Ah, the holy city of India! After Kolkata, I think any city would have felt holy, but I’m glad we chose to visit Varanasi. I was surprised to have experienced not one, not two, but several moments of peace and calm.
We stayed at a place called Monu Family Paying Guest House – strange name, but incredibly nice family who runs it. We spent the first full day in Varanasi walking around the a few of the ghats (stairs leading to the river) and along Dashashwamedh Rd, one of the main roads running through the old city. There weren’t many cars around, mostly tuk tuks, horses and rickshaws. We took our first rickshaw ride to BHU, a beautiful university where the campus is green and they have a Hindu temple.
The first evening there, Jesse and I made our way to the main ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the Brahmins perform the daily pujas. We didn’t understand the symbolism of much of it, other than the fact that each offering was to evoke a different god; regardless, it was a beautiful ceremony, and experiencing something with Indians who are also experiencing it for the first time is a good feeling as well. It has an authentic, genuine feel…not the feel that you get when you go to a luau in Hawai’i where there are no locals sharing the experience!
Surprisingly enough, Jesse and I were able to get up at 5am to take a sunrise boat ride along the Ganges. The atmosphere was so pure and calm – I heard that dawn is Shiva’s ‘favorite’ part of the day, and so many devotees wake up with the sun to bathe in the holy waters. We went with a couple from the UK/Australia and three local oarsmen. Between exchanging stories about touts, gastrointestinal issues and future destinations, we saw glimpses of daily life for the sadhus and families living and visiting this holy place. I saw a handful of people that were so happy to have the chance to bathe in the Ganges that they were splashing and yelling out of joy!
We also passed the burning ghat, Marnikarnia Ghat. There were countless piles of wood gathered in the buildings and along the steps to keep the fires burning throughout the day. Boats came with more wood to replenish all that was used. The buildings were blackened with soot from years of fire and ash. It was a grim site, but Indians consider themselves to be lucky if they pass away in Varanasi. Many old people and widows relocate here to die, with the belief of instant moksha (enlightenment) if they reside here. If families don’t have enough money to have their loved ones’ body burned, they simply float the body down the river.
The highlights of Varanasi were the narrow alleyways of the Old City, and the inspiring (yet polluted) Ganges River. I never thought I would be floating down the Ganga in a wooden rowboat, but I’m so grateful my life has brought me to a moment like that!