When putting together our initial India itinerary, one of the places that I wanted to visit most in all of the country was Varanasi. Known as one of the holiest cities in the world, people come from all across India to bathe in the waters of the Ganges River, as well as to die and be cremated along its banks. In Varanasi, both life and death are right in your face. Everything that I read about the city described travelers’ experiences as moving and even life changing. However, I found our trip to Varanasi to be far from that, unfortunately…
We arrived to Varanasi groggy from our overnight train and were immediately met by an onslaught of rickshaw and taxi drivers vying for our attention and desperately trying to get our business. After much negotiating, we ended up in a taxi (he offered the cheapest price!), heading to a guesthouse that I had already emailed to confirm availability. Upon arrival, they didn’t have exactly the room that we were expecting, but we did get a room with a nice view out onto the ghats for a reasonable price. We immediately crashed into the bed and took a brief nap before heading out to explore a new city.
Introduction to Varanasi
Varanasi is one of the most important cities in the world to Hindus. If one dies in Varanasi, he/she attains moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. All up and down the river, ghats (series of stairs leading down to the water) are full of life and death. People bathe and wash clothes while children play in the water at the ghats. Ceremonies are regularly held at some. And, at others, bodies are cremated all throughout the day. Life, and particularly death, are central to the ghats of Varanasi.
However, rather than being a place to mourn or celebrate life and death, I found Varanasi to be a place where people push you, looking for any angle they can to get something from you. From offering to share a seat with you during a religious ceremony to following you between ghats as a “guide” to inviting you to view a funeral ceremony from a raised viewing platform. Rather than an opportunity to share the city with visitors, many of the people that I encountered only saw these interactions as an opportunity to ask, request, and then attempt to demand money.
Visiting Varanasi during the rainy season also altered the city’s terrain. When we arrived, the river was high…higher than it typically was, even for the rainy season. The government had canceled all boat sides. With the water so high and running so quickly, it was dangerous for the boats to carry tourists up and down the waterway. In addition to no boat rides, the high water meant that much less of the ghats were available for people to walk on. I had read that during the dry season one could walk from ghat to ghat. However, with so much water, there was no way that we could cross between the ghats without walking up through the winding maze of streets and alleys, which we did enjoy doing. I felt that without this extra space to move about, all of the locals, pilgrims, tourists, families attending funerals, etc. were constricted to a smaller area. For some reason, I felt that this added to the unpleasantness that I found down by the water in Varanasi.
Saying all of this, not all of our experiences in Varanasi were negative. The first full day in the city, we strolled up and down the small streets and alleys along the river. At each turn, we encountered something new. An unexpected temple. Cows blocking the road. Colorful houses. Cheerful children. Welcoming storefronts. An escape from much of the craziness beside the water, we enjoyed taking in local life during our stroll. We visited some of the less popular ghats and had the chance to see just a snapshot of real life along the Ganges.
Our guesthouse was also located toward the end of the ghats of Varanasi. With a lovely terrace just outside our room, we could open our windows to look out or spend hours sitting on the terrace and watching locals go about their business washing clothes, bathing, and worshipping alongside the river.
The Ganga Aarti
One evening, we attended the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The ceremony was packed with pilgrims and tourists. A local woman offered to share a seat she was sitting in with me for the ceremony. Despite not arriving early enough, we now had a great view of the ceremony (until some very late arrivals tried to block our view and got in multiple arguments with the woman who offered me the seat and those around us…definitely did not make for a peaceful worship service atmosphere…). The ganga aarti included dance, fire, reverence for the river, and music. The photos below do much better job of capturing the atmosphere than words.
The Manikarnika Ghat
One of the highlights of a trip to Varanasi is supposed to be the Manikarnika Ghat. This is the primary “burning ghat” where cremations are held throughout the day. As funerals are being conducted and bodies are being cremated, photographs are not allowed at the ghat. We had heard mixed stories of people’s experiences at Manikarnika and proceeded with caution, attempting to do nothing to upset anyone and avoid wannabe “guides” who repeatedly attempted to follow us and give us directions, spewing information that they would then want money for providing.
