Benares; Kashi – city of light; the ‘oldest continually habitated city on earth’; Shiva’s city. Varanasi goes by many monikers, and when I’m asked to describe it, the best way is to say that it’s all of India crammed into one place, or India Squared.
On a typical day, the population of Varanasi would double or even triple to 3-4 million people with pilgrims and tourists flooding to the city, the holy of holies for Hindus, creating within this city on the banks of the Holy Ganges the most Indian of all Indian cities. Varanasi attracts visitors and pilgrims from all over India, Indians speaking a myriad of languages and dialects, and who wear different clothing, eat different food and live many different types of lives. Even Hindu’s from other parts of the country practice a different Hinduism to those in Varanasi, although Varanasi is still the singular most important destination for a Hindu to visit at least once in their lifetime.What is it about this intense, crazy, spiritual place? It’s the combination of all it is, the vast contradiction between the ancient Hinduism that permeates each and every square foot of the city and the modern crush of civilisation that threatens to push the primordial origins of the city far from view (but never will).
I could talk for hours about the history, the legends and the myths and the religion of Varanasi, however my first vivid memory of Varanasi is taking a dawn boat ride from the Main Ghat, watching the pilgrims and residents bathe and perform their morning prayers, much as they have done for a thousand years. Back then, there weren’t loudspeakers piping out Hindu chants, but the Brahmin Priests on the riverbank performing pujas and the holy men ringing bells and chanting are still there. There were people performing yoga and meditating in the first rays of the morning sun. Still are today. There were locals out for their early morning walk. Still are today. Chai wallahs setting up their stalls and brewing their first batch of Varanasi masala chai. On the river it’s like nothing has or will ever change.
The chaotic, noisy and utterly enchanting markets of Vishwanath Gali (the laneway leading to the main Shiva Temple) and the little shops and merchants lining the way selling makeup and bangles, sweets, cotton & silk cloth and religious trinkets hasn’t changed in centuries apart from the overhead electrical wires and signs. I love the vibrant energy and colour of these back lanes, the pilgrims walking steadfastly and often mesmerised themselves by the sights – the cows squeezing past the crush, the excitement and peace combined of the hectic atmosphere.
But there is a quiet side too of Varanasi – walking along the riverbank in the afternoon – along the ‘Ghats’. You’re not bothered by touts or beggars, except maybe for the occasional boat man calling out ‘Hello boat’. It’s magic to sit down on the steps somewhere quiet and just gaze out to the river, watching the boats lazily drift by and the odd person walk past.
The eternal feel of Varanasi is of people’s lives being lived in the countless streets and alleyways of the old city. Most lanes too narrow for even a cycle rickshaw, everyone walks, dodging the cows, dogs and cow-poo, the bicycles and odd motorbike as well as other people, some wandering slowly, others rushing by. The stone paths feel like literally millions of lives have been lived along them and millions of footsteps have trampled them for millennia, and I’m sure they have. Pass a doorway and peek inside someone’s home – a child is peering out, a cow nosing their way in looking for some scraps from the kitchen. A housewife is sweeping out the front room, or sitting on the porch watching life go by.
Ultimately though, Varanasi is about the Mother Goddess, the River Ganges. All life is carried on here – water from the river is used in all ceremonies, from births and marriages to death and everything in between. People come down to the river to pray, to wash their body and their clothes, or just to swim, meditate, exercise. Mother Ganges is the ultimate life giver, and it’s only when you come to Varanasi and spend time here in contemplation of all that Varanasi is – the utter hodgepodge of everything good and bad, wondrous and crazy, rich and poor, colourful, fragrant and unpredictable about India – that you come to understand this one eternal truth.
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