It’s so difficult to describe what our group experienced in the holy city of Varanasi. Let me put things into perspective.
Imagine you are walking up 8th avenue in Manhattan, and the buildings have been stripped of their facades, revealing coarse brick, mortar, and cinder block. Now give them all a nice coating of gray dust with an additional half inch of dust on the street, blurring any hint of lane lines. Fill 8th avenue full of people, none over 5 and a half feet tall, and add a cow or two every 50 feet, plus some stray dogs and goats. small cars and larger trucks dart in every direction, as motorcycles and rickshaws dodge in and out of traffic, avoiding the crowds of pedestrians. All you hear is the honking of horns and the calling out of vendors selling fruit, crafts, dinner, and unidentifiable items from make-shift stalls that line the avenue.
Women in brightly colored Saris dot the otherwise gray canvas, and their beauty takes your mind off the smells of gasoline, food, livestock, and occasionally urine. One thing illuminates the scene; the bright eyes and smiles of all you pass on your way to the Ganges. And in this foreign, strange city where little is familiar and expectations are constantly questioned, there is one thing we have come to expect: if you offer anyone here…I mean ANYone a friendly smile or hello, you are met with the most humbling, sincere, beautiful greeting in return.
We arrive by rickshaw to grand, ancient stone steps leading into the Ganges, amidst throngs of people, the smell of smoke filling the air, and gentle chanting heard in the distance.
Boarding our small boat, we sailed the tranquil waters just 15 minutes upstream to witness the cremation funeral Pyres, where families come to ceremonially burn their deceased.
We were allowed to take photos for a while, until we were right next to the pyres on the banks. Seven pyres could be easily seen but there were surely more, and without much imagination we could see the outlines of cremated bodies on the piles of wood. So why didn’t it seem in any way morbid? Why did it instill in all of those in our group a peaceful, beautiful silence? Varanasi, in all of its multi-sensory chaos and strangeness was somehow silencing our cynical minds and opening our hearts. This was fortunate for us, because tomorrow would challenge everything we thought we knew about faith, healing, spirituality, and ourselves.
Normally waking up before 7 am fills me with such dread that I subtly pout the night before. But today, I have woken at 4:30 am, and I am so excited for today’s events that I have morning energy I’ve never experienced. Today we once again descend to the Ganges, this time to view the morning Hindu rituals as the sun rises above the river, opposite the city.
We see things today that challenge our every notion of life, death, right, and wrong. In our morning showers at the hotel, if a drop of water falls in our mouths it ignites a panic, yet here, in the same sacred waters that receive the ashes of the dead, as well as garbage and even livestock passage, are people bathing and drinking. They swallow mouthfuls of the Ganges in large gulps, while others around them burn small fires on the banks and chant prayers. Flowers and candles adorn the steps in exotic designs. Women in bright saris of pinks, blues, oranges, and yellows hover on the steps preparing their rituals and then submerging themselves fully clothed into the ashy Ganges, like a newborn baptism.
Then we see something that again challenges our ideas of faith, and the power that this mystic river holds for its inhabitants. A partially submerged dead body floats past our boat, bumping the oar, and then vanishes again into the murky waters. This is no more than 10 feet from where the living are bathing.
Our guide brushes it off that the owner of the body was merely in the deepest of sleeps. He explains that some families cannot afford the pricey cremation prices (roughly 500 rupees–about $12) and their faith draws them here to deliver their deceased loved ones in the mystic waters in any way possible. Bodies are bound with weights to take them to the river bottom, but sometimes they come loose.
Our cruise down the Ganges passes various temples and now-smoldering funeral pyres, and eventually drops us off on the banks to make our way through the small streets and alleys of Varanasi, toward our hotel. Fifteen minutes after we leave our boat, I realize I have left my bag with my favorite sunglasses and some other random items on the boat. I tell our guide, who promises to contact the captain, but I know I will never see my bag again. It’s OK, I decide, because whomever ends up with my bag needs the contents more than I ever could.
Street merchants are everywhere selling fruit, camera memory cards, cigarettes made from leaves, and silver paint to anoint our foreheads. My friend Mike finally succumbs to a young, adorable boy in ragged clothes selling the silver paint and agrees to a sale which comes to about 2 dollars. The boy doesn’t have change so Mike tells him he can keep it.
“No, sir” the boy says, “I will bring to you”.
We proceed through the city streets and just when we had completely forgotten about the boy, he miraculously finds us and presents Mike with his change, some of which is coins. Mike tells him to please keep the coins, and the boy responds, “no, please, sir, give them to the poor people.”
We are humbled to our core.
We eventually arrive at our van which will take us the short distance to our hotel, and I can’t believe what I see on the front seat. It is my bag that I thought was lost forever. The owner of the boat, upon hearing I had left my bag, found the captain and then tracked us through town to deliver it to its owner.
I have been to so many places where myself or my friends forget our belongings and never see them again. But this isn’t those places. This is India.