The City of Life -- Varanasi, India

December 3-8, 2006

 

 
 

Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, is a magical place. Each evening we walked along the ghats, stone staircases leading down to the river, some built more than a thousand years ago. We walk past a group of sari-clad women sitting cross-legged on a platform, listening to teachings from their master. Holy men--sadhus--in bright orange garb, come to Varanasi for spiritual renewal, carrying all their belongings: a bedroll, a pot for water, a walking stick. We smell smoke from massive wood cremation fires burning night and day; devotees believe dying in Varanasi will liberate them from the endless cycle of life and death. We watch a puja performed upstream from our hotel, the ceremony distorted over blaring loudspeakers. The river is low now, and boats are being repaired at the top of the stairs. We stare unbelieving at the high water mark from the 1978 floods, 30 feet above our heads. Beggars, some horribly disfigured, plead for rupees and food, gesturing hand to mouth. Touts stick to us like magnets, offering Mark a shave, a massage, postcards, a trip to their uncle's silk shop. Their standard patter: "Which country? America?! Goldie Hawn!! She here five times, my uncle has picture, and a small shop. You look, no like, no buy." Our constant refrain: "No, no, no, no, no, NO, no..." But when skinny little girls come up to us selling palm-leaf bowls filled with flowers and a candle, we buy these offerings, light the candles and gently push them out into the Ganges, hoping to bring good fortune to our family members. Our offerings join a long line of offerings drifting slowly downstream, tiny lights fading in the darkness.

Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi "is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." The city claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history dating back to 1400 BC. The ancient streets that radiate out from the ghats are too narrow for cars, and wind through vibrant neighborhoods of crumbling three and four story stone and brick buildings, Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, Buddhist shrines, schools, and shops. Open doorways give us glimpses into quiet interior courtyards and kitchens with food cooking over coal burning stoves. The alleyways are packed with people walking: kids on their way to school, women in brightly colored saris, some carrying huge loads on their heads, men in traditional and western clothes, Hindu priests, Tibetan monks. Pedestrians squeeze by bicycles, motorbikes, push carts, and massive holy cows, blithely stepping around piles of cow dung and the garbage strewn everywhere.

After spending five days at a hotel perched over the Meer Ghat (a fifteen minute walk to a street wide enough for a taxi) in the midst of a tight knit community alive with religious zeal and rituals that have continued unbroken from the distant past, we left Varanasi feeling blessed to have experienced its magic.

 

 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 

moonrise over the Ganges

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Kolkata (train) ► Varanasi