So here I am. India for the first time. First stop Varanasi. 3 and half million of habitants, dozens of cows, dogs, monkeys, some bull, some tourist and me.
One of the holiest places in India, sacred for Hindu people: city of Shiva. Like Mecca for Muslim people. It lays on the west bank of the holy river Gange. All here is about “Mother Ganga” as the river is called. Sacred water. Power water. Purifying water.
Hindu pilgrims who can afford the travel come from allover India and not only, to bathe at least once in the holy river to wash away all their sins.
Here spirituality runs under everyone footsteps, therefor the modern signs of western life luckily the Old city has still its strong character which prevails!
This place has been previously known with the names Benares and previously “Kashi” meaning: “the place who attracts people from everywhere” which is quite true. Now a days it’s called as the join of the two rivers’s name which the city is between to: Varuna and Assi: Varan-Asi.
Walking here there is no doubt about Varanasi to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, some would say “the oldest”. It said that first traces of civilisation here going back between 1400 and 1000 b.C. when an Aryan tribe in northern India: the Kasis, settled in Gange’s valley very near to present-day Varanasi.
Through time many invaders have passed by, they say the Muslim were the most destructive, but also thanks to their architectural contributes the Old Varanasi has an out-of-time arabesque mysteriously feel which can rapture away!
The old city extends from the 84 riverbank ghats in to a labyrinth of “galis”: tiny alleyways so narrow for trafﬁc that even tuck tuck doesn’t afford to get stuck there. Not even google maps has a precise mapping of all roads!!!
But in this disorienting labyrinth you can find from everything to anything.. if you look hard enough. It’s like a life allegory. People, animals, five elements, spirituality, culture, modernity, substance, absence, from life to death in a spiral of all and nothing.
I’m not an Indian expert, I won’t pretend I’ve become one just for having read some Indian culture’s book or just for being here few days, but I’ve made up an opinion about Varanasi: I think it’s safe to say that Old Varanasi is the real beating hearth of the city. The rest for the few I’ve seeing is, like other Asian cities I’ve visited: a meeting with western culture where the Country identity seems to get relegated in the background of a “modern” society which wish to be conformed.
Old Varanasi seems not to risk losing its identity, all over smartphones and western dress up ways, it is remained itself. Old men in their shops read the newspaper, or chat to each other or just look at who’s passing by… old style! Wonderful!!!
The river and the ghats are also the best way to not get lost: if you can remember the few turns or a stairways or a particular building near by the guest house is done, you will always find your way back! Anyway I kindly suggest to get lost, is an experience you don’t want to miss, to find some treasured hidden spot or simply to surrender to the peaceful “don’t have where to go”..
If the Old Varanasi is the real beating hearth of the city, so the river should be the blood and its ghats and galis are their veins. Life runs both in galis and ghats. Ordinary life takes place in galis, spiritual life takes place in ghats and also the other way around.
Ghats are used for bathing: holy purifying baths and children bathing, having fun and explode in full-of-enthusiasm jumps into the river.
Ghats are used for washing: holy purifying wash-away-sins and laundry washing.
Ghats are used for rituals and routine: holy purifying rituals and routine “puja” to Mother Ganga and rituals and routine made by touristic tours.
Galis are used for commercial life, galis conduct you to temples.
Ghats are used to celebrate life and to celebrate death: changing, impermanence.
I’ll talk explicitly of cremation ceremony, I don’t want to hurt anyone sensibility so if you wish not to read stop here and scroll over after this part.