As we approached the river, we were immediately surrounded. Looking as if they could touch the sky were stacks and stacks of wood as far as the eye could see. This wood was
stacked up for use in cremations. Apparently, there is a very exact science to knowing the amount of wood required to cremate a body, depending on its size. Families of the deceased are asked to pay high prices for this wood (and offered different types of wood at various prices to choose from). Many tourists in the area of the ghat are pressured by those conducting the cremations to contribute to the purchase of wood for the dead who will be cremated that day.
As we stood, staring up, amidst the stacks of wood, I saw a body being carried on a bamboo stretcher, wrapped in colorful cloth, down to the river. The body was dipped in the river and then transferred over to one of the platforms over the river to be cremated. All around Manikarnika, the sky was filled with smoke from the burning of bodies alongside the river.
A number of tourists had followed some locals up in a building to watch cremations take place, and as they walked away, they were being hounded for money and told that their donations were not sufficient. Wanting to respect the dignity of the cremations and avoid additional hassle, we decided to leave the ghat shortly after we arrived.
The Vishwanath Temple
From Manikarnika, we went to visit what we thought would be a more uplifting location, the Vishwanath Temple. Hidden in the many alleys near the Manikarnika ghat hides the most famous temple of Varanasi. Built in 1776, the dome and tower are covered with 800 kg of gold plating. Rather than being set aside on its own, shops and houses are built up all around the temple complex. And, finding where to enter the complex is extremely difficult. After at least 20 minutes of walking (feeling like were just circling the walls) and being told multiple different places to enter by various security guards around the outside, we finally found a door through which foreigners were allowed to enter the complex. Also, to go inside, pretty much everything you are carrying must be left outside. There are a number of shops that have lockers where you can leave your belongings for a small fee. Upon entering, we were met with another series of winding pedestrian streets through the complex. We had read that non-Hindus are often not allowed to enter the actual temple but that we should bring our passports just in case. After getting to the main temple door, a security guard directed us to an office from which we were told we could get a pass to enter. However, upon visiting this office, we were told that since we were not Hindu we couldn’t enter. What a run around! While I understand that the temple wants to restrict entrance to those who are members of its faith, we were treated with such rudeness and annoyance as we tried to visit this religious site. After all of the chaos and touts from Manikarnika, it was discouraging to find more disappointment at Vishwanath. For two people respectful of other religions and very interested in learning more and exploring other faiths, we were saddened with the way that we were treated at this temple. (Completely different from our experience with the Sikhs at the Golden Temple.)
Finding Faith in Varanasi?
Coming to Varanasi, I had hoped to experience the center of faith in India and be moved by the experience. I had heard such wonderful things about how the city transformed visitors. As I came to discover Varanasi and find faith in the city, I found that in many cases religion had been replaced with riches. At every turn, there were requests for money. Rather than welcoming visitors and accepting them into local life, they were seen as walking ATMs, ready and able to dispense out money whenever requested. I was disappointed in Varanasi. But not just in my experience in the city but a bit in humanity, as well.
I know that there are needs. Particularly in India, the needs of many that I met during this trip and a previous one abound. However, demanding money from tourists is not the answer to larger development issues that plague people and places like Varanasi. Handouts will not solve issues of inequity and poverty. Guilting the other into handing over money is not the way to build relationships with people who may appear so different from one another but at heart or more similar than we typically acknowledge.
Even in the U.S., I feel that money occupies too much of people’s heads and hearts. Rather than being thankful for what we have, we think of all the things we want that we don’t have and how we can pay for them. Rather than investing in relationships or experiences, we are preoccupied with buying new houses and stuff to fill them with. This is not a criticism of homeowners or of people who like nice things (I like nice things myself!). However, I hope that this offers an opportunity for myself and my reader to reflect on what we have, what we want, and what our priorities are. As I trying to do throughout my journey, I hope you will stop and think about what is running your life. Where is your faith, and in what does it lie? Does it lie in a religion that preaches love and challenges us to live our lives differently each and every day…or, does it lie in the material possessions that we accumulate and the desires to have more and more?
Rather than leaving Varanasi with a better understanding of Hinduism or a spiritual revelation about life and death, I left the city a bit disillusioned with where faith was not only in the lives of those I encountered in this chaotic city along the Ganges but also the life that I had been living in the U.S. and the lives which many back home live, as well.