Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges is one of the holiest cities for Hindus and thousands throng it for spiritual enlightenment or, to get a deeper understanding of religion. But for some, this is also where you go to depart the worldly realm.
Words & Photography: Magda Biskup
Would you like a boat, madam? It was only 6.30 in the morning, but I had heard this question about 20 times by then. It was the middle of an unusually hot summer in Varanasi and well outside the tourist season, so the boat business was not at its best. I had to reject the offer for the 20th time that day, because I already had taken the famous boat ride the day before. I simply wanted to continue my slow stroll along the banks of Ganges River.
Varanasi is a vast city with almost four million people, but the focus of my stay was the Ganges River and the ghats, which are the stairs leading to the water. I’ve wanted to see this place for many years now and was more than pleased when the opportunity arrived to visit the famed city of Varanasi or Benares as it is often referred to. Varanasi is known for bringing about the most extreme of emotions among travellers – from raging hate to absolute love – and I wanted to understand these extremes in reaction. The city is famous for being chaotic and overwhelming, but for the devotees who throng this place, Varanasi is paradise or at least the portal to heaven. Additionally, it is one of the seven Hindu holy cities along the holiest of rivers – the Ganges – which symbolises life, purity, and a goddess to the people of India.
Birth of Varanasi
According to legend, Varanasi was created by Lord Shiva (one third of the Hindu Trinity) thousands of years ago, making it one of the oldest (if not the oldest) inhabited cities in the world. Excavations on ancient ruins that lie on the Rajghat plateau on the northeastern section of the present city have unearthed pottery and other artefacts that date back to 1,000 BC and, broken masonry from as late as 1,500 AD. These findings confirm that the city has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years! Today it is a place of life and hope, where 60,000 pilgrims from all over India and the rest of the world come each day to conduct ritual baths and other religious activities. Varanasi is also a place of death, where the old and frail come to wait to exhale their last breath, hoping to have their ashes scattered onto the Ganges. For a Hindu, there is no better place better to die than Varanasi, as the soul will achieve moksha (liberation) and be freed from the cycle of birth and death.
A Magical Muddle
A few days earlier, I got my first taste of Varanasi that I had heard so much about. I was on the way from the train station to the old part of the city, where I was going to stay. The traffic was manic and the narrow streets were quite a challenge, even for my experienced moto-rickshaw driver. But after what felt like the most stressful ride, I somehow managed to reach my destination.
As we got to the old town, I entered a maze of narrow lanes in search of a place to stay. The lanes were no more than two metres wide and occupied mostly by pedestrians, the occasional motorbike rider and, of course, cows. In some places, half of the width was taken by shops, cafés or restaurants. The place was filled with smells (both nice and not so nice) and at times dirty, but I found it magical in a strange away. After somehow finding my way in this extraordinary system of lanes, I found a place to stay. I dropped off my bags and set out for the ghats. The water steps turned out to be such a fascinating place that I didn’t leave them for five days, taking breaks only for meals and to sleep at night. My days started early in Varanasi not because of the unbearable heat that didn’t allow me to sleep much, but mostly because Ganges is most magical at dusk. I was up by 5.00am on most days, and armed with a bottle of cold water to beat the heat, I’d head to one of the smaller ghats near my hotel, where yoga classes were conducted daily. I didn’t participate, but observed the slow and graceful movements of the people concentrating on their exercises. Only 50 metres away, a couple of sadhus (renunciates) were conducting morning pujas (prayers) on an elevated platform. The chanting from sadhus, the smooth movements of the yoga and the rising sun created the most magical of scenes that stirred deep emotions in me.
“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” ~Mark Twain, American author and humourist.
Path of the Pilgrims
As I continued walking along the river, I came across a small group of pilgrims. They looked very serious and were visibly moved by the experience of finally arriving in Varanasi. I noticed how slowly they entered the river, splashing the water all over their bodies, until they were completely wet. To my surprise, some of them started rinsing their mouths with the Ganges water. This river may be holy, but it is also extremely polluted with sewage, garbage and half burnt bodies all ending up in the waterways. Coming from a Western background, I was aghast at seeing this but a teenage Indian boy who I met a little later explained that the water may be polluted but it didn’t matter to a true believer. He further enthused that those who truly believed in the power of the gods would never suffer from any ailment having drunk the water. In fact, it was the opposite, the boy beamed. The faithful and true believers will be rewarded with blessings, health and happiness! The filth in the river meant nothing!
Where Opposites Thrive
This theme of opposing ideas kept recurring in the most surprising manner throughout my stay there, like the woman who was washing a pile of dirty laundry in the holiest of rivers, or the bunch of boys irreverently enjoying a game of cricket on the river steps. There were also countless groups of beggars coming to the river every morning to wash the grime of the previous day with cheap soap and, old t-shirts playing the role of a towel. After my earlier conversation with the young boy, I wasn’t too shocked to see them brushing their teeth using the river water. Even more interesting was to see them use twigs to brush with instead of toothbrush and toothpaste.
But if one section attracted beggars doing their morning ablutions, another section saw groups from swimming academies and local families clearly having fun in the river. It was a pleasant sight to see them having fun in the water, albeit a little strange, considering the fact that Varanasi is still the holiest of holy places but could still be so regular and normal to the locals – just part of everyday life. But as I continued exploring, I came across another sight that was rather unsettling.
The Final Rites
Manikarnika, the larger of the two burning ghats in Varanasi, is probably the most famous spot in the whole city. This is where every Hindu wants to have his or her body cremated. Those who can afford it bring the bodies of their dead family members to Manikarnika and watch them cremated, before the remains are thrown into the river. But there are also many other old and frail who come to Varanasi to pass their remaining days in the holy city, so they too can be cremated by the river when it’s their time to leave this world. Manikarnika is not a place for everyone. The acrid smell of burning flesh can be unbearable and the fact that the ceremonies are conducted very quickly somehow strips them of their spiritual significance. Yet, it is an extraordinary scene that sheds light on the Hindu view of life and death. It will certainly make you question the meaning of life and start examining death as a very integral part of living.
Varanasi is a mixture of life and death, seriousness and fun, religion and routine. It is a place where spirituality is at every corner, and where everything is influenced by the holy Ganges. People come here to live, hope and be blessed, but this is also where people come to take their leave from life. It can be overwhelming and drag out the worst emotions out of you but it will also make you stop and evaluate your life, spirituality and where you stand in the larger scheme of things. But Varanasi is also real, magical, colourful and spiritual and will leave an indelible mark on anyone who visits this historical city.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kolkata three times a week from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Go to www.airasia.com for details. Varanasi is some 740 kilometres from Kolkata and can be reached by train or domestic flights.
Centre for Spiritualism & Learning
Although Varanasi is a spiritual centre and pilgrimage city for Hindus, it is also popular amongst Buddhists and Jains. Sarnath, the place where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon is just 10kms away, while the city also attracts Jains as it is said to be the birthplace for Parsvanath, the 23rd thirthankara (spiritual leader and enlightened one of the Jain religion). www.varanasicity.com