We held our hands up to our noses and tried to block the stench of stale urine as we walked through the narrow laneways. There were cows being revered, Sadhu’s and beggars crouching on the cobbled paths and the faithful lined up outside the tiny temples, with their floors ashen and sooty from the burning embers. Even for the initiated, Varanasi makes Old Delhi look ordered. At 5.30am, the frothy chai was bubbling and stalls open for the devoted to buy flowers, diyas and golden Hindu trinkets. These scenes unfold in layers every day, where rubbish is thrown haphazardly around and cow manure sits in slushy piles. There are around 2,000 temples along the cities’ winding streets all dedicated to Lord Shiva. And though millions of people come to Varanasi to die under the promise of nirvana, there is nothing godly about the filth that hangs in the air and settles on the ground. Varanasi has always been densely packed with residents, visitors and pilgrims alike and it looks as though no one has cleaned up since the first person decided to call it home.
I wondered at God watching the parade. The streams of people colliding, oblivious to each other as the world around them tumbles on. I wondered if we all just get so used to where we are that we forget to fight for something better. Whether the cage is golden or steel, it’s entrapment just the same until we crave for something more. In a way, that’s what Varanasi is all about, escaping the wheel that spins us endlessly around. Its reputation as India’s spiritual capital is a drawcard that brings the ethereal and enchanted alike and despite its ramblings of chaos, blends harmoniously in search of freedom.
Through the mess, bikes, auto rickshaws and millions of feet trudge on towards the holy river every day. I’d been wanting for years to see the Ganges and in the pale grey of daybreak, it was everything mystical I’d been hoping for. I was first struck by the width of the fullness of the river and the grandeur of the palaces, whose steps form the Ghats that Varanasi is so famous for. Peddling along the platforms were people selling garlands of marigolds, the colours of saffron and tangerine that matched the line of ceremonial flags and the loosely worn robes of the Sadhus. The shoreline was packed tight with broad hulled boats and tourists and guides jumping on board, all trying to capture the moment of the perfect rising sun.
In Hinduism, the cow is revered so left to roam free. Though I’m no stranger to cows at the traffic lights, to see them nimbly weaving in and out of the crowds and trotting up and down the steps was a little unnerving. As our car was slowing down to park, the other gal covered her eyes and said “Oh no, don’t look.” Well, there’s an invitation, so curious by the sound of sadness in her voice, I looked. A beautiful doe eyed cow was plodding slowly, dragging a deformed hoof along and we both just winced. Such sad karma, though we were glad the cow was at least honoured in Varanasi’s safe hands. We didn’t see it, but there are sects of Hinduism where people actually drink cow’s urine. Though the scent of it fills the backstreets, I’m glad we missed it.
What we didn’t miss, however, was a body wrapped in white linen slip into the water from a boat in front of us. We could see it was going to happen, but when it broke the surface of the water and silently slipped away, we were a little spellbound. Cremations burn through the night on the Ganges, but there are 5 deaths that don’t allow for cremation; children, pregnant women, people who died from a snakebite, those who died from chickenpox and holy men. Though normally Hinduism doesn’t permit cremations after sunset, along the Burning Ghats the deaths are so many, they continue through the night. Such is the call of the soul to Varanasi.
While the Ganges may be the holy river, in the city of Sarnath just 10km out of town you’re back on sacred ground. It was here that after receiving enlightenment Buddha gave his first sermon. What is today an archaeological park and the site of the world’s most ancient Stupa’s, is also home to Buddhist temples and statues built by Chinese, Thai and Japanese followers. Our morning spent gazing through the monuments got even better when the head priest from one of the temples, a tall statuesque Monk came over to us and started chatting quite casually. As we walked down toward the temple gates, he told us a little of the history of the Temple site and we noticed his entourage of security walking briskly behind us. One by one iPhones and camera’s started clicking us together and we realised we were right in the middle of a celebrity moment. When people come up to me in India asking for my photo I’m always amused, what with my lack of celebrity and all, but this felt rather special. And indeed Varanasi is special. Because out of the hazy swirl of the masses, rises a serene and gentle spirit, calling Wanderers all over the world back home.