It was quick, it was full but most of all it was inspiring. I had been to Varanasi before, five years ago and I remember it leaving an imprint on my heart. Going back, I realized how much I had forgotten, and got to experience it in a whole new way.
Our train pulled in at 8 Am from Agra… it was 3 hours delayed, which meant the journey took more than 13 hours. We were tired, smelled funny and pretty hungry. We had a driver waiting for us, Sandy. A funny man who taught us the acronym for INDIA: I Never Do It Again… I would have to disagree with him, but I am still thinking of a better acronym for it. He dropped us off at our hotel so we could freshen up and become humans again.
At sunset we walked down the road to the Ghats. Sandy said to walk two intersections, then turn right, then left, straight and then left all the way…. Err? We eventually found it. The six minute walk took us almost 45 minutes swerving between cows, trying not to get hit my motor bikes or running into auto rickshaws. By the time we turned left we were off the main road we found ourselves in the tiny narrow streets of the old city. Finally, the building opened up and we found the Ganges.
If you know anything about the Ganges, you know it is the holiest river on the planet, a sacred site for all Hindu’s, and more interestingly, where families bring their recently deceased loves one to burn by the river. They believe that by cremating the bodies by the river, the souls will have a direct route to Samsara, eternal peace.
What they don’t tell you, is that while Hindu’s bathes in the holy water every morning, just down the river they are throwing the remains of the bodies into the river. Babies and pregnant women are not allowed to be burned, so their bodies are weighed down and placed in the water sinking to the bottom.
However holy and spiritual the tradition may be, the water unfortunately is a guaranteed way to get a foreigner sick. I caution you to think twice before plunging into the sacred water, but at the same time, once you do… I have been told you find inner peace and feel like you belong, and no longer a spectator.
As sun sets, the crowds began to form for the Ganga Aarti, which takes place every sunset every day of the year. Many people watch the ceremony by boat from the river, as they have a front row seat to the performance. I advise you to watch it from the Ghats. You feel incredibly immersed in the peace and wonder of it all.
It was at this moment as the candles were lit, bugs began twitching around the lights and landing in your hair, chanting began and every spiritual being from far and near gathered together that you felt the true meaning of oneness. Unity. Togetherness.
I felt inspired. It was so beautiful. Everything about it. All the colours, the magic, the voices. I wanted to be a part of it, and at the same time, didn’t want to miss watching a second of it.
When it was over… it was over. The crowds dispersed, people walked home, the night market fled with locals, tourists and holy men as each tried to walk home.
I bought some beads of Shiva for prayer and then we walked home.
Walking along the Ghats we got lost, but it didn’t matter. It was dark out and no body was around to ask for directions, so we just walked. We walked until we saw smoke, and heard one man screaming out his tears. You could hear his pain, but you could not see him and he hid in the cover of darkness of one of the buildings. A little further down, we saw the bodies. Six of them. We sat in silence and watched as eat body burned, and how what once was a strong, tangible and physically abled body was now nothing more than a cloud of white smoke going into the air. The only question that I kept thinking is, “what is life if this is death?”.
The next morning my alarm went off at 4 AM to watch the sunrise from a boat on the river of the Ghats as the locals came to bathe in the Ganges. It was an incredibly dark and misty morning. They told us it was unusual, but I loved it even more. It added to the mysticism of it all. I felt my heart beating, my breath fogged in the cold morning air.
Varanasi is the only city in the world that makes me wish I had a professional camera. What you see will change you, will make you question your life, see it completely different. It is my favorite city in the world… a place that makes you believe in something.