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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi
February 26th 2016
Published: February 25th 2016
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Holy man preparing to immerse himself in the Ganges
Author Mark Twain once described Varanasi as being "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Varanasi is indeed considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, as well as being one of, if not the most, spiritual of all places in India. The city is sacred to Hindus and Jains and even had a large role in the foundation of Buddhism, as Buddha was said to have given his first sermon here. The holy Ganges (Ganga) river flows past this city and many religious pilgrims make their way here to wash in the waters and perform rituals. Some Hindus even travel here to die, believing that by dying in Varanasi and having their ashes spread into the Ganges, the cycle of Samsara (life, death, and reincarnation) will be broken, and they will achieve Moksha (liberation). Many people will agree that Varanasi is like no other place in India, and no other place on the entire planet.

The overnight train left from Khajuraho and we were in some top bunks in sleeper class. Considering that we had been in general class a few days earlier, this was like luxury. Twelve hours later and the train pulled up to Varanasi junction. A rickshaw brought us into the downtown area, and on the way in, I noted that Varanasi seemed to look like pretty much every other big Indian city I had seen. The rickshaw eventually pulled over. The driver stated that we would have to walk the rest of the way as he could not get us any further. The streets had begun to narrow and only pedestrians, motorbikes, and some cows were able to move along the cramped and crowded lanes. I could see holy men, beggars, touts, shop keepers, lay people, and other foreigners all mingling about. It took a little while, but we arrived at ShivaKashi guesthouse, which was within a maze of alley like streets. The owner, Sanju, seemed like quite a character and recounted how once upon a time he had traveled everywhere in India and even many places abroad. We placed our things into our room, cleaned up a little, and then prepared to tackle Varanasi. I was pretty excited. I noticed that the rooftop was caged and was told that the monkeys here were quite plentiful and could be a nuisance. After some initial frustration at trying to find our way to the ghats along the Ganges, we stopped to have a big Thali at a recommended restaurant. We were pretty stuffed but then walked down the stone stairs towards this mystic river and walked over to the Dasaswamedh Ghat (also known as the Main Ghat) and took in all the life happening around us. It was a photographer's paradise, but just like most of India, photos alone will not do this place justice. Not even words will. You really have to come here on your own to understand why Varanasi is what it is. I'm glad I'd finally done so myself. We walked along the connecting ghats, all the way to Manikarnika Ghat. This is the main cremation ghat where the deceased are brought into the Ganges river, sprinkled with some of its water, then placed on a large wood burning pyre and set ablaze. They burn until only ash is left. The ash is then spread into the holy river. Hundreds of bodies are burnt here a day, and it's quite a spectacle to see. Photography is not allowed out of respect for the ceremonies, and sadly touts here try to scam you into giving donations, but overall it is so worth it to take a moment and witness what has been going on here for ages and will continue to go on for many more (unless global warming destroys the planet). We then walked back towards the Main Ghat where a nightly Hindu ceremony takes place, and although we both couldn't understand what was happening, it was impressive. People tried to bless us, and multitudes of boats crowded the shore for a look. After this we walked back through the alleys to our guesthouse.

We woke before dawn and went downstairs. Sanju had informed his boatman that we were interested in going on a rowboat to see the sunrise along the Ganges. We walked down the stairs of our Ghat and towards his small wooden boat. He spoke some broken English and brought us out and past the Main Ghat and then continued going towards the main burning ghat. The sun broke through the horizon and then needed to fight through some haze before appearing as the large orange sphere that we all know and love. We had the opportunity to do some photography from a much different vantage point. We saw countless people beginning their day by descending the ghats and immersing themselves in the holy waters of the mother river. Varanasi seems to come to life at this point. Our time with the boatman ended, and he dropped us off near the Main Ghat. We then walked back to near our guesthouse and found a pretty cool place to eat breakfast. I was determined to have a more regular eating schedule while in this city. We got back onto the ghats after this and headed west for a bit. It felt pretty incredible to be around so much spirituality.

