I had been traveling in India for a few weeks now, and there were moments when I thought, in some small way, that I had it figured out. More than anything, India is a country of contrasts. One moment you find yourself overwhelmed by its beauty; the next you find yourself appalled by the neglect. It was always colorful, almost always noisy, usually crowded and never dull. It was with this background that I found myself on the banks of the Ganges River in the place I most yearned to see in India, Varanasi.
Varanasi is India’s holiest of cities and is thought by many historians to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. According to legend, Varanasi, also known as Benares, was founded by the Hindu god Shiva over 5,000 years ago. It is near here where Lord Buddha founded Buddhism by giving his first sermon after enlightenment in 528 BCE. Mark Twain, when he visited Varanasi said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Over 120 years after Mr. Twain’s visit, it doesn’t seem that much has changed.
We awoke long before dawn so we could go down to the Ganges to witness the sunrise. We had to step our way through throngs of vendors, pilgrims dressed in holy garb, gamins, beggars and holy cows; peacefully sleeping in little herds on the street. The pre-dawn air was filled with the aroma of treats cooking on charcoal grills, car exhausts, chai tea, sandalwood, sewage, and jasmine. As we emerged from the short hike from the streets onto the ghats (a wide set of stairs leading down to the river), the sky was beginning to change from the black of night to the purple of twilight.
Under the bright incandescent street lights, I could see crowds of devout performing their daily Pujas and showing reverence to their various gods and spirits through prayer, mantra, and song. They burned incense, made offerings of food and flowers, and for a western novice, performed other mysterious rituals. In the dirty water of the holy Ganges worshipers bathed, not to clean themselves, but to wash away their sins. It was one of the most fascinating scenes I have ever witnessed.
“Sat”, our guide from On the Go Tours, led us to the water’s edge and onto an old rowboat that we took onto the river. There was a young girl, maybe eight years old, there to sell us, for only a few cents, tiny handmade candles in small paper boats that we could light and place on the sacred waters so that we too could wash away our sins.
From our viewpoint, on the river, we could watch as Varanasi awoke. Between the bathers, workers were beating dirty laundry on rocks; vendors of cheap trinkets rowed their boats alongside tour boats in the hopes of unloading some wares; and colorfully dressed Sadhus, with beaded beards, painted faces and garlands of marigolds watched as the sun rose above the far shore.
After the boat trip, entranced by the spectacle that was happening before me, I elected to let the others go back to the hotel for breakfast, while I stayed behind to wander. For less than a few dollars, I bought some water and samosas from a street vendor, found a place to sit on the steps and watched the odd pageant before me. It didn’t take long until a skinny street urchin found me and struck up a conversation. Improbably, he told me his name was Phil.
Phil quickly explained to me that he wasn’t a guide. (Apparently, you can get into big trouble for being an unlicensed guide.) He said he just wanted to talk to me and maybe, later, he could take me to see his shop. I could tell right away that he was a little hustler, but his English was good, and I found it interesting talking to him. As we walked along watching the activity on the different ghats, it was evident the Phil was somewhat well-known, if not well regarded, among locals and tourists alike. It was incredible to watch him switch casually from Hindi to German, to French, to Spanish, or Mandarin as we passed other travelers at different landmarks.
Eventually, we came upon the Manikarnika funeral ghat where Varanasi, and much of India, cremates its corpses on wood fires along the Ganges. Phil introduced me to the funeral director who offered to take me on a tour. Hiding my reluctance, the director and I began walking among the pyres, and soon my initial hesitance changed into fascination. Over 400 bodies are burned to ash at Manikarnika on any given day, and it is widely believed that being cremated in Varanasi can bring merit and break the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. What I thought might be a small trauma to witness turned out to be somewhat life-affirming; uplifting even. At the end of my tour, I made a small donation to help cover the cost of wood for the indigent, terminal patients who were waiting to die at the hospice next to the fires.
Phil met me on the other side of the Manikarnika ghats. I was a bit overawed by the experience, and I explained to him that I wanted to spend some time exploring on my own. To my surprise, he immediately acquiesced to my request and said, “Okey Dokie, you come by my shop later?” I agreed, having no idea where “his shop” was, but I knew that somehow he would find me later.
Eventually, I arrived at what appeared to be the last ghat and turned away from the river to explore the back streets and alleyways. Here there were dozens of guesthouses and flophouses dotting the narrow corridors, each seemingly with its own brightly signs giving direction from the recesses of the warren of passageways. Shopkeepers stood behind wooden counters selling cheap American cigarettes, Kingfisher beers, Coca-Cola and packages of crisps. Around one corner, I encountered a massive bull, lying casually on the path, uninterested in me and undisturbed by his surroundings.
Eventually, I made my way through the alleys to some of the upstream ghats and encountered men using gasoline-powered pumps attached to large fire hoses to wash away silt that was deposited on the ghats during last summer’s monsoonal floods back into the river. This area was also the area where laundry was hand washed in the brown water of the river to amazingly clean looking whites.
I continued wandering the colorful back streets and alleyways with no purpose other than absorbing the feel of the city. I sat and watched the snake charmers pose for photos with tourists, women in brightly colored saris strolling together with no particular destination in mind and multiple generations of families walking to the river to bathe and perform blessings.
Eventually, Phil spotted me again asked that I go to his shop, so I followed him. Turns out that his “family shop” was a well-known carpet seller. I explained to Phil that I was not interested in carpets, but the seller was persistent and I looked around, trying as best I could, to admire the handiwork. Eventually, Phil and the carpet man were convinced that, although I thought the carpets were beautiful, I wasn’t going to buy one. Phil started to slink away, but I called him back and gave him a small tip. He bowed slightly when I handed it to him, and he left again. It was then that the shop owner told me, “If you want a really good deal. Next time, don’t bring the boy.”
I had had an early start, so I decided to get a pedicab back to my hotel and rejoin with my On the Go Travel group. On the way back my driver stopped at his family’s street side chai tea stand. I sat and had my tea while his children laughed and practiced their English on me. Someone brought some freshly cooked pakora, and we all just sat around laughing, drinking tea and eating for almost an hour. I understood almost none of their Hindi, but they were happy to continue practicing their English.
Later that evening “Sat” arranged for us to take pedicabs back to the river to witness a special Ganga Aarti; a special ceremony worshiping the Ganges. He had reserved space on the rooftop of a riverfront restaurant and we had front row seats from which to watch the festivities. There were tens of thousands of celebrants there, chanting, ringing bells, lighting fireworks and otherwise just enjoying the evening. It was quite mesmerizing.
Varanasi is a place that you can resist and feel overwhelmed and intimidated by, or you can give in, accept the city’s weirdness and many charms and make some treasured memories. Varanasi was one of the most disquieting places I visited in India. It was also one of my favorites.