The city illumines truth and reveals reality. It does not bring new wonders into the scope of vision, but enables one to see what is already there. Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi. ~Diana L. Eck
When you date someone on and off for 10 years, then live with them for another year and a half, you feel as if you know them at a deep level, are connected by an intimacy reserved for lovers. You believe you are familiar enough with them that the unexpected is always expected and the possibility of surprise was replaced long ago by an endearing comfort.
This was how I felt about India…until visiting Varanasi (also known as Banares, Benares, Kashi) an ancient city founded by the Hindu God Shiva sometime around 800 BC. Artifacts found nearby in 2014 date back to 1800 BC supporting the view that Varanasi was inhabited at this time.
The city slapped us hard across the face awakening our minds to a whole new level of India’s chaotic insanity. I use slap not as an act to induce pain rather as a baby is slapped on the rump alerting it to a new reality. The insanity I use is the incomprehensibility to a mind deeply rooted in Western cultural norms. The ancient was a new Indian reality to me, to us, a reality we were unprepared for.
Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together! ~Mark Twain
Varanasi is India on steroids – roid rage. The traffic density allows for little breathing room between vehicles, put your arm out the window and it will be sheared off by vehicles moving in opposite directions frequently barely an inch separating a large bus from a small autorickshaw. The density of people because of numbers and narrow passageways means it is impossible to walk more than a few feet without becoming caught up in a school of fish pushing you upstream with directional change, other than that initiated by the mob, impossible. Was I short, I would have felt like a rat in an ever-shifting maze and finding the cheese was more accident than skill.
On morning two, we walked to the Ghats. They were not accessible by motorized vehicle so walking was our only option. “It’s just 5 minutes.” we were told, “Just follow that street.” We were still looking 30 minutes later. I used my Google Maps as an aid with marginal benefit. The streets are narrow, I can simultaneously touch buildings on both sides with my arms outstretched. The height of the buildings means only slashes of light renting the sky are visible and the street atmosphere feels like twilight.
The narrow canyons were filled with people, lots of people, cows, dogs, stores, bicycles, the occasional motorcycle, runoff from the houses, and dirt. It was impossible to walk directly east from our hotel to the Ghats. There are no straight streets. There are no right angles. There are no street signs. Everything twists and turns and confuses the neophyte traveler even confuses Google Maps. We asked directions many times using the name of the Ghat we were attempting to reach. Most responses were people pointing in a direction for us to walk. Each response came with great assurance but each directed us along a different path.
The air was stagnant. We had to watch the ground to avoid cow pies and dog droppings, look ahead to navigate the masses. We held hands to prevent separation from each other. Had we lost visual contact it would have been impossible to reconnect. Our journey took us through walls of smell. There were smells I recognized, others I didn’t. Still others I never want to cross the thresholds of my nostrils again. My wife walked with a scarf covering her mouth and nose. I had no option but to drink in the bouquet. I think this excursion was the tipping point when my wife decided it would be her last trip to India.
Walking required a half sideways crab motion, feet shuffling sideways while the eyes, pointed forward searched for gaps through which to plunge before the living crowd inhales closing the sliver of space. The half crab alignment narrows the body width just enough to allow squeezing through the swarm moving in the opposite direction. In any given moment, the body is bumping and grinding with several other human beings. The process has the violence of a multiperson quick fuck. Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am! Sir! Ma’am! Cow! Sir! Sir! Ma’am! Gender indeterminate!
With a little luck, we emerged out of the streets onto the Ghat steps. By surprise, it was the Ghat we originally set out to locate.
Because we were so focused on escaping to the Ghat, I absentmindedly left my camera in my bag. These pictures are of other places we walked in Varanasi.
The Ganga is more than a river. She is the Holy Mother. She is Ganga Ma. ~Ronald Barrett
Transitioning from the streets to the Ghats was an emotional catharsis. The overwhelming feelings of being trapped in a maze melted away when the canyons opened up to a great big sky and the large river Ganga. Our short trip through the emotional birth canal was rewarded with swirling air and sun and hella loud music. The Dev Deepawali pre-festivities were underway.
Our plan was to visit multiple Ghats during the early afternoon followed by a visit to the Kashi Vishvanath Temple then return during the evening for part two of the festival. We would never make the temple because protracted lines snaked through the narrow streets constricted by walls of people into all the entrances meaning the wait would have been on the order of hours.
