India: Vârânasî, The Sacred City Along The Ganges

It all started  with a trip on the night of July 24th, 2016 from Agra to Varanasi  the sacred city in the Uttar Pradesh state.

Past midnight …  It’s been already more than two hours that I am desperately waiting for my bus to arrive. In front of me a German couple, sitting on a shabby sofa  that hosts a microcosm of an innumerable variety of insects that would fascinate every entomologist. A girl in her early thirties, short hair,  orange saffron, bowl cut. Her companion, a tall blond guy with a heavy beer drinker belly, and some sunburn on the uncovered parts of his body. On my right side, two American girls with dark faces and very filthy hair. They look totally  desperate.
I was staring  at all these travelers  waiting for the same bus than me and I realized how exhausted, angry and disgusted they looked. And for the following minute I wondered if I too, was going to have that zombie/ frustrated hippie look after spending some more time in this country that so far has not treated me so well.
What are their stories? Why India? Why Varanasi?
The bus arrived putting an end to all my questioning.  The little optimist in me rejoiced to the idea of closing her eyes to Agra, and opening them to Varanasi . But I had no idea what was actually waiting for me …
And this is how my second adventure in public transportations in India began. I found myself stuck for more than 16 hours in a sort of cabin that looked more like a cage to me.  The cabine was not following the hygiene standards to say the least,  and I had no other option than to lie down all the way long until getting to Agra.
16 hours people, 16 long hours when I had time to sleep, read, listen to music, write, think, get bored, do some deep reflection, sleep again, wake up, ask the driver 6 times if we were about to arrive, imagine Gandhi in Drag Queen, and how would  Donald Trump look like without all the UVs and the wig, then laugh about it like a child before a violant brake takes me back to my ugly reality. 16 long hours when I had fun singing all the songs of Sertanejo I learned while living in Brazil, trying in a vain to dance in my half sitting half lying position to make may blood circulate in my body that has been inerte for a long time already, far too long.

varanasi the sacred city

July 25th, 2016. I finally made it to Varanasi bus station. And the story repeats itself. I was in the hands of a dishonest Rickshaw driver and a hostel owner consumed with greed. Fortunately, my experience in New Delhi had me prepared for this kind of situation and I knew exactly how to get away from it.
My excitement to discover Varanasi, its pilgrims and all its Hindu temples was at its maximum. Despite the exhaustion I felt after my long journey I could not find sleep that night. My mind was wandering in all directions thinking of the next day.
After a very rude awakening, an odd breakfast and two cups of a tasty Chai, I decided to go to the  Varanasi Gaths to see for the first time the holy Ganga river. While riding in a  Moto Rickshaw, some old middle school memories came back to my mind, and I saw my self sitting once again by the window side in the classroom, listening to my geography teacher talking about the Ganga river, one of the biggest landmark on earth and a symbolic purification place for the Hindu community.
After a 15minute ride, I finally arrived to the old town, where the access is reserved to pedestrians and some motorbikes. I walked those filthy alleys in search of the Assi Gath. The pilgrims singing their Mantras where everywhere.  They walked in groups dressed all in a different tone of orange  according to their castes. They were there to complete the journey of a lifetime, and I was there to observe them while trying to avoid stepping on a holly cow dung.

holy-cow-varanasi-the sacred city

How could I be at the very heart of Hinduism, the source of the source – be in Varanasi, the city of all religious excess, the symbol of spirituality, the city where every devout Hindu dreams to end up his life dedicating it to Shiva and be incinerated in the Ganga river to reach Nirvana – and feel nothing. I was feeling totally nothing except the fear of being touched by the water of the river and develop a serious skin disease. I was consumed by anxiety of slipping and covering my self with shit, and believe me, in this specific case, I am not using it as a metaphor, shit.. yes the real cow shit.
I was under the rain observing  buffalos, men, women, children. An impressive wave of humans , scrolling on the Gaths, bathing in these extremely dirty waters of the Ganga hoping to purify their souls from all the sins they accumulated during their previous lives and their current lives. That’s all !
They were there, from all backgrounds, coming from all sides of India, all sharing a common goal : to purify their selves or for some of them, simply do their laundry.
I felt a little puzzled watching all this spectacle. I am no one to judge but I was wondering how could a religion give so much importance to the purification of the soul, good actions, mindfulness but at the same time organize society  in Castes. How could they believe doing something good by rejecting a whole fringe of the society : the “Dalits” or “untouchable”, leaving them with the most degrading tasks, totally excluding  them from society and letting them live in deplorable conditions simply because they are “impure”?  Are not we all made of the same blood and skin? Are not we all meant to die? But in Hinduism, you better have some money before you die, other wise, you risk not to have a decent incarnation.
Indeed the families of the deceased that do not have enough money to buy wood in sufficient quantity will end up with a partially incinerated body to dump in the sacred river. How many Gangas would we need to purify this sin?
I decided to stop analyzing and over thinking and to continue my strolling around hoping to  find a cool place to take a break and plan the rest of my day.

