On the second day we flew from New Delhi to one of the India’s holiest cities, Varanasi. It is just a one hour flight from New Delhi. We met our tour guide at the airport. As a priest, he was so proud to show us around the holy city of Varanasi. Also known as the religious capital of India. It took a few hours to get to our hotel and after that it was time to get ready for the unexpected! This city is perpetually overflowing with pilgrims. It is therefore, not an easy city for a western person to visit. It is like the Jerusalem for a Christian.
Varanasi is situated on the banks of the sacred River Ganges and is characterized by a maze of narrow, filthy alleys that wind behind the crowded waterfront ghats. The term “ghat” refers to a series of steps leading down to a holy river, in this case the river Ganges. The city is an image, an idea and a symbol of Hinduism’s core principles and consequently has been a center of learning and pilgrimage for over 2000 years. Principally associated with Hinduism, Varanasi has a varied religious heritage. Up until the 18th century, Muslim influence was so strong that it was known as “Mohammadabad”. With it’s array of temples, palaces, ghats, skinny cows and restless monkeys, it’s not surprising that Varanasi is considered to be one of the most vibrant but also messy cities in India.
We couldn’t wait to start sightseeing Varanasi. However, we were not quite ready for the unexpected. Our half day sightseeing excursion included a visit to Asi Ghat – one of the five special ghats which pilgrims are suppose to bathe by, all on the same day. On a typical day, about 300 people visit every hour in the mornings, and on a festival day, 2500 people arrive per hour. This ghat accommodates about 22,500 people at one time during festivals. The question was: are we pilgrims? From the moment we got off our bus we had to remove our shoes . We didn’t have those disposable shoe covers that we took on a subsequent trip to South India and we couldn’t refuse to do it, not even Sabrina. Lucky her, unlucky Peter because he had to carry her on his shoulders. The ground was caked in all sorts of filth, principally animal poo. Well, after all it was our choice to come to India and experience the culture. There is no way back! If you can’t beat them, join them! And this is what we did; we walked around the narrow alleys of Varanasi in barefoot except Sabrina (she didn’t walk at all!). Cameras were not allowed in holy places so we left them in the bus. Later on that day, we also visited the Durga Temple, commonly known as the Monkey temple because of the many monkeys that have made it their home. Again, no cameras were allowed inside the temple and inside the temple non-Hindus were not allowed to go to certain places. Peter did manage to make some video recording in the fascinating monkey temple from outside and while we were putting our shoes on but he left the video camera at the entrance of the temple. Sabrina was fascinated to see lots of monkeys around but not for too long!
On the next day we woke up before dawn to experience the best that Varanasi has to offer. We took a boat ride in the early morning to witness the awakening of the river Ganges: The Sunrise and the morning rituals are one of the most UNIQUE and MAGICAL experience I’ve ever lived. Emotional outpourings of religious fervor are common among the locals.
It was just before dawn at around 5:30 am. As we walked towards the river (with our shoes on) hundreds of locals gather to celebrate the joy of seeing the river coming alive as the sun rises from the horizon. Before getting into our boat, we bought some little oil lamps and flowers to place them out into the river as a ritual. This is a MUST! Get those oils lamps and flowers and do not spoil the mod by entering into a bargaining session! It has so much meaning for the locals. We finally got to our rowboat and from there we contemplated the incredible scenes for almost two hours: multitude of devotees gather there every morning at dawn for water rituals (also known as ablutions) and pay their respects to the Sun God, Surya. Others are seen meditating, bathing, swimming and even clothes washing. You hear the sound of the water being used and enjoyed. There is a sense of spiritually that is uplifting from any angle you see. Mystical Hinduism is everywhere, in a decorated doorway, in a glimpse of a glittering temple, in the walls of the Maharajas’s old riverside palaces, in the chant of the Hindu priests, and in the fragrance of flowered oblations. Along the journey, Sabrina threw the oil lamp into the river being careful not to touch the water as we were told that the river is highly polluted. Just when we were reaching to our ending point; we could smell smoke rising from a cremation site called Jalasai ghat adjacent to the Manirkanika ghat; the most sacred of all the ghats. This famous burning ghat with a heap of lopsided temples (no photographs are allowed in this area) cremates only the most privileged families, showing the Hindu’s inequality in death. And this was the end of our once in a life time journey through the waters of the “Ganges river”. After that, we endured the expected: walking down the alleys of Varanasi with no shoes.