Varanasi, India - One Of The Oldest Cities On Earth
Posted on Jan 20, 2009
This entry is from my time in Varanasi about a month ago. It's a long read but ends with a bang. =)
The next stop on our journey to see the "real" India took us by bus from Hampi to Bangalore and then by plane to the legendary city of Varanasi . We thought we had learned how to have a better ride on the overnight sleeper buses and made sure to book a private, second floor bunk near the front of the bus. In the end this bus ride turned out to be pure hell for Irena as she was extremely car sick the whole way (due to the fact that we were higher off the ground). She also had to pee quite often but the bus never stopped and the driver was in a locked cabin which people had to bash on to get his attention to request a stop.
After a very tough trip to Bangalore we ended up stumbling across a Hardrock Cafe and decided to treat ourselves to a seriously decedent meal of burgers, onion rings and stiff drinks. The price tag in Indian money was outrageous, but when converted to Canadian dollars it was well worth the price for a short time escape from the rigors of the trip. I have to say however that while sitting there eating our fancy meal, on the left I see this autographed guitar by the whole Pink Floyd band, and on the right out the window I see street people begging to stay alive… it was just another moment of intense contrast that sinks it’s teeth into you. Following along in the spirit of our rough transportation epics we somehow ended up in an open sided rickshaw taking us to the Bangalore airport very early the next morning. We had tried to arrange for a proper taxi, but that was simply foolish on our part to expect the "hotel" staff to actually do as we had asked the night before and have one waiting for us, and so in a panic we found ourselves freezing our asses off zipping down a freeway at 30 km/hr. ARGH!
Once in Varanasi , we began the process of exploring our surroundings and trying to get a sense of this incredibly ancient and sacred city. Varanasi, also commonly known as Benares or Banaras, is a city situated on the left (west) bank of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is regarded as holy by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
The culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the River Ganges and the river's religious importance. The city has been a cultural and religious center in northern India for several thousand years, and Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath which is very close by. American writer Mark Twain wrote: " Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Because of its history and spiritual significance, Varanasi is a very popular tourist destination for those going to India . For myself I knew that it was not going to be a place to simply go and "see"... it was going to be a place to "experience" and letting go of expectations when it comes to travel is exactly what Varanasi is good for. I found at times my sensibilities were offended by the blatant disregard by the people who lived there for the river itself (it is EXTREMELY TOXIC), the street animals, and their fellow citizens. The ideals of the Hindu religion are incredibly lofty but seem to be very strangely at odds with the reality they exist in. All the while I was thinking these thoughts as I strolled around, I realsied that my point of view was completely colored by the culture I have been raised in, and although I was aware of this it was still very hard to shake.
I think that Varanasi was like my whole experience in India all compressed into one place. What I mean is that throughout India I was expecting some single event to send me over the edge or shock me but no one thing ever did. Rather, it was an accumulation of things that in the end began to overwhelm me both physically and mentally. I know now in hindsight that it was the contrasting moments that came in quick succession which were tough for me to process. An example of this would be coming across little street children laughing and running about while flying their home made paper kites, then around the next corner coming across a woman holding her baby begging for food. Not all aspects of my being left India in rough shape however, as the days go by I am extremely thankful to realize that on a spiritual level I have taken away many gifts and insights which I will continue to explore for a long while to come.
An hour before sunset one evening we rented a small row boat along with a guide and an oarsman and they took us up along the river to see the cremations taking place as the sun set. It is the desire of every single Hindu person in India to have their body cremated here and considering there are nearly 1 billion Hindus in India , the number of bodies being burned is incredible… I did a rough calculation and on the one main burning ghat (concrete pier) alone around 48 people per day are cremated and that is only one of many cremation sites in India . It also takes a lot of wood to burn a body: The demand for funeral pyres strips the country of more than 50 million trees annually, according to some estimates.
The sight of the cremations as well as seeing the floating animal corpses in the river was of course shocking (animals, even as large as cows, are not cremated, but simply left out in the middle of the Ganga ). As the sun went down however we next went to watch a group of priests perform the evening ceremony of "Agni Pooja" (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, the River Ganga, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. The bells, chanting and singing were very hypnotic and the whole experience for me was truly incredible, especially to see it from out on the water. At the end of the ceremony people lit small candles which they placed in the river as an offering to float away in their small banana leave bowls. To take part in a ritual which has been happening for thousands and thousands of years was both incredibly humbling but also very hard to contemplate and I have a feeling that the memory of it will be with me forever.
Of course, India was not going to let me leave this very special place without its own unique way of saying goodbye. One of THE craziest things I have ever had happen to me just so happened to take place in Varanasi . I was using a long distance phone booth which was located in a small building, and I was making a call back to Canada to a friend who was in the hospital, so it was a very important and personal call. I had only just made it through on the line, and as I was talking there began to be a soupy fluid which started out as a drip but then quickly increased to a decent flow, coming from a hole in the roof of the phone booth and landing directly onto the phone which was sitting on the small table in front of me. Now this booth was very tiny, and the phone cord was very short, and as the soupy fluid was hitting the phone it was splattering all over the place including all over my chest, some on my face, and I was trying to back away from it and tell my friend that I had to hang up but they couldn't hear me and I didn't want to just be rude and simply hang up on him but... the fluid was EXTREMELY foul smelling, to the point where I began to gag and I tried my best not to let any of the splattering hit my face or get into my mouth.
Finally I got off the phone and backed away out of the phone booth, and I turned to the man who owned the shop and tried to explain to him that sewage basically just rained down on me while I was on the phone and he gave me this totally puzzled look, then opened the booth door and he too reeled back from the stench. So then he simply grabbed a dry rag and began to wipe down the phone and the table and just plug it back in and "business as usual", but I told the guy "no way, get me another phone and not in that booth!". While he was sorting it out, I noticed that the top of the booth did not reach up to the ceiling of the room, and there were no exposed pipes so where the sewage was coming from did not make any sense. Just then, on top of the booth, I saw these two scruffy skinny ears, then these two HUGE eyes and finally a tiny pink nose and then I had this emaciated and obviously very sick and scared street cat looking down at me. Well it wasn't rocket science to realize that the cat had just either barfed, gotten diarrhea, or both, while on top of the booth and was the source of my torture. The owner saw what I was looking at and swatted the little creature with a broom and the cat went skittering out the door into the street, skin and bones a blur.
The thing that makes this one event even more memorable (not possible, right?) is that it came the night before we were due to leave Varanasi, and the coat I was wearing while on the phone was essential for me the next day on a 6 hour train journey which was freezing cold. The whole train ride I could smell the sewage all over my chest, and I could not have washed it off the night before because it was only possible to hang dry clothes and the weather was far too cold for it to have dried in one night. To put this in perspective even more, Varanasi in particular was also a place that was literally covered with feces and we did our utmost to try and not end up with it smeared all over our belongings and bodies. Every time we went out for a stroll, we had to dodge buffalo, dog, and human waste which was either just plopped in a pile on the sidewalks or oozing from leaking sewage drains out across the walkways. No matter how high we rolled our pants, how many showers we had or how often we washed our shoes, it was simply a losing battle trying to keep ourselves feces free. So in the end, for me to have to leave with a coat covered with shit/barf/piss, and then to have to wear it to stay warm all the next day with the smell of it right under my nose, well that was how India slowly wore me down.
Many people had told me that India for them was a very love hate experience, and now that I have been there I can fully understand why.But I also think that for me a type of awareness is created in the space that exists between the experiences that make a person love and hate a place, and in that awareness resides the greatest opportunities for personal growth and the creation of life long memories.
For our next stop in India we chose the mythical mountain town of Rishikesh, also along the River Ganges but further to the north and closer to it’s headwaters. Know as a much cleaner and more relaxed version of Varanasi, as well as the Yoga capital of the world, we were ready for somewhere a bit less intense.