Saturday, March 30, 2013

Varanasi: India on Steroids

Take everything completely over the top and culture shocking about India, times it by 100 - and welcome to Varanasi.

The many ironies of India are further exaggerated and outrageous in Varanasi, one of the holiest yet dirtiest cities in the country. An ancient city even older than Jerusalem, Varanasi is the “beating heart of Hinduism.” Devout Hindus flock here with three typical purposes: to die, cremate a loved one and/or wash away their sins in the holy Ganga river.
This guy is the more decently dressed of some babus who are completely naked and
 hang things from their genitals. Let's just say drugs may play a part in the spirituality of some babus.

Lonely Planet advises travelers that Varanasi is “not for the faint-hearted,” and for once, the kind people of LP are right on the money. Word amongst travelers was Varanasi is a “powerful” but absolutely insane place. All seemed to passionately hate or love the place, but never in between. Like India itself, Varanasi is the leading example of a place you have to see to believe.

Inside the narrow, winding alleys of the old city one must be weary of the heaps of cow shit, dying stray dogs and people, puddles of human urine, while simultaneously dodging the eccentric Hindu parades and rituals.
Sagy (Israel) and a sweet, elderly local man by the river

On the main road, witness elaborate funeral parades – yes I said parade, and not the typical funeral procession. In Varanasi, death is a celebration of life, calling for the most lively of costumes and dancing. If the deceased was lucky to pass away in the city of Varanasi, they are said to be granted relief of moksha (the cycle of re-birth), an even bigger cause for celebration.

Down by the questionably filthy but holy Ganga river, body burning takes place 24 hours around the clock. Designated areas according to caste allow families and curious onlookers to watch the 3-4 hour process that it takes for a human body to burn.

Though we knew what we were getting ourselves into by visiting the burning ghat, it was still shocking to notice what appeared to be a human foot ablaze with a crowd of people watching. With the leftovers thrown into the river, you don't even want to know how many human bones are in the Ganga. A few minutes near the burning ghat was all it took to feel the layer of [dead people] silt caked on our skin and particles vying to land in my eyeballs.

Far too close to the burning ghat for my taste, people are bathing in the holy water of the Ganga river in the hopes of washing their sins away. To my non-Hindu eye, the Ganga is screaming with bacteria, but I pray for their sake the water is as pure as they claim.
A group of babus/sadhus. In very short, a babu or sadhu is someone that has given up their
family life and dedicated their existence to their religion.
Walking down the chaotic markets and streets, I wished I'd have the guts to videotape my surroundings, just to prove that I am not exaggerating. As prepared as I could be for Varanasi after three months in India, it was no less overwhelming, even for my India-obsessed tastes. With a sensory overloaded environment, no amount of words, photos or videos could ever assist in my attempted description. Unfortunately, my camera tended to remain tucked away, as my primary concern in Varanasi became putting one foot in front of the other.
Even after short excursions in Varanasi, I was so exhausted I felt like I ran a marathon. Towards the end of my stay, my super hilarious new friends and myself found ourselves hiding in the shelter of our guesthouse, without power to face the outside world, and counting the hours til our train ride out.
Didn't have to wander far to find some more crazy Israeli friends
Perhaps it depends on one's mood and circumstances, so maybe I will give it another go next time. As shocking and abrupt as Varanasi can be,  there certainly is an indescribable power in the air that's unlike anywhere I've been. Despite the chaos, Varanasi is as real as it gets and is not to be missed in India.


Anonymous said...

Varanasi was my favorite city! I loved the winding alleys full of life, and the constant display of people/religious ceremonies/acts/etc. along the Ganges. Great post!

Andrea Eisinberg said...

Varanasi is a special place, you are right! I think I came at a time when I was just exhausted from India and wanting something a bit more "shanti-shanti" if you know what I mean.