All I can say about Varanasi is summed up with the acronym O.M.G. It is one of those places that cannot be described and must be experienced. This seems to be the same comment I am making about India as a whole. However, Varanasi is all the good, the bad and the ugly within one city. Varanasi is the birth place of Shiva, the destroyer in Hindu mythology. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the World, 3500 years old. There are 3 million people within this massively crowded, polluted and congested city. Many Hindus come from all over India to die in this eclectic and eccentric town. Why? One reason, to be burned and cremated along the holy Ganga river and ascend to a higher level of being.
As our guide Raj mentioned, people come to this holy city for earning, learning and burning! The Ghats are the heartbeat of Varansi, also known as Banaras or Kashi. The 84 Ghats are a grouping of steps that provide an entrance to the river Ganga. There are different ghats for different activities at different times of the day. In the morning you will see people purifying themselves with a dunk at one Ghat. While another Ghat you will see the Dhobi wallas, beating the laundry. Another Ghat is used for Aarti, a holy Hindu ceremony to either bless the coming of a new day, or to bless the River Ganga. And there are two Ghats devoted to cremation. This Ghats are life force of Varanasi and well worth a walk as well as a boat ride with a local. Walking along the Ghats is as if you have hit the super charge button and zoomed into a past World. Many of the rituals of each Ghat have been going on for many, many years.
Of course, this is not for the feint of heart. Even getting to the Ghats can be a challenge as you navigate with caution. Getting to the Ghats provided the most interesting of all traffic congested rides of my life. The ideal mode of transport is a bicycle rickshaw, as it is quicker and easier to move through the congestion. The only problem, is the noise and air pollution. If you are claustrophobe do not come to Varansi! But, if you want an adventure, then do not hesitate. It’s worth it!
There is so much to write about this city, but the main thing that makes Varanasi different is the burning ritual. To see and experience the ritualistic creation of cremation on such a visceral level is something I will never forget. It was not a sad feeling, nor disheartening to experience this. It was simple, paying homage to the end of a life. Hindus believe that this ritual is a sacred rite of passage to a better afterlife. I walked through two burning Ghats with the utmost of respect in my heart. It seems to be a simple and justified concept that allows closure. Of all the things I’ve experienced, this will be one that I will remember with fondness, not sadness. I understood it. As my friend Vikesh said, Death is simply a part of Life. Hindus do not shy away from it, as westerners do. They embrace it as a fact of life, without all the baggage. We are born. We live. We die. No matter what your inclination or religion, you will be affected by this city. Varanasi is a place you must experience. It is a must do on the list of things one must do in India.