Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
The city of Varanasi is billed as the oldest still-functioning city in the world. Sitting on the sacred Ganges River, the city is made up of narrow cobbled streets that seem to twist everywhere except to the place you are trying to go. Shops line the tiny streets selling incense, jewelry, Benarasi silk saris, samosas, shoes, and endless numbers of technicolor Ali Baba pants, scarves, and kurtas to tempt tourists. There is excrement and trash everywhere, so hiking shoes are a must. We spent three days wandering up and down the ghats, taking photos and just being.
Said to flow from the hair of Shiva, Hindus believe that a bathe in the Ganges will ensure that their souls will obtain moksha, liberation. The river is now badly polluted, although scientists have been puzzled on the river’s seeming ability to self-purify from bacteria such as cholera and dysentery. Families carry their deceased on ornately decorated stretchers to the water. The bodies are taken to the burning ghat, dipped into the holy water, cremated on pyres of fragrant sandalwood and then the ashes are scattered in the water.
The Sinking Temple
Other than the picturesque riverbank, the craziest part of Varanasi is the people. There are the legions of boatmen and vendors, the guys who grab your hand for a “no money” massage and then demand a hundred rupees, the kids playing cricket and Frisbee on any available flat surface, balls constantly flying into the water or past tourists’ heads. There are innumerable robed sadhus with shaved heads, their walking sticks knocking along to their own beat. Some stare past you into another world, others sit cross-legged on the steps and stare you down with their hand out: “Picture? Picture?”
One early morning we took a rowboat ride to watch the dawn over the water. Stumbling out of bed and down to the riverbank, we found “Terry,” an elderly and amiable boatman. We bought tiny plates filled with marigolds and homemade candles to set upon the water. The world turned midnight blue to sweet lavender as we slipped silently past the ghats, the sinking temple, and countless Hindus taking baths in the sacred water. When touring temple ruins, palaces and forts, I often wish I could see what life had been like when the structures burst with daily life. On the ghats, I exist in the past, present and future. And the everlasting waters flow by.