Varanasi is a humid, colourful, charismatic mantle, for many who seek to gain a higher ground.
I was anxious to come to Varanasi.
I was told that it would be loud, manic, intrusive, sweltering hot, dirty, fast paced and chaotic. The smell of burning flesh will sting your nostrils, and the site of burning bodies will scar your eyes. Is this true? Not exactly.
Varanasi, known through out India as the Holiest city, to me was quite peaceful in a odd way, compared to what I had been told previously.
Yes, it was loud and chaotic at times, but what city in India isn't. I expected to have hoards of people around me at any one time, trying their best attempt to out-haggle one another, so I would use their services rather then those of their fellow Indian. It was pretty exciting and overwhelming at times, but nothing that should be made to deter people from visiting. Perhaps I only felt that way because I had my husband and travelling compadre Oliver with me. When your husband looks like Thor, the prospect of being harassed seems quite slim.
Some background knowledge of this ancient city to note, is just that, its old. Approx 4,500 years old. Not formally declared as the holiest city in India, but to many it may as well be. This unofficial title means that millions of people from all over the world gravitate to Varanasi every year. Pilgrimages flock to the Mother Ganga to pay their respects as loved ones, friends, and neighbourhood acquaintances are cremated. To be cremated in Varanasi is the last stop for those wanting to break the cycle of reincarnation and to spend an eternity in Nirvana. This profound and beautiful process is known as moksha.
A toasty 40 degree heat and a nice blanket of humidity is the general weather forecast for Varanasi. A walk to the Ghats, through back cobbled lanes amplify the humidity ten fold, and within seconds you're sweating bullets. This is a heat that can not be escaped, it is under your skin and you're uncomfortably sweaty from dawn till dusk. However, if you can see past this annoyance and make the most of Varanasi, you will find its beauty.
The back lanes spread all over Varanasi like the veins of India. Besides the odd enourmous Shiva bull unceremoniously blocking the way, the back lanes are home to many merchants selling traditional Saris, fabrics, jewellery, trinkets, street food and chai in abundance. Not long after arriving, it was evident we were head over heels in love with Varanasi. Oliver was patting almost every bull and stray dog that came our way, whilst we both had to stay alert to dodge the resident rhesus macaques. These little guys can be pretty intimidating, flaring up and snarling their fangs at you if you make them feel uneasy, or by accidentally (or intentionally) eye balling them too long.
Eventually, you emerge from the intricate maze and reach the Ghats. There are 87 Ghats lining the Ganga, most of which are used for bathing and worshipping, whilst only two of them are dedicated for cremating the dead. Manikarnika is the main ghat for cremations, with approx 300 bodies cremated every day around the clock in Varanasi.
I was expecting to have sensory over load by the smell of burning flesh and rubbish, partnered by a loud drum of noise. Fortunately, there was no discernible smell of burning flesh or unpleasant odour of rotting garbage, or a wall of noise to endure through. Instead, the smell of burning firewood lingers in the air, as cheers and jeers from the locals playing cricket on any available bank meets your ears. Truth be told, Its quite laid back for Indian standards.
Some back ground trivia for you following at home - the most expensive wood a loved one can buy for a cremation is Sandalwood. It costs roughly 75 rupees per kilo (just over $1.50AUD), with an estimate average of 300-500kg needed to completely cremate a single body. This may seem like small change for some, but for many natives, this is a steep cost with many finding it hard to front this sort of money (yet the majority do). The "Doms" have the official task of supplying the first 5 logs for the pyre and lighting the initial flame, which they then pass onto the family to light the pyre. The Doms have made a fine art of burning the dead, and have the time down to a tee. Three hours does the trick to cremate the average human. The hip bones and skull are particularly hard to burn, so any remains are gathered and thrown into the Ganges. The amount of corpses that are dumped in the river every year is close to the 100,000 mark. All at various stages of cremation or simply dumped with a rock tied to it (to keep from floating to the surface), if a cremation was not affordable by the family of the deceased. Apparently it's not uncommon to witness a bloated body or part there of, floating down stream. Luckily for Oli and I, we didn't witness floating bodies whilst in Varanasi. Either we were oblivious to them or there simply weren't any the few times we were out on the river.
The closest I was able to get to Manikarnika Ghat is from the water. Unfortunately, woman are not allowed in close proximity of the burning ghat because as the story goes; a distressed woman threw herself onto the burning corpse of a loved one and died. In a morbid way, I was slightly disgruntled knowing I wouldn't be able to experience a cremation up close and personal, and to see first hand this "moksha" taking place. The atmosphere around the pyres is calm and positive. Family members chant and sing as the body is prepared for cremation. It's definitely not a sad event, you will not see people crying uncontrollably and mourning like funerals most of us have attended at least once in our lives. In India It is a honour to be cremated, and loved ones are happy knowing you will reach Nirvana and spend an eternity at peace.