The Manikarnika Ghat is the most important cremation ghat, it holds the holy fire, deposited here by Shiva in person to remember the sacrifice of a devote. It is says that since then, that fire was never cut off. They said there are about 150 cremation per day, everyone aim to be cremated here to ensure their souls salvation, that’s why it’s an 24H job! Bodies are handled by outcasts known as dams and they are earned through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. It is really frequent to encounter one while you’re stuck in traffic, there is a non-written form of respect which allow the traffic to magically disappear in front of the footsteps of these “untouchable men” (like holy for their duty) carrying a body. When they passed by then the traffic magically is stuck again and you get the sensation to not be sure of what you’ve just seen! Prior the cremation the corpse gets the last purifying bath in the Gange. Most lucky bodies get submerge in the water, others stays on the river’s bank and the dams simply get them wet with some of the river’s water. I’ve counted seven piles of ﬁrewood stocked along the ghat on two levels, but as near as you burn to the river as high your cast is, as high your price is. The body cannot be cremated after 24h from the death, so there is also an hospice near by for those who wait to die. Family members care to get the wood, which I discovered to be more expensive than electricity! To be cremated with wood (especially sandal one, most ambit) could cost from 8.000 Rp on. It takes 300 kilos of wood to get the perfect cremation. There are pillars of wood all around the area and there is a huge scale for weight the exact quantity and to allow the price to be calculated. The ones who can’t afford even the cheapest quality of all the wood needed, buy less, so the body doesn’t have the chance to be perfectly consumed by the flames, is not unusual to see a semi corpse on the piles. The non-perfectly-consumed corps flows away in the Ganga and mostly can became food on the eastern side of the river where wild dogs and pigs have to brutally fight for it. A family member then go to the holy fire to make an offer to Shiva and get the needed fire from the original bonfire for the cremation. So no lighter, no electrics, just “wild” flame from this ancient bonfire placed here by Shiva himself. At the side of the pillars there is a sort of temple, a holy place, entrance is not allowed to not Hindu people. A master of ceremony continuously plays gong and drums. Then the cremation begin and for at least 3 hours it goes on. It is allowed to watch cremations, from a respectful distance and attitude. It is very difficult to put in words experiences like these. Watching, hearing, feeling, smelling, percept and be in a moment like this is one of the things that will stay with you forever, wanting or not. Watching death is everyday a school, a reminder, to live the present moment to remember is not forever, at least anything of what we treat as if it is. So even if just for this, it was worth it. The things that struck me more was their mourning and the incredible energy of that place and moment. They seems to not mourn, or maybe better: not our way. No despair. No suffering, but a lot of dignity in the grief. They seems to have a great participation, they were there: present moment. A great trust. Maybe the mantra, or the drums, maybe the smell, maybe the view but the energy was pervading and sort of unifying every person present as if it was just one hand.
Shivers on the skin, not fear, not aversion, but surprisingly for life. Seeing a cremation ceremony was a rush, a shot of pure life.
Few steps away two nice domes of temple were severely damaged by last year’s monsoon and became awry, adding a surreal halo to this place as if it was needed!
Few steps forward more there is a tank known as the Manikamika Well, Shiva dug it to recover Parvati (his wife) dropped earring and he filled the depression with his sweat. Ok, now I’m getting to know why Indian men use to say “no wife, no life” I think is the secret revisited short version of “no happy wife, no happy life”, they just dropped “happy”!
My Guest House was few steps from the central Dasaswamedh Ghat its name incates that Brahma sacriﬁced medh (10) das (horses) aswa (here). Every evening here takes places Ganga aarti a ceremony with puja where 5 guys dances (even with fire) during a various playlist of Hindu mantras to pay homage to the five elements.
The end of the ceremony is the homage to Ganga river releasing floating flowers and candles in the water. The fascination of ancient religious tradition is undebatable and it is why if Varanasi gets you, there is a tiny part of you which stays here.
Varanasi is really crowded: humans, dogs, cows, bulls, monkeys and wastes and hygienic conditions are real problems. I’ve travelled in Asia before and I’m used to different kind of waste treatment and poor hygienic conditions, but here seems like they are getting out of hand! During the monsoon the situation gets even more complicated, no manholes, excrement, blood from butchers and other body liquids from all the above mentioned categories are free to move in the galis pavement, some of them even float when if keeps rain for a bit: in some depression of the streets the water level gets high and there is no way around it! Bearing in mind that the stone which the streets are made by became slippery when wet… Of course Gange is suffering from all this.
So Varanasi is wonderful but also not easy: much poverty, much diseases, poor hygienic condition.
Varanasi charming is also in its naturalness, dignity and elegance by dressing up this poverty so gently, not to mention it seems to walk inside a book, historical book or movie.
It seems like time here just freeze somewhen back maybe a century ago or so.. these messy little alleyways, with twisted stones and giant puddles because of the monsoons has left large stags of water, contributes to make it looks like a really remote place, the lack of hurry, all of the smiling, when they greet you, they giggle opening these mouths sometimes without teeth as they do it they are more beautiful because there is no shame, only a great dignity… and of course seeing a Sadhu (renunciants) is always a bit intimidating for me…
Blessings, puje and in every temple children want to paint you the third eye, I should have fifteenth by now!!!
There are just places where you really get that “things” doesn’t matter at all. Feelings, emotions, people, heart. The rest doesn’t really count at the end.
Leaving Varanasi a bit of heart stays here, my last walk early morning when the city got alive, scents of fresh cooked local recipe, incense, spices which cover all the worse smell from the streets, without dirt it would be perfect… but it is just so, life as it is, no labels, as is simple as it is… less judgment, more life!
Although it may not be too far from this and despite having made a light backpack with a few things for a month, I still feel too full, sting with what I see here. So I feel strengthened in this trying to reduce waste and consumption and dedicate myself to really important things.
All that I have written here is the results of speaking with Indian people on the way, what I’ve personally seen, something I’ve read, it’s my personal experience and my personal emotions, that’s it 😉