The India Journal: Varanasi
India Journal Entry #1: Varanasi
I, personally, would say that Varanasi's charm originates from the same place that a westerner (like myself) would say spawns its hectic lifestyle.
The tiny streets near the river- too small for even an auto-rickshaw- are packed with motorbikes, bicycles, people, shop fronts, cows, cow manure, monkeys, low hanging electrical wires, restaurants, and uneven brick-ways. It's a labyrinth of alleyways, not even as wide as a single car garage, yet somehow contains the same amount of energy as a main road. Peddlers are yelling to buy their carpets and linens, and old men rave about their lassi- which is a must try!
On the opposite side of this maze is the holy Ganges (Ganga) river. It's one of the most important and spiritual places (if not, THE most) for Hindu people. One bath in this murky water can cleanse you of your sins for the rest of your life. "Bathe in the river, and be holy like me!" the locals say. The people that live along this waterway depend on it for many everyday essentials- like washing clothes, dishes, and their bodies. They dunk in the water alongside the herds of cattle that also use it to cool down during the very warm Indian summer days.
Everyday and night, huge religious rituals and ceremonies take place here. At 7:00 each night, you can head to the main ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, and watch the river worship ceremony take place. There are bells ringing and incense burning, as men dressed in traditional Hindu garments dance and lead the crowds through prayers as they raise their hands to the heavens. This ghat is probably one of the most beautiful and well-known ghats in Varanasi, and is believed to have been created by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva based on the Hindi religion.
There are two main burnings ghats in Varanasi where cremations take place. Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat, and is known to be the place of cremation for over 300 bodies per day. What looks like little log cabins built along the river's edge, are actually the "caskets" of the dead who will soon burn down into a heaping pile of ash and be pushed into the Ganges River. Families run this business, and the fires are burned out in the public eye- which I encountered as I watched from the water in a small boat. There were 6 cremations happening when I arrived at the ghat, and 2 which were built and yet to be inflamed.
Children, I believe under the age of 12, cannot be cremated here. Instead, a child's body will be "packed," as one local referred to it in a discussion with me, and then taken out in a boat to the middle of the river where it is then thrown into the water. This means, that at low tide, bodies wash up on the opposite shore of the ghats. Hundreds of stray dogs and birds take care of the remains.
As I said, burning the bodies is a business, like pretty much everything else is in Varanasi. Members of a family that cannot afford a cremation are also "packed" and taken to the middle of the river and dumped. Money drives the livelihood of these people, and they will do anything to make a few rupees. One night, I was approached by a man who wanted to give me a boat ride- which I declined, like the multiple other boat ride offers I had received that day. He then offered me drugs, a very long and extensive list to choose from, including weed and opium. I also declined, as I did with the other drug vendors on the streets. His final question was "Ok, then how can I make money from you?" My response was simple... "You can't." He left shortly thereafter.
I did, eventually, catch a ride on one of those boats- going back to hire a man who had pestered me multiple times the days before. It was my last evening in Varanasi, and I watched the sunset from the boat in the middle of the river. It was beautiful, and the colors of the city where illuminated with the hues of the setting sun. You could see the people bathing and children playing in the water, the burning ghats where all aflame. Crowds of people gathered around a small cricket game on the ghats and you could hear them cheering in the distance. I, finally, sucked it up and decided to dunk my feet in the water. Having come all the way to Varanasi- it felt like a must. I tried my hardest to close out my mental awareness and instead enjoy the moment in the cool river.
It's difficult, sometimes, to acknowledge different cultures and people groups as the same species- especially when the lifestyle of those people is so different, so jarring, so foreign and taboo. To acknowledge that they're living the same life cycle as you- with the same mind, same capabilities, and same conscience.. just molded differently by upbringing.
The Western world, especially America, has the negative reputation of thinking we know best. That the way we do things is the only way, the perfect way. The language we speak, the lifestyle we live, the cars we drive and houses we live in, the clothes we wear and the food that we eat. That we are somehow a level above the rest. That, somehow, our nation figured out the secret to life, and it thrives within our borders.
What I learn from traveling is there are usually many ways of doing something, and each way of doing that specific thing usually tends to work for the said individual. Tribes and groups of people have been doing things for thousands of years. Although they may do them differently, that doesn't mean either is doing it right or wrong- better or worse. The diversity of our lives keeps the world interesting, unique, beautiful, and inspiring.
The world is like one, big, naturally created television. From place to place, you jump from channel to channel. Somethings interest you, causing you to stop and watch.. and others not so much. However, each stop is different and each stop helps you to learn, grow, be entertained, be inspired, be fed, and watch scenes from lives played out before your very eyes.