Varanasi the sacred city Assi Gath

After a well deserved break at the Blue Lassi Shop, known to serve the best Lassis of India, I vowed to stop overthinking and analyzing everything I saw around. I decided to simply observe the rites  and local customs without any personal involvement. I tried to put aside my expectations that so far had brought me nothing more than  a huge frustration of not feeling that special thing that all travelers fervently told me about every time India came up in a conversation.
I was in the middle of sacred dung and incense smoke enjoying my delicious banana chocolat Lassi small café. with hundreds of pictures on the wall. I was moving my upper body to the rhythm of the music while watching carefully the owner making these delicious milk drinks when a shouting group passing by caught my attention.
Picture this, 4 men, serious faces, very well coordinated, carrying a body wrapped in an orange cloth , uncovered face. The old man had probably made his dream come true. He died in the sacred city of Varanasi, and broke the endless cycle of reincarnation. His face was so serene, so peaceful. His body quickly passed by the café, drawing the astonishment of all the  tourists and travelers who were sitting there.
I remained speechless to what I had just seen.  I neither had the courage to follow them, nor the desire to sit to enjoy my Lassi after the scene I had just witnessed. I was standing there, lost in my thoughts for a few seconds that seemed so long before I decide to head to the Manikarnika Gath (Burning Gath) where all the rituals of cremation in Varanasi take place at Sunrise and Sunset.
And there I was, in front of me the ritual I dreamt to see for so many years. I was witnessing this very famous ceremonial that made me travel thousands of kilometers and spend countless hours in public transportations. I was carefully watching this group of men shaving their hair, keeping one hair stand on the back of their head. Then, after finishing their shaving they installed the deceased’s body over wood, then all started to turn in circles around it. Their faces were serious and sadness could be read in their eyes but none of them was crying.
Hindus believe that the cryings hold the dead soul, not letting them go to Nirvana. So no woman are allowed to attend the ceremony being weaker and more likely to cry.
I watched them turn around the deceased’s body and I realized that no matter which religion we believe in, the country we live in, the culture in which we grew up to, death rituals are all alike. They are there to help us find confort among those that feel the same pain of loss of a loved one. A significant event whose main aim is to help mourn.
These offices were probably one of the most stupefying thing I have seen in my life. This organized and codified ceremony can be extremely shocking,  even for the most prepared ones.
After turning around the body, one of the men bathed him self in the sacred waters of the Ganga and then opened the deceased’s mouth to put rice and sesame seeds inside of it. Than he took a machete and with a strong and sudden gesture smashed the skull. This way he freed the deceased’s soul. Then, the same man put fire on the wood and the body.
A really emotionally charged scene that will remain in my memory forever. For minutes, I watched the offices repeating  for different bodies, with different people, but always the same way of processing.

Varanasi the sacred city-Ganga-River

I stood there for more than an hour looking at the bodies vanishing on the sacred fire lit by Shiva and realized how us humans are such a small thing on this planet, so weak, so insignificant. I saw the death of my relatives , I saw my own death coming. I imagined being a lifeless body, I felt empty, I felt dizzy, I felt bad.
Thousands of thoughts crossed my mind. I was not ready to go once again over  the loss of a loved one . Tears started to run down my face, my heart was beating fast, I was suffocating. I started to feel guilty crying, afraid to break one of the Hindu rituels. The burning bodies were there to remind me exactly why I  started all this adventure and why it was important to live life to the fullest before everything suddenly stops.
I was watching the flames and feeling a  deep sadness, a deep fear of death was consuming me. But not the fear to die, but the fear to loose my loved ones. I was facing an anxiety that I had try to burry for such a long time. It grew inside me for years and years and I still do not know how to deal with it. My anxiety  got even bigger at the sight of a men holding the last remaining bone from one of the calcined bodies . He throw it in the Ganga river with no emotions as if he would throw his dirty socks in the washing machine.
I wondered how this man could  deal with death every day see it, smell it, touch it, and be able to take that much distance from it? What’s his secret? Would I  one day  accept the ineluctability of the loss of my loved ones too? Accept the inevitability of my own death? Then my thoughts were interrupted by another vicious soul, wearing tones of fake jewelry, one more guy, completely corrupted by the tourism industry, seeking to take advantage of a vulnerable moment to get  money from everyone . “Give me money, give me money, make a donation” he kept on  yelling on replay.
“Make a donation”. These words sounded so wrong coming out from his month. He was repetedly shouting , “make a donation make a donation” before a Spanish guy politely asked him to stop and to let us observe in peace the rituals.  He went away cursing us and repeating that Hindus strongly believe in karma and that we will pay for our actions. He simply forgot that according to his logic he would not escape from it neither. In fact , none of us will…

varanasi the sacred city Ps: Each and every one of us sees, feels, and experiences things in their own way. This article was written to share my feelings and my own experience. It is not there to judge or denigrate any believe, tradition, rite or religion. I hold a lot of respect to the Hindu community and a lot of curiosity and interest to the Hindu religion. Namaste to you all!

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