We then walked towards the Lalita ghat where we were meeting someone. As we approached I looked up and saw his orange robes draped over his small frame and his long white beard. He greeted us warmly and then led us through some narrow lanes back to his place. We were in the home of Raju Baba, a sadhu or Hindu holy man, whom I had met along the Ganges the day earlier. He had been talking to some people along the ghat and then looked at me and asked if I would be willing to jump into the Ganga. I laughed and joked that I might tomorrow. He then asked how I was so sure I would be around to do so! He made the point that life is finite and you never know if there will be a tomorrow. I learned that appreciating the moment is the lesson he was conveying. Unlike most of the sadhus I have tried to interact with in my time in India, Raju Baba or Babaji as we began calling him, spoke English quite well. I had expressed interest in learning more about Hinduism and Sadhus, as well as meditation and yoga. He seemed to genuinely want to teach people things and said we could meet to do so. Being that this is India, I initially asked him about money, and he simply stated that we could donate something if we wanted, but that either way he was happy. An older woman originally from Germany named Gitta lived there and occasionally they had a room available for people who wanted to spend a night or longer. We sat on the rooftop and Babaji prepared some Chai. We spent some time asking him different things about Hindu gods, the Ganges, and why Sadhus tended to wear the colour orange (also my favourite colour). We continued to talk for a bit and we learned that his father had been his Guru and that he had traveled through India for twenty years as a wandering Baba. Then he got a call to meet with some people from South India who had wanted to converse with him. He left to find them, and we sat on the rooftop just relaxing. Gitta mentioned that he was at the nearby Nepali temple and that we could go and find him since he was taking quite a bit of time to return. We went down and found the temple and he was wandering around, still waiting for his guests. Babaji showed us around the temple and gave us some teachings about them. We encountered the two young Indian friends, who had gotten lost trying to find this location amidst the narrow and mazelike lanes, and then we all returned to Babaji's place. I discovered that the South Indians were photographers, and came from Hyderabad. They spent about 20 minutes speaking with him and then arranged to see him at some point the next day. After they left. Babaji proposed that he would show us some Asanas (Yoga poses). We went into a small room and he demonstrated five different poses, which we then spent the next hour or so practicing. I really think that I'm going to focus a lot more on my flexibility training because I feel so good after doing so. When at home I do my cardio, weight training and climbing but I seem to often neglect my flexibility or just half-ass it at the end of a training session. No more!

While we were practicing yoga, Babaji began preparing a delicious lunch for us. I could smell his Dhal sauce simmering. He claimed that he only used the best of ingredients and joked that he was a certified cook. This lunch was simple, but was one of the best I have ever had here in India. He offered us seconds and thirds and I happily accepted. Stuffed, we got up and helped him with the dishes. We sat on that roof for another while longer, asking more questions about Hinduism. He talked to us a little between the atma (soul) and the chokra (mind), about how to calm both so that one might meditate. During all this, Bev got up and was helping a young boy who kept getting his kite stuck on the side of the wall facing us. Babaji then brought us into his other room and gave us a blessing which included a bracelet and some dye on the forehead to signify the third eye. In Hinduism, the third eye is related to clairvoyance, visions, and the ability see auras. Following this blessing, Babaji took us down the lane to a friend of his who sold various concoctions of spices and oils. Inside his dwelling were several cows. These cows were kept within so that they wouldn't wander through the streets and eat all sorts of garbage, making their milk much purer. We sat in this small room with Babaji and a man introduced himself as an "aromatherapist" and offered us chai. He spoke in the slowest and softest way possible, almost as though he was stoned. Bev and I would laugh multiple times over this character and try to imitate his speaking style often. Babaji then took us to see the underground Vishnu temple. Hinduism has hundreds of different gods in this realm of perception and Vishnu is one of the main ones. We were explained that this temple was completely flooded with water during the monsoon, when the Ganges rose by many meters. After this, we walked out and Babaji let us know that he'd be going back to his nearby home. We told him that we would be walking eastwards to see all the ghats in that direction that we hadn't had a chance to view yet. We thanked him for the incredible experience and teachings that we were provided and he told me to drop in whenever. It felt so cool having a personal Baba in Varanasi! Armed with cameras, we explored the ghats until sundown; seeing, hearing, and smelling multitudes of stimuli. As the dusk came, we walked back through the narrow and illuminated inner lanes and got lost for a short while. It is so easy, and worthwhile, to lose yourself here (maybe not when it's too late though). We strolled into the guesthouse having been out for about twelve hours. Exhausted but utterly satisfied.

