Varanasi is a very powerful place. There are a lot of people (2.5 million) packed into a relatively small space, plus the city is full of pilgrims coming to bathe in the Ganges. And of course, there are the tourists. In the 24 hours we have been here so far, we have packed in so many experiences, it is almost overwhelming.
Our Air India flight from Khajuraho was a little turbulent, but it was fun to try to figure out what the in-flight snack might possibly be (some kind of muffin, or was it more of a sandwhich...?). The flight attendants all wore matching uniform saris, which struck some of us as fun. The airport itself was small and looked kind of 'third world,' but the security was actually even tighter than it was when we left to fly internationally. Not only did they X-ray each bag and then go through them by hand, they had us through a metal detector and then wanded us individually. Interesting.
When we arrived in Varanasi, we drove in from the airport through much of the city, and got a sense of it. The city is incredibly busy, packed with people, vehicles of all sorts, and animals. The 'new' part of Varanasi is laid out much more like a European city, with parkways and roundabouts, and many more urban trees and parks than we have yet seen. But other than the layout, the resemblence to Europe ends. For example, as I sit here in this internet cafe (to call it that is generous), I can see a paved street (a main street in fact), the shoulders running to sand. There is a construction site across the street that is composed of a large hole in the ground, some piles of dirt with sleeping dogs on top, a pile of stones of which some spill out into the street, and a large cow that seems like it might not be feeling well. While traffic is running in both directions, it isn't following lanes, and everyone is driving or pedaling or walking right down the middle. Horns are honking pretty much constantly. A guy on a bicycle rickshaw just rode past carrying what must be 20 or 30 large bags of straw, piled up at least 15 feet from his rickshaw. He barely fit under the low hanging electrical wire across the street. The pace--like the sounds and smells--is big, fast, hard, and strong.
After we arrived yesterday, we paired up and took bicylcle rickshaws down through the city into the old town to get to the river. The closer we got, the more crowded it became, until we were literally hemmed in by people. One o the rikshaws actually had an fender bender with a motorcycle, and nobody even stopped! We finally couldn't move any more, and we dismounted and walked down to the most important of the ghats (ghats are the wide steps that line the river). This ghat was packed with pilgrims and celebrants, there were chants, candles, sitars, drums, bells, and of course, hawkers trying to sell us candles and postcards and relics.
We went out into the wide Ganges by boat, and moved up the river so that we could get a sense of all the different ghats (they all run into each other). The boats were long and narrow, made of wood. The boat boys used large bamboo pieces to paddle and pole us along. There were probably a hundred other boats out in the river with us, moving up and down the bank. People were swimming, some were bathing, and others were lighting candles and chanting, all along the banks. We went up as far as the main crematorium. It is considered extremely important for all Hindus to be cremated at the Ganges, and it is especially auspicious to be cremated at this particular crematorium. We could watch, from the river, as a number of what looked like large camp fires burned. We could also see the bodies, wrapped in bright colors with a golden mantle on top, waiting to be burned. After the fire goes out, the family members sift through the ashes and put them into the river. We could see families standing around the fires. It was very powerful and quite lovely.
As our boat came back to the main ghat, the sunset flower ceremony started. It was incredible! All along the steps, thousands of people sat and clapped, rang bells, chanted, and chimed. There were 7 orange and gold robed priests up on pedestals, ringing ceremonial bells in the left hands, and following a ceremonial offering to the river with their right hands. They moved their right hands in unison as they faced the river, then moved to face each side, and face back to the crowd. Their hand motions looked like very slow yoga poses, with different objects. They slowly swung a burning candle, then a large oil lamp, then a burning head of Shiva, then spices that they threw down into the river, then some kind of fan. There was chanting over the loudspeaker, and along with the bells and drums (not following any discernable pattern), it was loud and colorful and dramatic, and in some way, it was very moving. Many of the worshippers were swaying and medititating, apparently using the noise as a way to focus their prayers. As the sun set, the main priest went to the center and blew out some loud notes on a large conch shell. The drums and bells got louder and stronger, and then it was over. I think this is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my life. The river, the crowds, the colors, the sounds....
Varanasi is amazing.
Today, we went out on the river again (to see the sun rise). This time, instead of going back to the main ghat, we disembarked in the old city and walked through tiny narrow streets (in some places no wider than 3 feet across). In places, we would round a corner and come face to face with a cow and have to edge around. There were tiny shops no bigger than a closet, and all around us, other pilgrims wandering in this holy city. This warren of streets got us to the most important Hindu temple in Varanasi, with its roof of solid gold. Sharing the same site, and even the same wall, was an ancient mosque. This site is so disputed that we had to pass armed guards all around, get frisked, and go through a metal detector set up in the street just to get close. We weren't allowed in, but we could climb up some steep old steps to look down on the temple and mosque (and see the armed guards).
Later, we went out to the site where Buddha (the real person!) first gave the talk that set out the principles that became Buddhism. In Sarnath, we saw the 3rd century BC ruins that were built to honor Buddha, and we went to the relatively new main Buddhist temple. It was an amazing thing to get to walk where Buddha actually walked 2600 years ago.
We now have some free time, and there's a lot more to see in Varanasi. We get on a train (a night train!) tomorrow to go back to Delhi, our last leg of the journey.
Home soon. Mixed feelings.
Martha and Andrea