Even at the airport in Varanasi, I felt the difference. There was a shift in the energy and it felt much calmer than Delhi. The cab ride from the airport to our AirBnB took us about an hour with traffic. The road into the city was more rural and there was a pervading peace in the air.
We checked into our AirBnB and headed straight for The Ganges River (Ganga). We chose to visit Varanasi because it is a holy city and pilgrimage for many Hindus. The Ganges River is the destination in that pilgrimage and a Ganga bath is said to remove impurities and sins from both this and past lifetimes.
After discovering and learning to navigate the busy Main Road, we headed towards the main ghat to the steps of the Ganga. As we descended the steps and the Ganga came into view, I felt emotional and overwhelmed. There was a beautiful presence and something very admirable about so many people coming from all around India, to be cleansed and renewed.
Almost immediately, that spell was broken as we were quickly approached by vendors asking if we wanted to take a boat ride. Boat? Boat? Boat? It’s a constant question when you are near any of the ghats and it’s better to move down to less popular ghats in order to take in the majesty of the Ganga uninterrupted.
Still, there was a sacred energy among the crowds at the main ghat. We walked around and explored. We soon found a guide who would become a great friend over the next few days. Vishl took us to the cremation ghat and a priest explained to us the intricate and sacred process of preparing a body to be cremated and ashes emptied into the Ganga. There was a cremation in process as he was talking. It was beautiful and horrifying, and smelled surprisingly sweet, since either mango tree wood or sandalwood is used. I could not help staring at the feet that were sticking out of the fire throughout the priests explanation. The feet kept charring more and more till eventually, one dropped down to incinerate more and eventually into ash.
Every evening, at the main ghat there is a huge ceremony where priests perform offerings to the main hindu gods. It is filled with lights, incense, fire, chanting, singing and an opportunity at the end to light a candle and send it into the river for a blessing.
The next morning, we were up early and at the river by 5:30 AM for a sunrise boat ride and bath in the Ganga. We knew we definitely wanted to go in the river and feel the full experience of the Ganga.
The boat ride was quiet and peaceful. We were able to see the other ghats and get a feel for the expanse of the Ganga. Our guide took us to the bank on the other side of the river (said to be less polluted) and we eagerly went in. Bathing in the Ganga was probably my most favorite and peaceful experience in all of India. There were tons of other people in the river, yet the energy was quiet, contemplative and pure as opposed to the chaos on the streets. After our Ganga bath, we continued our tour around the various ghats and then returned to main ghat.
After our Ganga bath, we visited Kasha Vishwanath Temple. It is pretty common for pilgrims to Varanasi to start their day with a Ganga bath and after they are cleansed, to visit the temple to offer a pooja (offering) to Shiva. The temple was an absolute insane experience. The line was extensive and the narrow street to get to the temple was completely packed. We had to take off our shoes and tip toe in the street that wound up to the temple. There was a strong police presence around. It was explained to us that because this is such a holy site, it has been the target of past bombings in religious wars. We were questioned by the police before we went in and my husband was scrutinized for his beard. We had to leave all our things in a locker, absolutely no pictures were allowed, so the only photos I have to share are of pooja being sold on the streets as we were in line. I love these pictures because they look so peaceful and colorful. What you don’t see is the insanity occurring behind me; the water I am standing in barefoot, the elbow that was just shoved in my back, the police yelling or the woman crying asking to go to the front because she is so dehydrated and looks ready to pass out.
After offering our pooja and being blessed by the priest, we set out to explore some less crowded temples and the rest of Varanasi.
One of my favorite parts was finding an quiet spot on a balcony of an old building near one of the ghats. We had a nice breeze thanks to the curved arches and a gorgeous view of the river at sundown.
The next day, I checked off a huge wish list item and took a private yoga class. It was such a fun experience. The instructor, Senile, led us through some laughing yoga and I learned a different spin on the sun salutations.
We stayed in Varanasi for a total of five days. When we were in Delhi and people were asking about the rest of our trip, we were told we could easily see Varanasi in two days. Although the city is not very big, I am glad we took our time. We probably could have seen the main ghat, the ceremony and temples in two days, but with our extra time we did a whole lot of sitting, people watching and exploring of less popular ghats. We were able to better take in the sacredness of the pilgrimage that many people make from all around India.
We were able to witness many pilgrims shaving their heads before their Ganga bath for ultimate purification, since the hair is believed to be the dirtiest part of the body:
We did some swami watching:
We saw some pretty sweet tuk tuk art:
And we witnessed water buffalo taking an afternoon Ganga bath:
And the many, many cows of India were all interrupted during one meal or another by Dylan:
My time in India is still sinking in to my heart and mind. I cannot fully explain it into words, but it had a huge impact on me. I am still processing all the stark contrasts, the challenges to my privilege and adjusting my mindset about what the means to me back in the United States, the beauty I found in completely surrendering myself to discomfort, chaos and everything foreign, the amazing similarities I found even in a surrounding that was so different, but some things about people, hearts and kindness all being the same. India is somewhere I am sure I will I will re-visit again and again through my lifetimes. I am sure there is so much more the beautiful land has to teach me.