Waking up in Varanasi
Baranas, the epitome of cultural chaos and India’s religious capital. Who would’ve thought that my first stop in India would be none other than the famous city where Indians from all across the country come to perish and return to the earth? Religion and culture are extremely prevalent here. Walking through the narrow labyrinth-like alleys in the old city, I experienced confusing yet temperamental whiffs of pungent poo and fragrant curries simultaneously.
Emerging from the claustrophobic lanes through chaotic human and cow traffic, the view of the Ganges is eye-opening enough to forget what crazy streets I had to walk through. Standing at the top of the stairway, the rewarding view of endless ghats and the activities happening were immediately overwhelming.
Dangling clothes lines with freshly beaten laundry hung up along the pillars, people dipping in the water for a bath with the hope of being led to moksha (liberation), water being fetched in buckets for cleaning. All of these occurring at the same time while sewer waste spills out at one end and bodies get cremated at the other.
Its incredibly odd to witness contrasting sights within the same place. Black smoke from incinerated bodies, kids playing cricket, sadhu babas making their usual rounds collecting donations, food vendors walking around trying to sell snacks and fried crackers, starving talented artists painting the landscape of Mother Ganga on canvas. Almost like a shift in dimensions, it felt like I was stuck in between a realm made out of surreal nightmares and hopeful dreams.
The history and beliefs surrounding this traditional cremation ceremony is difficult to comprehend in the beginning. I arrived at my first ceremony just as a wrapped corpse was lit with a torch. They say it takes hours for a body to be burned completely. Locals and tourists alike sit on the steps and benches on the ghats, watching the procedure take place. It’s not rare for a Varanasi local to come up and sit next to you while this all happens, explaining the process, story and meaning behind what happens in a cremation ceremony. As intrigued and curious as I am, a part of me remains skeptical and cold, knowing that at the end of it all, the guy is probably expecting a donation.
He went on about how female family members of the deceased were not allowed at such ceremonies because women were weak emotionally (and probably in general). As he went into more details with sexist remarks, I spaced out while staring at the morbid sight of thick rising smoke and shift my focus to that one spot where raw skin became exposed from the fiery flames. It was too much for me to handle once the ankle snapped and detached from the rest of the body. My stomach churned, I felt sick; a sense of anxiety and the hard truth suddenly dawned upon me as if I was clouded by judgement. Artur and I stood up and left, walking away from it all; heading down Mother Ganga in silence, still slightly traumatised at the fact that we literally watched a corpse burn for 45 minutes.
I never watched another ceremony again, although the next few cremations that I had to walk past became easier to digest visually. It doesn’t impact as much as it did the first time because dead bodies were practically everywhere, waiting for their turn to return back to the earth. But the legendary city of Varanasi wasn’t all about the cremation. In fact, it’s so much more than that.
The Ganges river is one of the most sacred rivers in the world and flows through different states all the way from the north of India to the Bay of Bengal. Varanasi is THE city to witness this river of livelihood and pollution.
Taking a boat ride along the river at sunrise boasts a very beautiful sight. The pink skies and calmness of the morning along the ghats is a big contrast to what’s usually in disarray. While hopping in a boat at night offers a better view of the nightly ghat performance from the waters than on land.
It’s also an amazing place to experience displacement. I’m talking about enjoying a clay cup lassi in a shop while a stretcher carrying a fresh corpse marches through the same crammed alley. And this doesn’t just happen once while I’m chowing down a bowl of fruit lassi. The diversity of how different religions come together in one city and how the livelihood of the people can be seen just by taking a walk through confusing streets.
There’s also the famous golden temple in the middle of the old city that is so holy and strict that the procedure to enter the premises is as strict as airport security. Heck, even bags and phones aren’t allowed and passports had to be presented. The Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple is accessible from many entrance gates but tourists can only enter from one and there’s a specific timing to visit too. Only genuine people who want to pray and bring offerings will be granted access, which is why many tourists don’t even try. But once inside it’s rather remarkable to be a part of a holistic cultural experience with the locals.
The Muslim quarter is worth a visit mainly for the food. All throughout Varanasi, finding meat can be tough due to religion. For the carnivorous folks, there’s scrumptious grilled kebabs and chicken wraps for a dollar. One can even find freshly made naans for only 5 rupees! Apart from the cheap food, the streets of the Muslim quarter practically comes alive at night. There’s so much to see, smell and taste. Sometimes it’s not about what there is to do when all that’s important is observing and understanding.
In the midst of all these chaos, Varanasi is incredibly fun for shopping. The maze like alleys make it feel like an adventure, finding little stores that go by unnoticed. Buy some nice pants or trinkets, get a henna tattoo, partake in friendly bargaining, taste the Varanasi malaiyo(what we call saffron cloud), find a bhang lassi and embrace the earthy taste, then enjoy getting lost in the allies. It’s even possible to buy freshly baked baguettes sold by a French expat living in the city ! At night, take a walk by the ghats (not advised to go alone) and the misty vibe will bring about an eerie “silent hill” vibe.
There’s also plenty to taste. After all, India is THE place to challenge your tastebuds !
The bhang lassi & bhang cookie joint 😉
If the city becomes too overwhelming, a day trip to Sarnath is a good way to find some peace & calmness. This is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. Being a prime religious spot and one of the 4 important sites on the Buddhist circuit, there’s heaps of temples, monasteries and museums to spend half a day if Varanasi proves to be too much all at once . Oh, and not forgetting that Sarnath also serves up really delicious veggie burgers that can be found at every food cart!
With so much to do, Varanasi shouldn’t be a touch-and-go destination. Give this magical yet hectic city a little more time than intended, it’s not difficult to start falling in love with a beautiful mess.