Varanasi is one of the most fascinating cities on earth Mark Twain said: “Banaras (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Hindus believe that bringing your dead to be bathed in the holy river Ganges then cremated on the shores liberates the soul from the cycle of birth and death. While Varanasi is notoriously famous for its Manikarnika Ghat, cremation grounds that burn 24/7, it’s the maze of ancient alleyways known as galis that make the city for me.
On a recent visit, during a fabulous walking tour of the old city, I was shocked to see half the old town was in the process of being bulldozed down. Lanes ended in piles of rubble, the twists and turns that make this city so fascinating were slowly being leveled. The reason given: So public access to temples would be easier.
But the dark shadowy shoulder-width lanes full of mystery, the hidden temples and age-old bricks and stones were now just piles of debris. Like an invasion of the old armies, this city was being razed to the ground, and it would never be the same. Now a Starbucks would appear next to a thousand-year temple, sadly modernization was creeping in and gobbling up everything in its wake. This made me sad even though our guide said, “this is not the time for sadness, this is the time for acceptance.”
But all was not lost, not yet anyway, there were still hidden ashrams and temples to be found. A Kali temple where they still sacrificed goats; a stunning south Indian temple quiet except for the monkeys; a bathing pool where a thousand boys and a thousand widows bathed then ran miles through the city before a major festival so the boys would be too exhausted to cause trouble and the widows, well, because they could.
We watched bodies burning, standing above the cremation grounds, my hair and clothes covered in ash from strangers. The smoke hung thickly, like a cloak thrown over me, suffocating and intoxicating at the same time.
There was no silence; it was a different type of sanctity. We saw the eternal flame, the one from which all pyres are lit. Bodies covered in a white shroud and a garland of flowers lying still on wooden platforms. They waited patiently on the grimy stairs of the Ghats to be immersed into the river before being thrown onto the burning mountains of wood.
But it was that evening arati, those fire pujas, that really got under my skin and tugged at my soul. The blessings chanted by Brahman priests, the conches they blew echoing out into the night, the fire leaping and burning under the cobra head of their candelabras, the flutter of marigolds falling from their hands into the river, and the constant chiming of bells. When the blessing concluded we all stood, hundreds of us chanting in unison as the priests called out the names of the gods and goddess. I felt a vibration in my body; it’s as if I entered for a moment that realm of magic, the kingdom of gods. You are never the same after a Ganga Aarti; life takes on a different color; your soul feels awake.
We saw the birthplace of all creation; a small round open-air temple by the river which people casually walked through oblivious to the alleged sacred spot. “Varanasi was here before the earth and will be here long after,” mused our guide.
But months from now, years from now, this town will not be the same. Go while you can still experience the magic, this seething holy city that will change you forever.