A little downbeat from my departure in Nepal, Varanasi didn’t look to be off to a good start. But what a beautiful city to help pick me back up. Completely intimidated by horror stories of muggings and beatings, I was a little uncertain about how India would greet me. My late flight meant that I landed in darkness and was blind to my new surroundings. The car journey was silent at first, passing the dimly lit streets to see dogs and cows littering the pavements and men working idly on islands in the centre of the road, ignoring the deafening horns from every kind of vehicle imaginable. Either side of the road I witnessed vendors shouting across to each other as they bartered and battled for the best prices. I can only describe my first moments as something similar of the eyes widening of a child entering a toy store. I felt illuminated by my surroundings and inspired once again, like I had been when I first entered Nepal.
By daylight, Varanasi was altogether a new place than the evening before. Streets bustling with shops, street food, traffic and the colour… Varanasi was an overwhelming city abundant with colour and such rich colours at that! From buildings along the Ganges to the designs on fabric, dressing some of the most amazing women I’ve ever seen. Even when it came to the warm smiles I received when interacting with vendors and locals, either when purchasing or even asking for photos, Varanasi was, for me, the warm welcome I needed from tearful goodbyes and horrors I’d been warned of. Unfortunately my time in India will have been short one. Having only two weeks to cover as much ground as possible, my first morning was spent on the inside of a train station attempting to book my tickets for the entire trip. Despite my fears about not managing to get tickets, I managed to book all of them successfully, hassle-free! The planned itinerary was from Varanasi to Agra, to Jaipur to Jaisalmer, and finally to Delhi.
Taking a tuk tuk down to the main ghat just before sunset, the streets were crammed – an entire road full of locals and tourists alike shopping. Reaffirming what I said previously, the moon and street lights only accentuated the vivid colours seen during the day. There was no one trying to drag me into their store to buy a landmarked t-shirt or a souvenir because the shops were mainly directed at locals, with fabrics, tailor-made sari’s and freshly cooked delights! Down by the ghat itself, locals and tourists alike mingled and prepared themselves for the Ganga Aarti festival that was about to begin.
This festival of light is in order to acquire a power from the deity. Priests will perform a ceremony in clockwise rotation with candles and fire. In Hindu culture, they believe that the river is home the most Holy Goddess, Maa Ganga. The fire is used as a symbol for an offering to her and participate in order to receive blessing from her.The light display was simply compelling as they began to light more and more objects. The part for me that was especially touching was when they lowered the candle tree into the crowd for the locals sat at the front to light. Everyone was trying to be the one to light the candles to be able to participate in the show and have their little imprint and control on what was happening. When the chosen few were decided and began to light the tree, the rest didn’t complain or push or moan, they united holding the hand of the person with the candle, joining with them in support and compassion.
After the spectacular show, myself and a couple from the hostel decided to walk along the ghats and found ourselves on one of the burning ghats. For Westerners, this ritual is something very different to what we are used to. This ritual is to directly release the soul from the body, so not to have the soul reincarnated as a lesser form like an insect or animal. It’s a cold harsh reality when you are face to face with death, of which a lot of us are unfamiliar. The thing that is so shocking for me was the exploitation of something that is supposedly so holy and spiritual. No more than 200 metres away, we observed the beginning of the ritual where the body is first dipped into the Ganges for purification. During this time, someone came over to us and began to talk to us about this process and what everything meant. Within a few minutes we were offered to approach closer as they were about to place the body into the fire. Having declined, I remained where I was whilst the other two stepped forward. It was such a foreign concept for me, initially because I’ve not experienced much personal loss in my time, but also to have such a public display for something I perceive to be so private. This particular ritual had a woman present, along with a lot of police, and it was explained that he was a respected member of the force and that is why this woman was allowed to be present when usually women are forbidden. Watching her being removed from the ceremony for crying not only felt intrusive, but felt cruel to get any closer when the dearest relatives weren’t welcome. It may seen naive to say, but I feel like Hinduism almost has a disassociation or a displacement for loss. The ideals that they will be reborn again in a next life mean that they don’t have to accept their loss for today. I’d be interested to speak in depth about this to someone with a lot more knowledge than I.
Sunrise was altogether a different experience on the ghats. The dimly lit sky allowed enough light in to see the colour but to not distinguish the street lights and glow from inside buildings. Jumping on a boat into the Ganges shortly before six, we started rowing up against the river. Along the shore line India was already very much awake. Large crowds were bathing and dipping themselves into the Ganges (research what this is). Half way through our journey we stopped to stretch our legs and visit a smaller ghat and it was at this point I was captivated by another group of stunning women. All dressed in amazing colours, they formed a square around a large piece of fabric full of candles, fruits, petals and pigmented powders. I’m not sure what I was looking at and my attempts to find out seemed only to cause confusion due to the language barrier. Nevertheless they were happy to have me as a spectator and to photograph them. In fact, they were eager to see themselves on my little screen and all the more flattered and endearing when I complimented them.
I fear I have only scratched the surface of Varanasi and that there is a lot left uncharted, but sadly it was time for me to catch my first sleeper class train to carry on my exploration of India.