Varanasi, The City of Beginning and Ending
Updated: Feb 27
It was a tiring morning after a long overnight bus ride from Agra to Varanasi. Coupled with poor sleep at the night (you will know what I mean if you have tried Indian overnight sleeping bus before), the moment I step out of the bus, it was very chaotic. Persistent touts, confusing labyrinth made up from interwinding small street and numerous cow dungs aka 'The Landmine', I started to question my decision to come to Varanasi aka the holiest city in whole India.
Varanasi or Banaras was located about 800km from New Delhi, the capital of India. It had been long dubbed as The Holiest City in India (among India's seven holy city). Varanasi is about 3000 years old now and it had been continued to be inhabited since then. Before I came, I had long heard and read about the pollution due to unsustainable use of the Ganges River. However, it had also been doubt at the city of enlightment and this is what draw me here.
Chaotic Street Full of Cow and Polluted River
Varanasi was basically being divided into two distinct zone, the town and river front. Since most of the Ghat was located at the river, it have higher concentration of visitors there. Above photos show what I had saw the moment I alighted from my bus. From a street occupied by Indian's King of the Road (cow) to a drunken man lying on the street as well as the local cleaning their cloth at the river and so called 'Holy Man' asking passer-by for money. Beside, there are a lot of well known tourist trap of river cruise and donation (which I will share more on this post).
Starting My Exploration
It is a strange city where you can feel like a dweller and an alien at the same time. It is ancient, modern progressive and sometimes regressive, all at once. - Richa Chadda
After a quick rest at my hostel, I started wondering in front of the river. First, I walk by the main street where a loud noise of traditional Indian's music reached my ear. As a curious traveller, I walked toward it. IT'S AN INDIAN MARRIAGE. Not one but more like whole Kampung (village) is getting marriage at the same time. It 's times for festival.
In India, wedding is basically a festival where friends and family will gather and celebrate the union of two souls.
I don't exactly know the reason why Indian choose to conduct their marriage here but I believe they wish to get the blessing from the mighty Ganges River which had been worshipped for millennial in India. I have a failed marriage. Seeing reunion of two souls and the smile of the love bird always delight me. Deep inside my heart, I pray that these sweet love bird will work together until the end of the life time. Congratulations.
A great marriage doesn't happen because of the love you had in the beginning but how well you CONTINUE BUILDING the love until the end. - Unknown
While I am immersing myself on this colourful ceremony, I came across a lovely couple who strike up a conversation with me. The groom share with me their local culture and thought on the marriage as well as how they met with each other and fall in love. As the groom talk, the shy bride remain at her new man side and looking at him feeling proud of her new life partner.
Henna (or Mehndi) is a paste made from plant and it was associated with good luck and positive spirits. It is part on intangible culture of the Indian.
A night before the wedding ceremony, Mehndi ceremony will be held as a way to wish the bride good health and prosperity as she started her journey on marriage.
This is the lovely couple who invited me to be part of their ceremony. Really grateful for their hospitability and treat of wedding snack (photo on the right) 😊.
Charm is the Product of Unexpected. - Jose Marti
As I continue my stroll on the riverbank, my mind started to be charm by these hidden charm of Varanasi. As I continue to stroll by, I started to be attracted by the view I saw.
As chaotic as it seem, there are always a serene part to these chaotic. Along the river, it is common to see many peoples with peaceful smile. Seeing them, it somehow make myself peaceful as well. I started my journey around the world to re-discover myself. At Varanasi, it make me realise, it will forever be chaotic as long as mankind still exist. True peace is depend on how you interpret the chaos and isolate yourself from it.
My chaotic heart started to discover peace. I decided to stop at one of the many stair at the Ghat and doing nothing. It times for my brain to deserve some 'blank' moment.
Ghat is the riverfront stair leading to the bank of Ganges River. In Varanasi, there are about 88 Ghats which are use for various reason with bathing, Puja and cremation being the main usage here.
It is common sight here to see pilgrim coming from all over the India just to take a sip of bath here. Ringing bells, chanting and smell of incense filled the air in the city as the sun started to rise higher and higher as I continue my exploration.
For thousand of years, peoples have come to offer their prayers to the Mother Ganga. It was believe that a dip in the holy waters in Varanasi will wash away all your sin and achieve salvation in the next life.
As day grow darker, the crowd started to gather at one of the main Ghat in Varanasi, the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Every evening, soon after sunset, area around this Ghat started to become lively as Ganga Aarti ceremony or offering ritual to the Mother Ganga began. As the crowd grew, scammer targeting foreign tourist grew in number, just as mushroom grow after the rain.
Carrying deepam, 7 priests perform the ritual and moving it up and down in tune with the bhajans or devotional song in Hinduism. Whole ceremony last about 45 minutes. Check out from your accommodation if there is any special Puja ceremony during your visit.
