I sit in the railway station waiting for my overnight train to Delhi and try to write about my three days in Varanasi. I try to describe the River Ganges, the city, the onslaught of experience, the garbage, the smell, the noise, the tight mesh of narrow interconnecting alleyways, the continual sensory overload, but my brain short circuits. I am at a loss when I hear a soft voice beside me with an Indian accent, “you are writing a blog about Varanasi?” I turn around, stunned. It has been hard to find a soul who speaks English let alone one who recognizes that I am writing a blog. “Yes, I am trying, but I can’t do it. I don’t know where to start,” I reply. He is young but his eyes look gentle and wise. “What are the five things you like best about the city,” he responds. I don’t hesitate. “The history, the spirituality, the food, the energy, the people.” “Start there”, he says.
“What does the river mean to you?”, I ask him. “It is my native place,” he responds. “I was born and brought up here so it has much meaning to me. It is not just the river, it is the mother. She gave us birth and she takes us to the heaven when we leave this world.” He pauses for a moment and thinks. “All the cremations and ceremonies and our dipping, and washing in the Ganges as per our spirituality are because we believe that the Ganges takes us with her to the heaven. All the cultures that live here, we live in harmony and we all believe in the mother.” I want to talk to him more but the train arrives. He offers to help me find my seat but I thank him and tell him I’m ok. We each touch our heart with our right hand and say goodbye and he disappears into the crowd.
Varanasi is the holiest City in India and the oldest continually habited city in the world and the River Ganges is its life blood. Multitudes of people perform ritual ablutions in the sacred water from hundreds of Ghats (stone steps that lead down to the river). Hindus believe that if you are cremated at the burning Ghat after being immersed in the Ganges, you stop your incarnations and attain instant enlightenment.
Huggie and I meet up to share our experience of Varanasi together. We sit on the stone steps of the burning Ghat respectfully witnessing the process. A white-clad man has laid out his twelve year old child on a wood pyre (women grieve at home; tradition dictates that only men attend. Emotion is believed to interfere with the spirit ascending). He walks around the body five times carrying some burning brush that was lit from the temple flame which has been burning continuously for 2000 years. Once he lights the dry wood of the pyre, he is led quickly away as emotion threatens to overcome him. We are profoundly aware of the intimate grazing glimpse we are getting into an age old belief system that permeates to their core. I see a few Indians taking pictures so I discreetly snap a few shots.
We open our minds to connect ourselves to the spiritual energy of the holy city. Huggie is especially connected and I wonder if she has lived on the embankment of the Ganges at some point in the distant past. We hire a boat and float down the river breathing in the sandalwood incense and the chanting of the evening ceremonies, we visit the holiest of the holy ‘Golden Temple’ , which is bursting at the seams with pilgrims, we spit in the face of death as we careen down terrifyingly busy streets on bike rickshaws, we follow a man down the twistiest, turniest, dirtiest, alleyways we’ve ever been in to see a famed gurugu, we eat delicious food (of course) and, oh yes, I get hit by a scooter. That part is a blur for me but Huggie says she will never forget the image. She says it’s a good thing that the driver was young with fast reflexes and good brakes. I’m a little banged up with a sore left side but I’m ok. We have joked that the safest way to cross the road in India is to shield yourself behind a holy cow. And, holy cow, we are not kidding.