The dawn was just breaking and we were up and out the door, heading down to our ghat and planning on heading westward. This time is a photographer's best friend and we were intent on catching some of what we were seeing with our own eyes (impossible I know). Countless bathers could be seen. Both men and women washed and beat their clothing and then placed them wherever there was room to dry. Sadhus sat next to their small temples. Some stared out to the river, appearing to be deep in contemplation. Some were doing Yoga, and some meditated. Various people were performing different pujas (rituals). A plethora of boats darted along this famous river. Colours were everywhere. India is definitely the land of colour. I sometimes had to pinch myself, remind myself that I was really here. We stopped along at a place to have breakfast and then continued from the ghats towards a busy road and visited two temples. I was reminded how liberally Indians honk their horns. On the ghats there is no motor traffic, and in the cramped lanes only motorbikes can go (their horns still suck). The day was growing hotter and since we had been walking for almost six hours, we decided that maybe we would head back to the guesthouse and take refuge from the sun for a few hours. Certain ghats have more touts and beggars than others so when you're feeling tired, you want to move through them quick. I hopped over some slimy goop on one of the steps. Bev must have stepped on some, and came crashing onto her side. For some reason I instinctively laughed and she was none to pleased. Then she got up, took a step and slipped again! I couldn't help it and laughed again. She was quite irate and part of her was covered in slimy stuff. She was pretty angry at me too. I don't blame her but I really couldn't help it. At least she was alright. She seemed more concerned about her camera. Within five minutes we were laughing hysterically over what had transpired! Bev often jokes that she's clumsy, and this confirmed it! And then India happened. You could be having the worse situation, and then in an instant you can see something incredible that changes everything. In this case, Bev saw a goat wearing a buttoned shirt and was in stitches. She asked the owner why the goat had a shirt on and he matter-of-factly replied "The goat is cold at night!" We walked a little more and then saw water buffalo being herded down a ghat and straight into the Ganges. And then their owner began to bathe them! We carried on and then saw the body of a deceased person being brought to the Ganges and then placed on a large pyre. A family member, who we assumed was the oldest son, was having his head shaved then descended to the river and placed Ganga water on himself. They then doused the pyre with flammables and, after a short ritual, it was set on fire as a crowd of people watched. Heavy smoke blew towards me and I had to get out of the way. It was quite something to see. We returned to our guesthouse and took a short nap. Once awake again, we both did some of the Yoga poses and exercises taught to us by Babaji, and I took some body weight exercise as well. Need to stay in shape on the road. We then went out to the Main Ghat walked slightly eastward of it. We sat on one of the steps and watched some young kids playing cricket right there on the ghat. Every now and then different beggars or people trying to sell something would stop by us. One beggar had both his arms amputated at the elbow joints. I tried asking him what had happened to his arms, but he spoke no English. A man who was trying to sell us some stupid trinket at the same time, responded that the beggar had had his arms cut off so he could try to earn more from begging. This, strangely and unfortunately, is more common than one might expect here in the subcontinent. I can't imagine what kind of poverty would drive someone to either mutilate themselves or be mutilated by someone. It's a stark reminder of how lucky some of us are in this world, and how others might have drawn a completely different and much more difficult hand (no pun intended). We then climbed the stairs back into the maze of narrow alleys. We found a cool clothing shop and checked out a few items, agreeing that we would return to it the next day. Fueled by the desire to eat, we returned to our area and tried a good and cheap place near the guesthouse.

We awoke early yet again, and descended to the Ganga to observe life. We went about this until we were too hungry and needed to have a breakfast break. While eating, I was facing out at the alley and I saw a familiar figure passing by. I got up and went into the lane, but the person was already gone. After we had finished eating, we walked down a familiar stretch of alley. I looked to my left and confirmed that I had seen what I thought I had seen. Ricky, whom I had met back in Udaipur, was sitting in a restaurant terrace with some friends, and somehow, we had run into each other here in Varanasi about 1130 km away from when we had first met! We didn't have long to chat because Bev and I were on our way to do some Yoga, but I told him I would get in contact with him later. We walked one ghat west of where we had been. Facing the river was Siddarth Yoga center, taught by Yogi Siddarth. We had heard some good things about this place and decided to give it a go. Considering how I wanted to become more flexible, for the time being I was actually following through. The lesson took place with an incredible view of the Ganga and for two hours we did Asanas (poses) and Pranayamas (breathing exercises) and then completed with incredible and synchronized OM chants. I felt so good after that.

Bev was running low on time now. She had managed to get to India using standby tickets and now she had the opportunity to try for a flight leaving Delhi on this very night. She had to be back to work in a few days and it was stressful trying to get home this way, but it was the only way she could have afforded to do so. The way back through one of the alleys, we saw a covered body of a deceased being wheeled past on a wooden wagon. We made a quick stop back to the guesthouse, then went out and found a nice clothing and fabrics shop nearby. We both bought a few items and I ended up sending back most of my stuff with her. I had to do my best to keep my pack as light as possible. The shopkeeper was really pleasant and was not trying to swindle or pressure us. This was a nice change from the general shopping experience in India. We then stopped by at one of our "regular" restaurants and each ordered a special thali, as the Yoga had made us famished. Racing back to our room, Bev packed up all her stuff and then we walked out to one of the busier streets where a taxi was waiting to bring her to the airport. She would be flying from here to Delhi, and hoped she was able to get on her flight home. We wished each other well, and then she was off. I realized we traveled really well together, rarely having any spats or disagreements and getting along most of the time. I can't say that would happen with many of the people I know from back home. I think we both had some life changing experiences thanks to India.