You no need to pay to witness this ceremony. However, if you wish to have a seat, you will need to do some donation which value is up for you to determine. Most of the chair or siting platform will be place directly behind the main stage. As for me, as an avid photographer, I manage to found a higher observation corridor which was located at level 2 of 1 of the temple nearby. Of course, for this, I need to make some 'donation' for the temple maintenance. Remember to negotiate the price before you walk up to level 2.
Beware of flower or incense sellers. As you walk around, you might be approach by multiple flower or incense sellers and in a speed of light, they will apply Bindi (Hindu's decoration) on your forehead and ask for donation. Some of them are quite persistent until they get the money out from you. And they will never be satisfied with the 'donation' you gave them, so my advise is better avoid them when you saw them from faraway.
One of the must do things is river excursion . Typically there are two types of excursion. Morning excursion and Evening excursion . During the excursion , you will be be bring around the river in local boat and the climax of these excursion will be observing the Puja ceremony. I would advise you to take the morning excursion and do the booking through your accommodation to prevent being 'chopped off' by touts of boat operators. If you took evening excursion, the view from boat is not as pleasing as viewing it from the land (from photographer's perspective 😊).
The same Puja ceremony was also being held in dawn at another Ghat. As the ceremony will be held at Assi Ghat which is quite a distance away from the other main Ghats, I would recommend you to take morning excursion here as you would not like to walk in the slippery labyrinth planted with cow dung early in the morning, right?
Morning view along the Ganga
The morning view along the river is peaceful. However, my mind was pre-occupied by the thought when I paid a quick visit to the main cremation Ghat (Manikarnika) the day before. Again, this Ghat was not spare by local scammer who are trying to extort money from curious foreigner. The most common scam was the donation to buy woods for the cremation ceremony. I was approach by scammers when I walk to Manikarnika Ghat the days before with the donation price of 500 rupee for each kg of woods and I am required to donate minimum 5kg of the wood which is 2500 rupees (SGD45) which is ridiculous. Frustrated, I was turned off by it and walk away from the ghat.
The next morning, under the protection of my boat captain of the excursion (I book it from my hostel), I finally had the chances to visit this Ghat, albeit viewing it far away from the middle of the river. Burning were done 24/7 here.
Our boat captain also act as our guide and he shared about Hindu belief on death and cremation on Varanasi. Before we reach the burning Ghat, we are advised not to take photos as a sign of respect to the deceased. Below photo is the only photo I took from faraway. The smoke is from the burning ceremony.
Hindus believe that by burning on funeral pyres by the Ganga, one can bypass the cycle of rebirth and going directly to heaven. It's was Hindus wish to be reunite with the their creator at the river after their demish.
The deceased will be wrapped in white cloth and be placed under a pile of woods. At the burning, the eldest son (chief mourner) are required to shave all the hair on his body (including his eye brow) and wear all white. He will then lead the mourners and walk counterclockwise around the pyre for five times (representing the five elements; fire, water, earth, air and ether). The burning will soon be burned by using fire from the thousand year fire; a source of fire what was believe had been continuedly in burning for thousand of years. Once the burning is completed, ashes and bones will be scattered to the Ganga, symbolising the reunion with the Creators.
Sitting on the boat surrounded by the smoke from burning, multiple thoughts started to play around my brain.
Life is not permanent.
As I watch an elderly being cremated under the pile of logs, I can't help but focus on his hand as it turn dry and black from the burning. There is a gold chain on his wrist. I started to imagine what kind of life he had. Is he rich and successful? How much had he toiled his life to buy the gold chain. As his body started to dry up, the fingers started to become unrecognizable and the gold chain slowly fall off. This scene make me reflecting on what is the real purposes of my life.
2. Not everyone is born equal
The cleaning work after the burning was done by the Doms or the lowest of the caste in Hinduism. In India, caste have heavy influence in the society. Due to their low born status, Doms had been pre-destinated to do those dirty, dangerous and unwanted job. And future seem glimpse for them as they and their descendent might be stuck to it for generations.
3. Women are not allowed at the cremation even to mourn her own husband
I can't imagine how sad a women is if she are not able to pay her last respect to the man she called husband. And in Hinduism, widow had to remain widow for the rest of their life.
4. No Crying allowed
For Hindus, death and life are not permanent. I love to cry and I cannot imagine how tough it will be if I am not allowed to shed tear in this situation. Apparently, death is celebrated especially in Varanasi as the decease finally escape the cycle of rebirth or Samsara.
A New ME
I spend the next two days wandering around Varanasi reflecting on what I had experience so far in this city. In this city I had witnessed the beginning of life (blessing of young born which I do not share in this post), marriage and finally death.
As I sit down alone on the riverbank watching a group of local kids playing cricket, I realise for my life in this Earth, I had not actually living. If you ask me about what is my biggest take away from this somehow dirty and flirty but yet charming city, it is not about the fear of death but rather the fear of not living my life to the fullness. From disowning this city the moment I step my foot here to loving it, I am leaving this city as a better version of myself.