Varanasi was the final stop on our visit through the mystical land of India. Exploring this ancient living city turned out to be one of the most intriguing, engaging and fascinating location I have ever visited.
Let me provide a little background that will help explain the surreal experience of having visited this thriving 10,000 year old city.
Cities this old are typically thought of as being barren archaeological sites. That was clearly not the case on this trip. This ancient city is alive and growing. It has been, and still is, the holiest of the seven cities in Hinduism and Jainism. It's also an important religious site since Buddhism started here in 528 BC.
In order to explain my personal experience of visiting Varanasi, I want to refer to the main character in Lewis Carroll's book Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (commonly referred to as Alice in Wonderland).
In Carroll's book, the main character falls into a rabbit-hole and instantly finds herself in a remote and mystical land that has its own seemingly chaotic rules and seemingly incomprehensible host of odd characters. For me, having visited Varanasi set me on a course like what Alice might have felt.
Upon entering the city it felt like landing on a mythical world with its own unique rhythm. Alice finds herself in an unfamiliar environment where one's perception of normality is turned topsy-turvy. If the experience of visiting seemed shocking to me, it was because I was the outsider, from a distant world, looking in. I kept reminding myself that I came to this part of the world to see and appreciate the experiences and that I was not going to sit back and judge anything. I kept remembering that I was the foreigner and that my own views, perceptions and biases of what I observed had to be set aside. What I was observing was the normal daily life in this one-of-a-kind metropolis.
We visited the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi twice. We visited during sunup and sundown. We visited the same place twice, but it seemed like we were in a distinct place each time.
Walking through the large number of crowded narrow city streets toward the Ganges River gave me a small glimpse of the role that religious devotion means to Hindus and Muslims. The city has 25,000 Hindu temples and 1300 Muslim holy places. Millions of Hindus come here each year as part of their religious pilgrimage to bath in the Ganges River to wash away their sins.
Our first visit was before sunup. Even in the early hours of the morning the streets are lined up with people selling religious items and the sight of the constant saffron color flowers. One can see these orange flowers practically everywhere and is used to decorate the shrines and temples.
As we are walking toward the bank of the river, one notices that there are many families sleeping on the streets along the buildings. One might think that these are people that are poor and homeless. Some may be, but many are also resting and sleeping here while they are on their religious pilgrimage to the Ganges River. There are 830 million Hindus in the nation. It is estimated that 3 million Hindus come each year to this important religious area to bath in the sacred waters.
Along the bank of the river one can view a special site where there are a dozen or so large bonfires that are in fact open-space cremations. The incineration are ongoing 24/7. One sees families standing next to the corpses of their loved ones as they are waiting for their turn to carry the bodies into the incineration spaces. One can in fact see the body up close as it is being burned. Surprisingly there are no smells. There are designated individuals that constantly walking around and manage the fires to make sure that the bodies were being consumed by the fire.
Our return trip to the Ganges at sunset is an entirely different experience from the morning trip. The city is completely alive with the normal crowded working and business activity. The sundown ceremony along the riverbank is a major public ceremony. It's a large religious festive ambiance as thousands of believers praying and worshiping. Multiple Hindu priests use the open space and chant and pray on loudspeakers. We viewed the evening events from one of the small riverboats and we had the opportunity to travel leisurely along the bank at night. Persons all around us purchased a tiny decorative candle that one lights and set adrift on the river. It an offering to the gods. It's quite a sight to see thousands of these tiny lanterns float by.
Our trip from our hotel to the river bank in the evening was a fabulous memorable adventure that I wish I had the time to share the details. It was an experience of a lifetime.
On the final day of our visit to Varanasi we took a short driving distance from Varanasi to visit Sarnath (Deer Park). People throughout the world come to visit the historic site and worship here. Sarnath is where Buddha preached his first sermon. It is estimated that 7% of the world's population are Buddhist. While we were there, the shrine was being visited by large numbers of Buddhist from Indonesia.
My visit to Varanasi was like what Alice may have felt visiting Wonderland. It was a surreal experience filled of a world with symbolism that carries throughout centuries. The meanings of what people do here in this worship has existential meanings. It was a captivating, complex and spellbinding experience to have visited this unique place in the world. Visiting here reminds me that reality has many sides to it.
Alice was never the same once she left Wonderland and returned to the surface. I also feel that I will never see my world the same.
I'm certain that our adventures would continue as we prepare to leave India to visit Nepal.
Armando F Sanchez:
Armando F Sanchez is a consultant on global markets, speaker, writer, and world traveler. He is the CEO of Armando F Sanchez Global Business Consulting. He also heads a media company that produces global web cast and podcast programming. Author's website Email the author