The day started out like many others on our journey with the frantic jamming of clothing into our bags and the race to the airport to catch yet another flight. It also ended like many others with a deeper insight and greater understanding of a certain place and its people. But still, something was different about this day..only, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
A short flight transported us from the chaos of New Dehli into the spiritual center of Varanasi. We didn’t know what to expect, but what we found was far from what we imagined. Previous research led me to the conclusion that Varanasi was a begrimed pit, a squalid city lacking a true reason to visit. How these misconceptions could be communicated is beyond me.
A driver and tour guide, arranged through the US Embassy in Delhi, whisked us immediately to our hotel to prepare for two days journeying through one of the most spiritual places in India. Once settled in at Varanasi’s Ramada (yes, those are still in operation), we set out to explore the afternoon and evening rituals on the River Ganges.
Like two wide-eyed, lost souls we peered through the dust-covered windows from the backseat of an old, 4-door sedan with seat covers stretched beyond their limit in an attempt to mask the holes in the worn interior. The chaos beyond the windows rivaled that of Delhi, but in its own unique, indescribable way. At the same time, it was haunting. More beggars lined the streets, and more visibly diseased people sat in the streets atop a white powdered chemical compound spread each night to quell the raging bacteria that must result from the melee of filth in the streets.
Still, I looked beyond the heart-wrenching shortcomings of the city and into its true soul. Varanasi is to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims. The River Ganges, running through the heart of Varanasi, is the ultimate pilgrimage site for Hindus, and the Ganges serves as their ultimate eternal resting place. The dozens of narrow alleyways that surround the dense development around the river are filled with vibrant color, vendors and the occasional children chasing each other along the narrow, uneven pathways.
It would have been enchanting, and would become more so as our time in Varanasi wore on, however, the stench of feces stung my nostrils as I walked with my head down intently focused on missing the steaming piles in the narrow alleyways or the stones still wet with urine. A thick layer of remaining white chemical powder sprinkled in the gutters may have killed bacterial growth and stopped the spread of disease, but it the did nothing to mask the wretched smell.
Still, I was enthralled with this unusually enchanting place. There was an indescribable sensation accompanying our journey here. We were witnessing a centuries-old tradition; it was as if we were invisible yet surrounded with deeply-rooted traditions and passionate spirituality. Even along the chaotic main street running through Varanasi there was a sense of purpose, a direction.
Our movement was one with the hundreds of people walking in a mass along the street. Very few dodged into shops rather the majority seemingly all headed to the same destination. Our guide led us first to the largest and most prominent of Varanasi’s more than 80 ghats, or entry points into the holy Ganges river.
Flooding forced the swollen river and its polluted waters high over the stone steps of the narrow ghat. Our guide, dressed in grey slacks and red dress shirt, pushed his way through the crowds creating just enough space for us to make our way through before the gap quickly succumbed to the dozens of people surrounding it.
As we pushed our way to the waters edge, I was overcome with emotion. Again, I found myself standing witness to one of the world’s most time-tested traditions. As I stood at the foot of the filthy water watching men, women and children take what may be their once-in-a-lifetime dip into the holy water, I tried to absorb the enormity of this moment in my life. Like at so many other points in this journey, I found myself witnessing a moment, experiencing a place and gaining a better understanding into something I once found to be so foreign. The moment was fleeting and seconds later I found myself being pushed and shoved as people made their way down to the water and we made our way back down the crowded main street.
Darkness blanketed the river and quieted the chaos as a heavy rain began to fall delaying the evening ceremony we were set to see. Our cheap umbrellas did little to keep the rain off our backs and we dodged into the shell of a nearby building. Virtually no locals surrounded us; instead, dozens of tourists filled a dilapidated building perched just above the river’s now raging waters.
The rain eventually let up and the evening ceremony, which is touted as a local tradition but seemed more like a tourist show sans the often costly tickets, began. It felt cold and mechanical, and after only 15 minutes of watching the men toss fire-filled, silver snakes high into the air before dropping them methodically down in a circular motion – we were done.
With darkness still lulling the city to stay asleep, the buzz of our alarm jolted us from slumber at 4am. We stumbled through the darkness and into the lobby where both our driver and guide were waiting. Our car wound through the rugged, potholed streets and past dozens of men sleeping atop their bicycle rickshaws and women and children covered with thin blankets lying on cardboard spread across the side of the road. My heart broke. During the day, life moves at a hectic pace and these men, women and children fill the street like all others. I never imagined so many of them didn’t have a place to call home.
As we made our way through the once-crowded streets, the fresh chemical powder spread overnight clung to our shoes. We moved once again toward … ghat, where pilgrims were already gathered, each taking a ritual dip into the dirty water. This time we learned more of their journey.
It just so happened we were in Varanasi during Shravan Month, the month dedicated to Lord Shiva and the holiest month on the Hindu calendar. Hundred’s of Shiva devotees, each clad in orange, walked hundreds of miles to take a dip into the holy waters and in many instances bring a vile back to their village.
We moved from ghat to ghat, eventually taking a moment to sit upon the massive stone steps and simply watch the magnificent scene unfold before us. As we sat upon the steps that faded into the murky green waters just a few feet below, the devotee behind us puffed ganja. His dark skin, worn like dry leather, was barely visible through the smoke rising from his pipe, his eyes weary from exhaustion but his gaze steady on the holy river.
With the sun giving way to heat that drew a prickle from our skin, we moved toward our final stop along the river – the cremation grounds. The narrow alleyway gave way to a maze of wood piles, and our guide passed us off to one of the men running the cremations. He led us from behind the piles to a series of platforms perched above the water’s edge. As we emerged, ashes fluttered from high above and fell gracefully to the ground while blanketing our clothing.
My camera remained at my side out of respect, and we moved closer to the platforms and the waters edge. There was no smell expect for that of smoldering wood. Still, the flames danced around the bodies laid atop the piles of wood. There was little remaining of some, the white sheet once covering their faces singed away; others were recently added to the platform and beneath the covering the outline of a full body remained.
It didn’t bother me as I first thought it would. I was, however, unable to swallow the knot in my throat. Why it was there, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the result of trying to digest the gravity of the situation. Maybe watching the bodies being cremated brought back the painful memory of loved ones lost. Either way, I stood in silence as simply watching the men work the flames and wood beneath the bodies as the man who led us to the edge urged us to walk upon the platform itself. I could already feel the heat of the flame, the ashes in my hair and on my clothing were growing – there was no need to go closer. I felt the spirituality and the faith involved and understood the tradition and history from 30 yards instead of five.
As we walked back to the car to return to our hotel for breakfast, the city began once again to come life.
The remainder of our day was spent outside Varanasi at sites holy to Buddhists, including Sarnath where after reaching enlightenment the Buddha gave his first sermon to five disciples, his friends at the time.
As the sun fell to the horizon we boarded a flight bound once again for New Delhi knowing very well the culture and pace of the city wouldn’t energize us as Varanasi had.