Saturday, June 19, 2010


The time you spend traveling around this massive country is astounding: 7 hrs in a jeep, 14 hrs on a bus, 19 hrs on a train. The roads are slow, the traffic heavy and the distances vast, and we’ve never even undertaken one of those 40 hr. train rides you hear people talking about to get across the entire country. To get from Sikkim to our next destination, the holy city of Varanasi, we took a 6 hr. jeep ride to Darjeeling, another 5 hr jeep ride to Siliguri from there, a 19 hr train ride, an hour-long auto-rickshaw ride and finally a bicycle rickshaw ride to get to the Vishnu Guesthouse, above the Hanuman Ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi.

As you ride through the streets of Varanasi, the energy of this holy Hindu city that has been continuously inhabited for over 3000 years, and whose cremation pyres have been burning for over 2000 years is mesmerizing. In addition, you are hit with a constant stream of annoying touts, who are famous for their scams, aggressiveness, rudeness, and ruthlessness in this city. We got our first taste of one when our bicycle rickshaw driver, instead of taking us to our chosen guest house, took us instead to one of his buddies in a different direction who tried to sell us a guest house in order to get a commission. After yelling at them both using expletives that, best for all involved were probably not understood, we took our massive backpacks went the rest of the way on foot, not trusting any of these thieves, through the narrow maze of alleyways crowded with shops, people, garbage and cows, to our guesthouse. More that 30 hrs after starting our journey we finally lay our packs down, in the searing heat of the city, gathering forces to take on this city for the next few days.

No other place in India, and perhaps the world, is as in-your-face and brutally naked as Benares (Varanasi). It is the heart of the Hindu faith, a city that runs along the river which contains the water that cleanses the soul, and brings Moksha – enlightenment – to those who die here. The city may have an ancient soul, but its buildings and infrastructure is relatively new, having been pillaged, burned and laid ruined to multiple times, the last assault by the Moghuls in the 15th and 16th century. Varanasi is also ungodly hot, with summer temperatures soaring near 50 degrees Celsius (well over 100 degrees F).

We gave ourselves 2 days, despite the depth of this city, thinking that with the heat, the annoying touts, the stench and filth of the place, a few days would be all that we could handle. The holy Ganges river unfortunately is also one of India’s most polluted places.

Varanasi is the confluence point of the four rivers that make up the sources of the Ganges. Each of these rivers is said to be created from a drop of the holy amrita (nectar) sprinkled by the gods at the beginning of time. In reality, with damming and farming, it is estimated that less then 1 percent of these source waters actually reach Varanasi. Furthermore, along with the 32 open pipes in Varanasi alone that dump sewage directly into the river, multiple industrial sites along the river dump large quantities of waste. This, coupled with millions of offerings, people washing clothes, bathing, animal and human excrement and the dead bodies and cremated remains dumped into the river, it is no wonder this place is destroyed. To put it into perspective, normal bathing water has a bacterial count of 500 E-coli per liter of water; the water of the Ganges has 1,500,000 per liter. Of course, this doesn’t stop the natives, pilgrims, herds of water buffalo, and hordes of devotees from bathing, praying, drinking, gargling, cooking, frolicking, laundering, swimming, and prostrating themselves in the putrid, sacred water. Almost all travelers get sick in Varanasi, and so, even though we have been blessed with iron stomachs, (probably by the divine intervention of Vishnu, Shiva or maybe just 4 months in Africa), we decided to play it safe and not drink tea or eat too close to the river in which the wallahs most likely collect water to boil and wash their glasses.

The best way to see Varanasi is from a boat on the river, which you can hire readily. From there you can watch the pilgrims and residents descend to the river at dawn and dusk to perform Puja, or devotion, mostly unmolested by touts, save the occasional boat-propelled salesman. However, the alleyways, and riverbank ghats are also interesting to tour on foot. Timing is also important, as between 9 am and 5 pm the heat is so oppressive one just has to lay low in the shade with a cool glass of mango juice. We awoke our first morning at 6 am and walked north along the river, along the various ghats, watching pilgrims “swim,” bathe, prostate, do laundry, or fish by the sewer pipes. Every ghat also has a temple, in which a lingum, a phallic representation of the god Shiva, has offerings made to it. The light in the early morning is magical. As the heat of the day rose to a crescendo, we left the shadeless river and made our way through the more shaded alleyways and markets of Varanasi to the modern part of the city, where we found a hotel that would let us wallow in their pool during the hot hours of the day.

We walked back to the river in the evening via the Muslim quarter, where silk cloth is woven by hand and on mechanized looms, to watch the ceremony that takes place every sunset at the main Dashaswamedh ghat. In the ceremony, a dozen priests perform devotion and blessing to music and crowds with incense, fire, flower petals and choreographed dance. From a distance we could see the fires of Manikarnika ghat, the buring ghat, the most auspicious place to be cremated in Hindu tradition. After the ceremony we made our way to those very burning ghats, one of the most intense places we have ever been. The most sacred place to be burned in the Hindu faith, the ghat has been in continuous operation for over 2000 years. Specific roles are played by priests, family members and the untouchable cast who set the body on a pyre of sandlewood after having dipped the body in the Ganges. Then, visible to all, and naked as the day the person came into the world, the body is set aflame and burns for 3 hours exactly. Afterwards, a remain of the body, usually a piece of bone is found in the fire by the priest, who passes it using 2 sticks to the elder son who tosses it into the river. The place is heavy and mesmerizing, and not for the weak of stomach or constitution, and raises many an existential thought.

The next morning we woke up at 5 am and found a boat man who would take us up and down the river to watch the action from the water. The sunrise created magical light as the throngs of devotees descended upon the banks in the ancient tradition. From stoned Sadus, men dressed in orange robes with shockingly white hair and long beards who have renounced all material goods and possessions, to mourners, to frolicking Indians on vacation/pilgrimage, the river ghats were chock-full of people and color, filth and flower petals. We floated peacefully by the waters, which provided endless opportunities for photos and people watching.

That afternoon we bade farewell to this special place, and whether one hates it or loves it, Varanasi leaves a stamp upon the soul and questions in the heart. We made our way back in the searing heat that burns any exposed skin to the train station and a blissfully air-conditioned sleeper car to the capital: New Delhi.

To see more pictures of Varanasi, please click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment