My second stop in India couldn’t have been more different from the first. Varanasi, or “Very Nasty” as its known in some expat circles, is known as the holiest of holy cities throughout India. The mighty Ganges river is the hub and main attraction here, and tourists flock here to witness, of all things, people bathing. Every morning thousands of locals walk down to the river to ‘have a bath,’ pray, and a variety of other things including laundry, ripping off tourists, and burning their dead. Yes I said burn their dead. In fact, it is estimated that an average of 100 bodies are burned each day at the edge of the river, where their families gather and witness this one of a kind funeral that is very unique to Varanasi. But it’s only the men who are allowed in attendance, and its become illegal for women to come as they apparently get ‘too emotional,’ and some were hurling themselves into the fire along with their recently deceased and recently ‘inflamed’ loved ones. The cremation process is all out in the open, and its common courtesy to refrain from taking photos, and so I politely obliged, but its interesting to watch no less. The families will come from all over India to give their loved ones a proper funeral and spread their ashes in the Ganges. First things first: bring the body down and negotiate a price for woods of varying quality and price. The higher castes obviously get the ‘better’ wood, the lower ones get whatever they can afford. But it’s a worthwhile investment it seems, to send your loved ones off to the next life in style.
The reason I think this city often gets the nickname ‘very nasty’ is because of a two-dimensional paradigm. First, the roads alleys are all narrow, with little or no room to walk, and second, cows/pigs/goats/dogs/monkeys/people all share these roads and alleys together. The biggest culprits are the cows, who have no discretion whatsoever as to where they will or won’t lay waste. But being as they are ‘holy,’ the thought of eating beef in India must be akin to eating a dog burger or a cat sandwich in the western world. But the cow pies don’t all go to waste (pun intended). They are harvested and dried in a patty form to be sold and used for heating sources as well as cooking fuel. Here is a pic of someone’s rooftop cow pie factory:
Talk about a crappy job!…..oops there I go again with the puns. Poop jokes are too easy.
Varanasi is also home to extremely devoted Hindus. We visited several temples but again, out of respect, photos were not allowed inside. However, walking through this city and its temples, witnessing people worshiping, chanting, and performing their daily rituals, brought a very dark spiritual feeling over me. Talking to one Hindu temple goer, he told me how the ‘god’ of that temple is believed to get up every morning from the water and walk to the altar in the middle of the temple where she can be worshiped. When I asked the gentleman how he knew this, he didn’t have any answer, but just said “It is believed to be true.” It seems as if anyone can build a temple, create a ‘god,’ and then proceed to create any story about said ‘god,’ and then people will come to worship there. No doubt there are many gods in Hinduism, but just how many? I’m not really sure. And EVERYONE in India has a religion, in fact it could well be the most religiously diverse country in the history of the world. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Buddhism, and the list goes on including various mixes of a few. The fascinating part is that they all live together quite harmoniously. There is some unrest in the northern areas of Kashmir near Pakistan, but that’s mainly due to disputes over land and years of unresolved border squabbles. And this country has been drawing in spiritual seekers from all over the world for decades. In fact I felt rather out-of-place seeing as I was the only foreigner who didn’t have dreadlocks and couldn’t play a sitar (only a slight exaggeration).
Despite a lot of spiritual darkness, and my shoes getting stolen while I was in a restaurant (had to take them off to go inside), Varanasi is quite a curious city. If you go:
1. Stay down on the ghats over the river at one of the many inexpensive guest houses.
2. Check out all the temples by hiring an auto-rickshaw driver for the day.
3. Take the boat up the river in the morning. Even though it’s exceptionally touristy and a bit strange being in a sea of people who are all snapping photos with their multi-thousand dollar cameras of locals doing their daily bathing routine, it’s just one of those once in a lifetime things one has to do. When in Rome….
4. Get up on a rooftop and watch the pigeon callers! These guys are all over the city in the morning yelling at pigeons, seemingly competing, trying to see who can call in the most birds.
5. There is a fire dance performed each night on the ghats at 7:30, just follow the loud music and fire.
6. Watch your shoes!!!!
DO NOT: Swim in the Ganges river. The water has been tested and was found to have one of the highest concentrations of bacteria in the world, not to mention an average of 100 bodies are put in there each day, times 365 days a year, times………how many years????? You can do the math. Enjoy some more pics below: