Varanasi is quintessential India. It is a shock to the senses, amazingly colorful, fragrantly overwhelming, and insistently hectic. It sits along the western bank of the Ganges and is India’s oldest continuously inhabited city (some say in the world.) Also called Benares, Banaras, and Kashi, Varanasi is the holiest of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities. Many Hindus will come here at the end of their life, as it is believed that expiring here, or at least having one’s ashes scattered in the holy Ganges river, will offer salvation.
Varanasi is a very scenic city, which seems to open itself up from the waterfront. Many ghats (long stretches of steps leading down to the water) make for a lovely riverfront that one can enjoy from a boat ride. Most of the ghats are used by the pilgrims to perform their daily ablutions, but some are used as cremation sites. Behind the banks are narrow winding lanes that constitute the old Varanasi.
After the crowds and stress of the Kumbh Mela I had planned to spend a couple of days in Varanasi to “recover”. I had visited Varanasi before, so I imagined myself having a quiet time reconnecting with this mystical city. (One may question why I would ever think of Varanasi as a potentially quiet place, but after the chaos of the Kumbh Mela, I assumed anything would feel quiet.) But to my surprise, when I got to Varanasi, I realized that many pilgrims and sadhus made a point, as I did, of stopping in this spiritual city on their way back from the Kumbh Mela.
So again, I found myself in the middle of an unbelievably large crowd; I decided to stay away from the horde as much as I could, but it was impossible to succeed at this goal. I spent part of the day on a small boat looking from afar at the captivating mixture of people who come to the river for a ritual bath and to wash clothes, do yoga, get a shave, play cricket, offer blessings, and much more.
Then I wandered around in the labyrinth-like alleys of the old city. There one finds, like in many other Indian cities, a mixture of tiny shops and small temples and many people going through their daily activities. I also stumbled upon a wedding procession and learned that this time of the year was an auspicious time for weddings. Returning to the riverfront area, I ran into a few brides, all wearing gorgeous red saris. Even though these beautiful brides were hastily passing by, I managed to get a few quick images. Looking back at the images, however, the young brides all seem somewhat anxious, maybe reflecting the uncertainty of their new life or the sadness of leaving the only family they have known and joining their husband’s family, as tradition requires.
At dusk, I joined many pilgrims for the aarti; the choreographed ceremony performed every night in Varanasi. Even though some aspects of it feel more like a performance than a deeply spiritual event, one cannot fail to be taken in by the gestures, music, fire, and incense that are all part of this ritual. While leaving the aarti, I walked by a small temple where a sadhu was meditating, and I was captivated by the serenity of the moment. I went back the following day and shared chai tea with this sadhu. I then spent my last hours in Varanasi in his small temple, away from the sun and the crowd, only interrupted by the few pilgrims who came in to pray. I had finally found my quiet moment in Varanasi.
And guess what? After he visited the Kumbh Mela, Mark Twain also visited Varanasi. He described this magical city in his 1897 essay: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. And it is a little older now.