be for everyone, you realize this day in Varanasi – with all its contrasts – has truly helped you savour it all.
Note: This post is dedicated to my dear friend JoJo Brooks who realized the dream of teaching yoga by the Ganges in Varanasi on this Indian adventure we shared.