Varanasi: A Timeless Experience
Exploring Varanasi brings to life the sensory assault that travelers to India often speak about. How does one describe such a place?
There is the town center, built like any other Indian town – an epitome of unimaginable urban chaos born to haphazard development and oppressive heat; a tapestry of unsightly buildings with open storefronts selling everything from deep-fried snacks to toothpaste to screwdrivers to holiday tours. Narrow dust-laden streets burst at the seams with bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, minibuses, people, mangy dogs and cows – all jostling for space. A hawker with his mouth full of red areca nut juice pushes a cart laden with garlic bulbs on the packed street while a tuk-tuk driver honks fiercely to overtake him. Elsewhere, a traffic constable wielding a wooden stick threatens errant drivers with a good thrashing if they park at random spots along the street.
Such is India. But then there are several Indias. Seen a little differently, the same town center comes alive with a million colors and as many smiles.
A short walk away from this cacophonic place is a labyrinth of paths that lead to an ancient riverfront cradled by the mighty Ganges. Sacred to Hindus since the dawn of time, the Ganges originates from the glaciers in the Himalayas and runs a 1,600-mile course south and east through the plains of North India before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The river charts a wide crescent as it passes through Varanasi and here, perhaps more than anyplace else, the Ganges nurtures countless prayers, hopes, and dreams.
The western bank of this crescent is divided into dozens of ghats – flights of stone steps leading to the edge of the river. Dotted along this 4-mile stretch are a diverse array of temples, shrines, palaces, monasteries, schools, hermitages, hospitals, guest houses, and hospices. The architecture – imposing pillars of red sandstone, circular balconies with detailed latticework, splendid temples with ornate rock carvings and boxy concrete buildings – is stunning. Seeing it is believing. Rising above the cityscape is the towering red-brick Alamgir Mosque mosque. Built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb on top of Hindu temples that stood before it, it signifies Varanasi’s tumultuous past.
The industrial light bulbs mounted on tall poles along the riverfront are the only clue that the mesmerizing vista before you is from the twenty-first, and not the sixteenth, century. Varanasi is timeless. It’s known to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Women and men in colorful attire pay obeisance to the Ganges amidst an unending hum of priests chanting verses from ancient scripture. The air is ripe with smells – incense smoke, the crush of humanity... and garbage. Yarns of colorful cloth dry on sun-scorched stone staircases. Scores of wooden boats ply the river through the day, taking devotees from one ghat to the other.
Legend has it that taking a bath in the Ganges purifies the soul, washing away sins of a lifetime. It is considered auspicious for Hindus to die here and such a fate leads to the attainment of moksha – freedom from the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Many families bring departed loved ones for cremation in Varanasi. Funeral pyres burn day and night at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats.
Varanasi evokes the complexity inherent in the Hindu faith, layers upon layers of philosophy, thought, legend, ritual, and practice. The richness and beauty of culture, tradition, and the very essence of life is in harmony with the macabre reality of death. Seeing the vitality of life right beside the leaping flames consuming the dead, I can’t help but think – isn’t this unending cycle of life and death the most timeless fact of our universe since the advent of life?