Varanasi, also known as Benares, is somewhat of a dream. We were told to brace ourselves as we entered one of the most colorful and intense experiences in India – and we were told right. Varanasi is unapologetically chaotic and crazy at every turn, but among the endless cow and dog feces, strings and strings of vendors selling prayer beads and incense holders, holy men walking with their Shiva staffs and long beards, poor children begging for extra rupees or trying to adorn you with sandalwood for “free”, I think we can safely say this is truly the Indian experience we had been waiting for.
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and is one where pilgrims swarm to the Holy Ganges to wash away their sin or cremate their loved ones. It’s an especially sought-after place to die, as dying here is thought to allow for the liberation from the cycle of birth and death according to Hindu culture.
Yesterday, Kev and I watched body after body being brought through the windy streets ((called galis) which are far too narrow for traffic, but just wide enough for hundreds of cows, scooters, and every other imaginable thing) on bamboo stretchers hour after hour on their way to Manikarnika, the city’s largest burning ghat. At the ghat, we watched for hours as more than 7 bodies were dunked into the Ganges for their final cleansing, and then lit on fire surrounded by their loved ones while listening to the relentless DONG of Shiva’s temple next door. It was magical, and surreal and overall, quite an amazing experience. Watching such an intimate experience – right out in the open – has had somewhat of a strange effect on me. It is overwhelmingly powerful to witness such a thing, and was something I feel especially honored to have seen.
Yesterday morning, we got up at 4 am for a sunrise river ride on the Ganges. There we watched again as hundreds of people bathed themselves in the sludge that is the Ganges, swiping away the tangible grime on the water’s top layer to get to the green-brown water underneath. Others meditated, or chanted spiritual songs along the banks. Cremation continues 24 hours a day, on average burning 200 individuals per day. We learned that unless you are a pregnant woman, child, holy man or a pet, you are cremated, otherwise, you are brought to the center of the river, tied to a rock, and sunk. A few photos down, you will see a water buffalo having seen the same fate.
I’m not sure i have the words to describe what an insane, again – chaotic – experience Varanasi is, but damn, if it’s not something worth seeing.
There are endless other things to remember, but I’ll bullet a few for our memory later on:
- Eating THE BEST LASSiS in the entire world at Blue Lassi (again, as you sit and watch a stream of bodies being carried down for cremation), which are made from this tiny hole-in-the-wall shop created and poured with love into single-use terracotta bowls made daily by the hill people. After consuming the unbelievable goodness, you smash your bowl to the ground – which, while wasteful, is quite an enjoyable experience. Kev has been frequenting BL 2-3 times a day, but for 40 cents, who can blame him?
- Watching the River Worship ceremony with thousands
- The chaos of the streets (photos to be uploaded to Flickr and sound recordings)