Varanasi, City of Life and Death

“Welcome to India” is written on the arc that marks the Sunauli border crossing between Nepal and India. It’s our first time in India and we both don’t really know what to expect. “You hate it or you love it”, many people say. We heard many stories about India, some people can’t wait to go back while others swear to never set foot here again. We will find out in the next two months. Starting with Varanasi.

The ghats

The ghats

On our first day in Varanasi we take a walk along the ghats lining the eastern riverbank of the holy Ganges. Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares, is one of the world’s oldest continually habited cities. And it’s one of the 7 sacred cities in hinduism. For those who want to know: the other ones being Kanchipuram, Haridwar, Ayodhya, Ujjain, Mathura and Dwarka (had to look that up too). Pilgrims come to the ghats to wash away their life-time of sins or to cremate their loved one’s on one of the “burning ghats”. Dying here offers “moksha”, liberation from the circle of birth and death, and that’s what makes Varanasi the center of the Hindu world.

A local craftsman at work

A local craftsman at work

In Varanasi it’s all about the Ganges river. Life on the ghats is best seen from the river so in the early morning we take a boat ride downstream from Assi ghat, one of the southernmost ghats. In the morning mist we see people taking a ritual bath. Next to them people are busy with everyday tasks like washing clothes, doing yoga or bathing their buffaloes. On the burning ghats a couple of cremations are in full swing. When get out of the boat we walk through the small alleyways in Varanasi’s old city. It’s a lively atmosphere. Craftsmen are sitting in their tiny window shops, demonstrating their specific skills. The mixture of people and diversity of activities make it a fascinating sight.

Hindus taking their ritual morning bath.

Hindus taking their ritual morning bath.

Lively alleyways in the old city

Lively alleyways in the old city

But maybe the most memorable experience is when we visit Vishwanath Temple, the most famous temple in Varanasi, also know as the Golden Temple. It’s a bit of a complicated process to get in. The area is full of soldiers because of security issues. Mobile phones and photo camera’s are not allowed and have to be stored in a locker. Shoes must be taken off. And non-Hindus are normally not allowed to go inside the temple so we have to convince the security guys at the entrance that we came here specially to honour Shiva. We buy a small basket with flowers and sweets to emphasize our visit. It works. We have to show our passports and register first but then we’re in.

Inside the temple complex it’s full of people queueing to enter the actual Golden Temple. I feel kind of silly standing there on my bare feet with my little flower basket. Not knowing what to do with it. An Indian man sees the clumsiness and takes me by the hand. I’m dragged inside one of the temples and get some blessings. After that we watch the bathing ceremony of the Shiva lingam that’s inside the Golden Temple. The lingam is actually a sort of egg-shaped stone in the ground. Or probably it’s a phallus symbol since it’s representing the energy and potentiality of the Shiva God. The ceremony is impressive, specially the light ceremony in the end. But I don’t have a clue what’s it all about. I resolve to I read in a bit before visiting a temple like this.

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Manikarnika, the main burning ghat.

We’re still a bit overwhelmed from the temple visit as we sit at Blue Lassi, the famous lassi shop in one of the small streets near the temple. The lassi’s here are delicious indeed. While we sit down and enjoy our lassi, we see at least a dozen funeral processions passing by. They are on their way to Manikarnika, the main burning ghat. I think about how a cremation takes place in Europe. First you’re transported in a black or gray car, put in a just as cheerless audience chamber and then burned in some sort of electric oven. Here you’re carried through the alleyways on a bamboo stretcher, covered in colorful swaths and flowers, while your friends and relatives are singing mantra’s. Then you are washed in the Ganges river and burned in public on a pile of firewood on the riverbank. I don’t how you think about it but to me the Hindu way is far more appealing. Well, not anytime soon of course 😉

Indian trains are an experience on itself

Indian trains are an experience on itself

From Varanasi we take the night train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Taking a train in India is an experience in itself. Specially the reservation system. I’m not going to explain it here in detail, there’s a very good and detailed explanation from The Man in Seat 61. We had a RAC status and we had only 1 confirmed berth for the two of us. An Indian guy, also on RAC status, told me I just had to take one of the empty berths. Should be no problem. But of course the man who had the reservation for my bed showed up in the middle of the night and wanted to kick me out. Steward came in between and assigned him another bed. Strange system. I guess it’s based on the fact that not all the berths are occupied during the whole length of the trip. The computer that makes up the reservation chart figures out how many RAC statuses can be given and then it’s up to the steward to sort out the puzzle. Apparently, it works.

It's crowded and chaotic but nothing we cannot handle

It’s crowded and chaotic but nothing we cannot handle

India isn’t as overwhelming as we would have thought it would be. Ok, the ongoing honk-horning traffic is chaotic. There’s more garbage on the streets than I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen cows and stray dogs feeding themselves from the piles of rubbish. Men are urinating wherever they feel like. It’s crowed and it smells like an open sewage. It’s definitely more intense than other places. But I guess we have got used to a certain amount of chaos. After a couple of months on the road we seem to adapt easily. And to be honest, I sort of like the chaos. It’s a system of it’s own. Without too many predefined rules. The people simply adapt to the situations that occur and somehow it works.

Love it or hate it? So far, I like it.

I like it

I like it

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