Varanasi is quintessential India. Synonymous with the Ganges river, mother Ganga. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world. The home of Lord Shiva. The heart of the Hindu religion. A place of life and death, simultaneously sacred and profane.
It’s all terribly dramatic, and Roman and I both bought into it in our own ways. He’s been very relaxed about our India itinerary, but after everything he’d heard about Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Kashi), he was determined to see it for himself. I’d been told about the intensity of this city too, but was happy that it was on the itinerary for my group trip back in September.
Having 48 hours we only got to sample a smattering of the city – Varanasi-light. Still, those two days were among the most theatrical, colorful and crowded of the three week journey.
The sacred Buddhist site and artifacts outside the city at Sarnath. A dramatic arrival first by cycle-rickshaw through chaotic night markets and then by foot during the narrow, twisting, pitch black alleyways (there must have been a blackout that night, because the same streets did have some lighting upon my return) of the old town to arrive at Dasaswamedh Ghat all lit up by the luminous evening Hindu ceremony on the Ganges River. Up at 4:45 the next morning to witness the sun rising over the sacred waters. Going through the security check to catch a glimpse of the Golden Temple and Silver Mosque. Drinking spicy chai at silk shops from doll-sized ceramic bowls. An afternoon in the company of an articulate but elusive street boy named Deepak, trying not to get lost as we walked around the sun-baked markets and shadowed old town.
It was wonderful and intense and yet I admit I felt a certain relief after we left. Two days in Varanasi and I made it out without seeing anything more shocking than a dead pig floating in the Ganges during our morning boat ride. Allegedly the most moving place in India: been there, done that, and made it out unscathed and – surprised at the relief at this realization – without getting near the burning ghats.
Still, I’m not sure why I felt so very nervous as Roman and I discussed and organized our trip there. Or why I felt waves of skittishness while we were there, even as I was able to take in the city’s beauty. It’s still nothing I can logically identify or understand, but gradually during our days there I was able to just accept it, and eventually relax more and more.
There was lots I loved – the peaceful view of the ghats and river from high atop the Dolphin Restaurant, the squishy coziness of the Brown Bread Bakery (with awesome bread and the best coffee in town, it became our morning ritual. Especially sweet was the little mouse that lived in and among the cushions), and especially the vibrant, colorful life in the labyrinth that is the old town.
But the burning ghats, sites of 24-hour a day cremation and funeral rituals, made my spirit squirm. Conceptually I have no issue with it – I appreciate the beauty and importance of the ritual and I am as at peace with the concept of death as the average person. I didn’t feel massively uncomfortable with seeing the funeral pyres and being passed in the streets by the processions bearing the bodies to the river didn’t faze me at all. But at each visit to the location of the burning ghats, this instinct rose in me after a few minutes: I wanna get out of here now please!!
While I don’t understand what this was about, what I can say after my second visit to Varanasi is: been there, done that, spent a lot more time at the burning ghats than I thought I could handle – and made it out unscathed. In fact, I even found more to love about the city than during my first visit.
Highlights from the second visit
We just happened to arrive in perfect timing for the spectacular Hindu festival Dev Deepavali. This link can tell you more about the religious significance than I can, but what I can say is that it was simply magical. Roman played hardball and negotiated a fantastic price with a boatman so we were able to watch all the action from the Ganges.
We pushed off from shore just before sunset and watched the riverside come alive with music, ceremonies, parties and lights. The ghats were packed with an incomprehensible number of people.
Nearly every ghat on the riverside was alight with thousands upon thousands of small oil lamps. A small stream of paper lanterns were drifting in the sky above the water and everyone was reflecting the lights on the ghats by setting small leaf bowls filled with marigolds and a lit oil candle to float on the water of the Ganges as an offering. Everything was warmth and beauty and a million points of shimmering lights. An absolutely incredible sight to see.
Especially striking to me was the wave of heat and smell of the oil from the lamps when we walked up the ghats after our boat ride and the fact that the biggest party of all – massive speakers blasting incredibly loud, joyful bhangra music and a ghat throbbing with a dancing crowd – was right next to one of the burning ghats.
The old town
During my first visit, we stayed in a nice hotel outside the city center and away from the action. This time, Roman and I were in the midst of the old town, the tangle of streets too narrow for any vehicle bigger than bikes or hand drawn carts. I’m pleased to say that even Roman got lost in these streets, and we had a great time wandering around, trying to find our way and discovering unexpected nooks and crannies along the way.
I loved these explorations so much. There is so much life going on in those narrow streets, so much to see. And still there were unexpected moments of stillness and peace too. Finding an ancient tree growing out of a decrepit rooftop, a shaft of sunshine managing to find a way to pierce the shadowed alleys, walking and chatting with a schoolgirl through quiet lane.
Varanasi seemed to be full of philosophers and of people looking out for us.
Folks were so eager to share the history and meaning behind the traditions. We had many willing teachers on the topic of the burning ghats. “Cremation is education; burning is learning” is something we heard over and over again.
So many of the Indians we met there warned us that there were plenty of unsavory characters in Varanasi; that we had to keep our guard up. But any time we looked the slightest bit lost, people would approach us to give directions. When cows blocked our path in the narrow streets, folks would come to help get them moving. People were happy to help and I found support and company even as I was feeling nervous at the burning ghats.
I had gone there with Roman but didn’t feel comfortable staying as long as he wanted to. A lovely, chilled out young guy named Deepu kept me company just outside the burning ghats while Roman took in the sights. He told me lots about the funeral ceremony and Varanasi in general, and about his German girlfriend and his dreams to move to Jamaica and we laughed and smiled together in the sunlight and were eventually joined by some lovely old men who were there to bathe and who enthusiastically explained the ceremony to me all over again. After they all left, a tough little boy about ten years old came up to me and let me fly his kite while spitting out streams of brown chewing tobacco juice and getting into scrapes with his friends and other kids on the ghats. It was so sweet to receive all that unconditional company and it really did me good.
Around the burning ghats
As challenging as it was for me to be at the cremation ghats, I was still in awe of all the life that happened directly in the face of the ceremonies of death. Just next of the ghats, people carried on the business of living in earnest. Pilgrims bathed. Children played. Laundry was washed. Food was prepared, sold, eaten. Widows with their shaved heads moved through the old town’s alleyways, gossiping and shopping with apparent relish. Even directly at the ghats, mourners were talking on cell phones, people were playing cards, cows and dogs were wandering among the pyres on the constant lookout for food. I am sure there must have been people there who were sad for their departed loved ones, but we sure didn’t see them. There was one funeral procession we happened upon that was preceded by musicians playing celebratory music. Roman had been told when the departed person is past a certain age, the funeral becomes a happy celebration for a long life, well lived. Seems like a great idea to me.