Besides the Ghats and the cremating of bodies, there is much to tell about our time here. Oliver and I witnessed the Ganga Aarti ceremony that takes place every day at Dashashwamedh Ghat. We watched it from the shoreline in a dingy wooden boat, with hundreds more crammed in to get a good view. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience and, after (whilst still in Australia) watching a documentary which really made me question my ability to handle the city, all the more incredible. The Ganga Aarti takes place every day at sunset. It is a a offering of fire to Lord Shiva as well as the Mother Ganga, and takes place riverside. Seeing the ceremony performed was a surreal experience, and one I am glad to tick off the bucket list. It almost made the profuse sweating bearable. I honestly can say I have never sweated so much in my life as I did, just sitting there, on a boat, not moving, in a vain attempt to avoid the one thing I found myself uncontrollably doing. Unfortunately, looking good in Varanasi is a thing of the past as the sweat beads down your neck and your back. Its unavoidable, and the sooner we accepted this fate, the sooner we were able to go on about our day.
A day trip out to Sarnath was magical. Sarnath is the first place that Buddha spoke to the public after reaching enlightenment. There are many temples and shrines here that can occupy your day, from the dominating presence of the Dhamek stupa, to the astoundingly gorgeous Japanese artwork inside the Mulagandha Kuti Viha. Oli loved the 1st century artefacts at the Sarnath Museum, but easily the highlight for me was when we met Ghandi. Not actually, but instead we met a uncanny resemblance in the form of the sweetest, tiniest, humblest, partly blind/deaf Indian man who wanted to talk to us about Buddhism. He spoke about Karma and of the need to help one another as you would wish to be looked after by your fellow earthling. He spoke about buddhism with such passion and joy it filled our hearts. He was happy to show us around one of the main temples and talked about the history. He could hardly walk up a step without a helping hand, but we (there was 5 of us in total) were touched by his eagerness to share his knowledge and gentleness with us. it is safe to se we were hooked on his inspiring words, and truly grateful for his time showing us around. I only wish I remembered his name.
We spent the rest of our lazy days making friends from our hostel, aptly named Stops*. With so many beautiful people around it broke our hearts when it was time to depart in opposite directions. A few to mention are Kyle the Canadian, Alby from New Zealand, Xiaoxiao from China, Joss from sunny England, Anna from Germany, Brig from the US, and Rick and Gareth, some fellows Aussies. (*I highly recommend any one who is travelling to Varanasi to stay at Stops Hostel. It's super clean, cheap, friendly, professionally run, helpful, advising, atmospheric, and a great hub to make new friends. For a bit extra they even have private rooms, and the included breakfast in all room prices is tops.) With sweltering heats peaking from midday to 2pm, at this time we would simply chill out in our common areas, or hibernate in the cool 18 degree-airconditioned-14 bed dorm talking about past and present adventures, or take full advantage of the lighting speed wifi.
Oli and I were lucky enough to be in a major city for the international Yoga Day that was held on the 21st June. We ventured out with a small group from our Hostel including Anil our hostel guide, and partook in a basic yoga class accomodating thousands of people at the Varanasi stadium. Out of this huge number of participants, we and our group of 10 friends seemed to be the only foreigners there. Obviously, we were spotted pretty quickly and found ourselves soon enough being photographed like celebrities and even interviewed for the paper. (If I could find the link I would share in with you all). Oli was being his usual positive self, happily getting snapped over and over, as I had a slightly more disgruntled look on my face as it was the surely the 1,000,192nd picture already taken. The selfie culture in India is huge. Monumentally huge. Oliver, being a 6'2, caucasian, long blonde hair, and blue eyed buff, is constantly stopped in his tracks by men so they can get a selfie with him. I on the other hand, get lots of little girls asking for my pic. So I'm happy to do so for them. Any one who is reading this and has been to India will know exactly what I'm talking about, at first its fun, but the novelty quickly wears off.
Well For our first blog entry Im going to leave it at that. There is so much more I could write about but I feel I might just be droning on. In a nutshell, I just want to say, India is crazy and like lots of places to travel in one must be careful and aware in, but its definitely not one that should be missed. The people, the places, the culture and the history is one that everybody needs to experience at least once in their lives.
Love & light.