Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Varanasi, “City of Light”.

So this is what it feels like to fall in love with a place. Varanasi was disorienting, alarming, oozing with paradox, characterized by both the most beautiful of colors and the darkest of Hindu rituals. I was held in a continual state of enthrallment.

Friday night

We boarded the train, sleeper class, arrival time due for the next afternoon. Unable to procure enough seats, we four travelers were forced to sleep two people per two-foot-wide cot. It was difficult to get much shut-eye.

Saturday afternoon

In keeping with Indian standards, the train ran late. By the time we arrived, night was falling. Entering into the “old city” part of Varanasi was like diving into a virtual-reality maze. The five-foot-wide streets were rough and patchy, winding around and around, dead ends abounded, line of vision obscured by tightly packed buildings, directional arrows labeled on walls in faded paint. I felt disoriented and lost – and was seduced almost immediately.

Varanasi lies on the Ganges, which is lined north to south with ghats, or steps, leading down to the river. Each ghat has its own name, its own history, and its own personality.

We took a boat ride after sunset, and floated a few kilometers downstream where we saw the nightly river puja, a blessing to the sacred waters of the Ganges. It was a visually astounding affair, performed with lamps of fire and dance and song, attended by what looked like thousands of devotees.

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in India, and certainly the sacred place for Hindus. Dying here guarantees instant salvation, so people come from all over the country just to await their deaths. Our hotel happened to be next to the primary burning site, the Manikarnika Ghat, so we found ourselves audience to the public cremation rituals that people make pilgrimages here to do.

That’s right, a public crematory. Photos weren’t permitted, for obvious reasons.

We saw the body of an old woman wrapped in a white sheet be placed on one of the many large firewood stacks around the site. A few of her family members surrounded her, and a religious authority poured milk, flowers, and rice on her, before dousing her in oil and lighting the flame. The feeling of watching her turn to ash surprisingly wasn’t one of shock or disgust. I felt I was seeing something intimate, something more intensely beautiful than I ever thought I could see in death.

Later on, a man came into the site carrying the body of a little girl, presumably his deceased child. She was also wrapped in a sheet and was brought to the riverside, where the man sat with her for a long time. We didn’t stay to see what happened, but as per tradition, her young age meant that instead of burning her and sending the ashes to the Ganges, she would be cast into the holy water untouched.

Contrary to the stilted nature of Western funerals, these cremation rites were not mournful, detached, nor voyeuristic in any way. Death is a part of life, experienced equally by everyone, and the rituals reflected this fundamental view.

We went back to the hotel in a quiet mood, but not for long. One culinary specialty of Varanasi in particular is cannabis-laced “special lassi” (lassi is a yogurt drink). Did you get that? Pot lassi. It tickled me too when I heard that this existed, and it tickled me even more when I saw that it was right in the middle of the drinks menu, totally indiscernible from chai or milkshakes except for the adjective “special” in front of it. We each had a round at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, and the rest of the night is history.


We awoke at dawn, still woozy from the lassi, and headed down to the Ganges once more to see the river at daybreak.

Let me just say right now that the Ganges is utterly filthy. Never mind the human ashes and dead animals floating in it, but the amount of sewage and industrial chemicals pumped in from upriver make it totally devoid of life. The amazing thing about this is that the holiness of the sacred river still draws Hindus by the thousands daily to bathe, wash their clothes, and yes, even to drink. They seem not to see the toxic state of the water at all.

At 6am, the entire length of the bank was lined with people for a sun ritual. They stood by the river, donations of food and flowers in hand, and when the sun appeared in the sky, the bank erupted in singing and murmurs of blessings as the donations were sent into the water.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Varanasi. My love was irretrievably sealed as soon as I saw the place in the daytime. The buildings of the old city were painted in yellows, blues, greens, and purples. The importance of the city’s silk trade meant that the streets were lined with shops selling scarves and sheets in every color. Cow shit everywhere made for treacherous walking, especially because I just couldn’t take my eyes away from the romance of my surroundings.

After walking along the bank of the Ganges for a long while, we stopped at a breezy rooftop café called Lotus Lounge, where we ate our fill before leaving Varanasi. Butter chicken, shahi paneer, vegetable curry, coconut lassi, and apple pancake with vanilla sauce.

Varanasi was the first place I’ve traveled in India that I’ve been genuinely reluctant to leave. If I make my trip out to Northeast India on my upcoming backpacking trip, I can’t wait to come back here. This city has so many layers I need to peel.

More pictures here.

(PS: Are my pictures getting better? I’m still working on those yet-to-be-mad photography skills. Tips appreciated.)


Lexie said...

your pictures are awesome! this place seems really, really neat ... observing hindu traditions and drinking pot shakes and all. forget pumpkins, i am so jealous of your adventures!

Jan Margaret said...

What an adventure! You've got me hooked on seeing this place within my lifetime. Keep doing what you're doing!

Stacy said...

Amazing. Varanasi -- gotta remember that name for future travels.

Although, the water does sound atrocious.

Rochelle said...

Your pictures look professional! I could totally see them in a book about India or something. :D

Stu said...

1. Diwali sounded great. I love the pic of you in the sari

2. I'm glad you're finding a good group of people around you.

3. I love the description of the cremation. And pot lassi.

Tim said...

You already had me hooked with the cremation rituals (I'm eerily fascinated by death), but I'd be lying if I said the special lassi isn't what sealed the deal for me.

Lexie said...

i think i remember you wanting your nose pierced a lonnnng time ago . or a tattoo that said made in china??? lol. either way, DO IT! :D