Climbing into the boat as the sun was setting, looking forward to witnessing Hindus bathe away their sins in a ritual as old as time, I noticed my group had acquired a new member: A man was squatting on the deck massaging the feet of one of my companions. “Who’s this?” I asked. “Did we hire a masseuse?” Not quite. I learned he was a sinner attempting to better his karma by doing good deeds. I could have a foot rub, too — at no charge, but a tip would be welcome. Only in India would this make some semblance of sense.
I was in Varanasi, a city dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva. Die here, according to Hindu belief, and you gain moksha, release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Whatever you believe, there is no doubt that Varanasi is like nowhere else — not in India, not anywhere. It is one of the world’s oldest cities, dating to around 1200 B.C. Located in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the north, it is considered one of the holiest places in India. The Ganges, or Mother Ganga as it is also called, is where pilgrims come to wash away their sins and cremate their dead.
After a whirlwind guided tour through India’s popular Golden Triangle — New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — the previous week, I had thought myself somewhat acclimated to the country, at least a little, but Varanasi had me goggle-eyed. After dumping our bags at our hotel, my friends and I hired rickshaw drivers to take us to the river for an evening boat ride, the first of two river excursions we had planned. Sunset and sunrise are when the river is teeming with the most people and the best times to get a real sense of how sacred and important the river is to Hindus.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying that Varanasi “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” and in this instance the master storyteller was not exaggerating.
Reading about Varanasi can’t prepare you for the real thing; being told about it can’t prepare you. It’s a little like trying to describe a rollercoaster to someone who’s never been on one: fun, exhilarating, a little frightening and over way too fast.
Just getting to the river from our hotel seemed like an act of faith. People on foot, on motorbikes, in auto rickshaws, on bicycle rickshaws — plus cows, dogs, cars and buses — crowd every street, weaving toward and away from each other in an intricate dance that looks impossible to learn and very dangerous if you don’t.
About 80 ghats, or steps, line the western banks of the Ganges; and every morning you can see hundreds, if not thousands, of Hindus bathing, washing clothing and praying. Every evening, chanting Brahmans, or priests, preach, sing and pray with crowds of the faithful, as well as anyone else who wants to join the party that lines the river. Cremations are held at burning ghats, and the pyres are awe-inspiring to see. Whether it’s morning or night, everything is laid bare for anyone to witness.
Though the Ganges is extremely polluted, that does not keep Hindus from any of the rituals that have been around for millennia. There are efforts to clean up the river, but it’s a slow process. Beyond purchasing a lotus flower candle to light and release to float down the river, I was told to keep away from the water, and I heeded that advice.
While the evening rituals were amazing, beautiful and overwhelming, the morning visit was a much quieter affair. Groups of people gathered in the river to pray and welcome the rising sun, an impressive sight. Small groups washed their clothes, and our boat drifted by a school of young students reciting lessons after their teacher.
We had requested an introductory yoga class on the river, which was held on the eastern shore. We learned the basics from a master in the land where yoga was most likely invented. It made me want to sit up straight and breathe properly as no class at home ever did. Special requests like these are one reason to travel with a tour guide — you oPT To sHoP: A shopping street in Varanasi save time and money and the frustration of wondering if you’ve been ripped off by the unscrupulous.
I could have hung out all day and night just watching people on the river. In a rather surreal moment, I saw several men lined up on a ghat getting straight-razor haircuts, while nearby a boy raced around on roller skates and hit a ball with a hockey stick. Beyond him, priests were praying. The mundane and the ordinary right next to the holy, that’s India.
At some point, though, you have to explore more than river life. One of my goals was to come home with an authentic sari. I had waited to buy one in Varanasi because of its reputation for beautiful garments. I paid a visit to Mehta International, where you can see weavers making brocade cloth in the traditional way, by hand on wooden looms, while expert salesmen explain the process.
Shopping in India can be exhausting, whether negotiating a price for trinkets from touts on the street or visiting a shop where you sit and sip a cool beverage — then suddenly you realize several hours have passed while you admired the merchant’s goods. My sari experience was in the latter category, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was regaled with tales of famous American actors who had frequented the shop and, true or not, Goldie Hawn clearly is a big name in India. I heard her mentioned more than once in more than one shop.
Eventually I made my selection. Wrapped from head to toe in a gorgeous plum-colored sari, I reviewed written instructions about how to put it on once I was home. The finishing touch was a bindi in the color of the sari, placed on my forehead as if in benediction.
My sari is a truly wonderful souvenir of my trip, yet I could have come home with nothing but my memories of Varanasi and been more than happy. I can’t wait to return.
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