After our challenging walk through the sliver wide streets, we decided not to confront them again, figuring we would be lost for more time than we would have to explore the Ghats themselves. (At the time, we did not realize the Ghats were all connected and we could walk end to end.) So, we negotiated a ₹300 ($5), down from a starting price of ₹1000, ride in a rowboat that seemed more rickety than seaworthy. Of course, there were no life jackets. The last boat we were on was a behemoth ferry powered by massive engines carrying us and our cars from Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia, a far cry from this wooden, human-powered skiff.
Those who bathe at Ganga at least once in its pure water are protected from thousands of dangers forever and get rid of sins of generations and are purified immediately. ~Brahmanandpuranam
The boat trip lasted about half an hour. I wished it was much longer. We were able to get into the open where the gentle breeze helped balance the intense sun and helped cool our sweating bodies. We were able to see people enjoying the water and the Ghats from the perspective of the Ganga river, scenes that would have been hidden from our eyes otherwise. We were also able to take a picture of Manikarnika (Cremation) Ghat something that was forbidden from the land. That’s a tale for the next blog.
We opted to not take a dip in the river and be sanctified, opted to not set a toe in the Ganga even if it meant cleansing us of our sins. We opted not because the water is polluted, polluted with industrial waste, with human waste, with those decaying human bodies whom Hindu ritual says must not be cremated and are dumped whole into the river, weighted with rocks to descend and lay on the bottom where they decay and can be eaten by river creatures.
Dev Deepawali, a festival that draws 10 lakh (1 million) people, is to celebrate the day the gods descended to Earth to bathe in the holy Ganga river. We didn’t see any gods in the river, perhaps they were disguised, perhaps our Western minds are unable to grasp the concept of an Eastern deity. We did see countless Indians in the river bathing and drinking and praying to access the power of the river where a simple bath in the Ganga cleanses away sins, much like the Catholic baptism washes away original sin.
The festival, coinciding with the November full moon, was celebrated on two nights. We attended both albeit from vastly different vantage points. The first night the autorickshaw took us to a primary street then told us we had to walk the rest of the way because motorized vehicles were not allowed past the point we stopped. We followed the crowd, the growing crowd down a couple of wide streets followed by one that narrowed before opening to the steps of the Ghat. We found a place amongst the bodies where we squeezed in and stood for the next couple of intimate hours.
The ceremony started with bell ringing, shrill bells which ranged for almost the entire ceremony. We watched the ceremony, watched the people, watched the ebb and flow of the crowd of which we were ebbed and flowed. I have no idea what was happening during the ceremony but was rapt.
The second night, we paid ₹2500 ($39) for the privilege of a reserved spot on the upper terrace of the Blue Dolphin restaurant. We were still fatigued from the long day, still overwhelmed from hours spent squeezing through swarms of people to move around the city. The thought of a relaxed, paid seat seemed like a pretty good deal. Considering the boatman offered to take us out on the boat to watch the ceremony for ₹5000 each, this was a very good deal.
The terrace was a vantage point we felt almost like deities watching the masses from high above. On the terrace, we ate a light vegetarian meal and drank water. Varanasi, the city, is primarily vegetarian and mostly alcohol-free. None of the restaurants we visited has so much as a glass of wine.
From on high, we were able to take in the many lights covering the Ghats that fired up for the event. We were able to see the full moon to our left, the many boats directly in front of us, and the ceremony taking place on our right. We were able to see the place we stood the previous night when we were in and of the crowd which made us glad we were more isolated this evening.
Varanasi is NOT a place for the faint of heart. It’s an assault on the senses, all the senses. Had Varanasi been my first experience of India, it may have been my last. That said, I am glad I visited what is at once the oldest and holiest city in India.
Looking back, I understand why we were as excited to leave Varanasi, possibly more so, as we were to arrive at Varanasi. I understand why upon leaving we said we will never visit there again. However, one month removed, I feel a desire…a need…to return. In the hubbub and melee and the continual onslaught to the senses, I was outside the boundary of the spiritual.
I had neither the time nor the mental acuity to connect with the spiritual undertone, to swim with the spiritual undertow. I did not make time to connect with the soul of Varanasi, the most important character trait of the ancient city. Until I do, my time there will not be complete. There is a void I need to fill so, some day, I will return. I must return.