"If you like India," we were told, "you will love Varanasi. Even if you don't, you will certainly never forget it!" That's for sure.
Possibly the oldest city in the world, Varanasi occupies an especially holy place on the banks of the River Ganges. Hindus believe they should come here at least once in their lifetime to bathe in the river. Watching the religious rituals and everyday life of this chaotic, crowded, and fascinating city was a unique experience.
Benares (now known as Varanasi) embodies the spiritual soul of India, its beginnings over 2,500 years ago steeped in Hindu mythology. The Ganges, or "Mother Ganga," India's holiest river, flows past Varanasi in the course of a 2,600-mile journey-from the Himalayas, across the fertile northern plains of India, to the Bay of Bengal
The Ganges is really a paradox, beneficent and destructive by turns. It provides sustenance for many millions of people who live along its banks, but it also inflicts merciless flood damage during the monsoons. At Varanasi, it is polluted by raw sewage, mundane trash, and the human and animal remains which float by on its surface. Yet for the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who come here daily to bathe, to chant devotional hymns and to scoop its waters in their palms and drink it like a libation, "it is a river as pure and ancient as faith."
Not only Hindu pilgrims flock to Varanasi. One of four holy places associated with the life of Gautama the Buddha is only 10kms away at Sarnath. Sarnath is where he preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. He also laid the stone foundation here for the very first Buddhist sangha. Excavations are currently underway, uncovering a number of monasteries, stupas, temples, inscriptions and other antiquities dating back to the 3rd Century B.C. Nearby, the Archaeological Museum gave us a chance to view many of these items and other unique Buddha masterpieces.
Long ago a sapling bodhi tree was brought back to Sarnath from Sri Lanka, where an offshoot from the original bodhi tree of the Buddha had been taken by believers. The day we were there the site was also being visited by a group of Japanese Buddhist monks. A low wall protects the huge tree from casual passers-by, but as we walked its circumference slowly I picked up one fallen leaf to take home for a friend. The leaf was later spotted by a customs authority but kindly "overlooked."
NIGHT CEREMONY ON GANGES
That evening we were bussed as close to the Ganges as is allowed at night, then transferred to pedal-rickshaws two-by-two. The streets were absolutely jammed, but as always the traffic kept moving forward. Suddenly there was a commotion ahead of us - Gillian's rickshaw had been hit by a cyclist and she'd been jettisoned onto the roadway. But just as quickly, the scene dissipated and we were all on our way again. Gillian nursed a bruised thigh for several days, but didn't let herself miss a single step of the trip.
The banks of the Ganges were illuminated for the ceremony with spotlights and rainbow-colored lights strung in the shape of large parasols. Each parasol hovered above one of the young priests leading the night's incense-heavy and precisely choreographed ceremony against a background of hundreds of constantly chiming bells.
The Ten Horse Sacrifice ghat (I forget its name in Hindi) was covered with rows of folding chairs for the ceremony's viewers. We maneuvered ourselves into a large dinghy which rowed us out to watch from the river. Along the way I bought a formed leaf filled with oil, a lighted wick and marigold petals to be set afloat on the breast of the river. Mine eventually joined hundreds of others, moving away with the current in a procession of tiny exclamation points bobbing on the dark water.
Riding the entire way back to the hotel in a bicycle-rickshaw I felt as close to hell as I ever hope to come. The traffic seemed totally chaotic, the noises were overwhelming, dust and fumes were so thick it burned my eyes and throat. When I finally got indoors my lungs and my mind were thoroughly frazzled and I'd have happily packed up and left for home. Except that I was in India, afterall!