I was back at the guesthouse and decided to take the rest of the afternoon easy. In the evening, I met up with Ricky and some friends of his who were staying in a guesthouse just down the lane from mine. When I walked in and went up to their room, they were in the midst of practicing Salsa dance and I figured they were drunk or stoned or both. It was hilarious! Ricky told me some tales from the past few weeks and I did the same. I met a few other travelers who were staying in the guesthouse, and we hung out for a bit. Then the boys announced they had procured fireworks and were keen on launching them from the rooftop. I had already done this once with Ricky back in Udaipur and couldn't wait to try it again. These fireworks seemed a little flimsy however and didn't really explode in the air. We launched a few and then Ricky lit one that careened over and towards one of the adjacent buildings. This resulted in a pack of dogs freaking out below and local residents yelling. We decided that our firework show was done and descended back down. Not the smartest thing to be doing but I'm never going to claim I always act in the smartest way.

I slept in a bit longer than usual the next day, feeling tired after having packed so much in on the previous days. I leisurely woke up, did some exercises and yoga, then I went out to find some food. After that, I walked along the ghats and found a shady spot to read my book (a Sadhu book at that!). I tried meditating too and after that I walked down to the Ganga and waded my legs into the polluted water. When in Rome I figured plus I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I returned to the guesthouse and tried to figure out some stuff for the next part of my trip, then fell asleep for a while. My window was open and I awoke seeing monkeys trying to get past the bars and into my room. I went back down to the ghats, intent on doing some more photography. I sat for a bit with a group of Sadhus in front of a Hanuman temple who were passing around a chillum. Then I walked along past the Main Ghat and returned to the Lalita ghat, where Babaji resided. I figured I would pop in and see what he was up to. As I approached his dwelling, I saw him strolling down the lane. He was happy to see me and invited me to his place for some chai. As he prepared some chai for me with his delicious masala, we chatted about life and discussed chokra. He asked how my Yoga Asanas were going, and I replied that they were coming along slowly but steadily. We then walked down to the Ganga and sat there, silently watching all sorts of people walk past. People watching can be amazing and I highly recommend you give it a try when in Varanasi. For a while, he sang some Hindu song, becoming quite loud at times. A young Korean traveler approached us and gave Babaji some charras. He wasn't wrong to do so as many Sadhus do smoke charras for spiritual vision, but Babaji had given up smoking many years ago. The south Korean guy, named Cho, had acquired it through a friend but wasn't too fond of them either. Babaji kept joking that he would sell them back to Cho for one thousand rupees. Cho's English was passable but he often became confused by Babaji's sarcasm. I realized that Babaji was a pretty eccentric guy. He handed the charras to me after he smelled them, stating they were good quality. I accepted them. We invited Cho to come along and descended to the lower Vishnu temple and Babaji blessed us and gave us our third eyes. We then watched boats go by for a while. The experience was serene. After that we walked to one of the many markets in the area, and I bought some fruit for Baba before we parted ways. I walked back with Cho, as he was actually staying at the same guesthouse as Ricky, and we walked through the evening ceremony at the Main Ghat that was being viewed by hundreds.

Bright and early yet again, but I had to get the most out of my final day here in this mystical place. I walked down the ghat and then made the short journey to Siddarth's yoga studio. Another two hours of yoga while looking out at the Ganges was a great way to get things going. Siddarth demonstrated some advanced poses and his balance seemed impeccable. He has been practicing Yoga since childhood, and teaching for the last fourteen years. I then went to what had become my regular breakfast place to eat. Once back at the guesthouse, I packed up my stuff and prepared to check out. Although my train from Varanasi was only much later, the dreaded check out time had come. I placed all my things of in storage and then made my way to Lalita ghat. Babaji had invited me to his place for lunch. Cho had been invited too, and both of them were already in front of Lalita ghat when I arrived. We went back to his place and Gitta was in the kitchen preparing some food. Whatever it was, it smelt really good. We sat on the floor and were served a delicious looking thali, which consisted of some rice, bean sauce, potatoes in spices, and a cabbage salad. This thali was now one of the best I've had. I ate quickly and then walked downstairs were I had arranged to meet a man named Tarak in a music shop right below Babaji's place. Tarak came from a musical family and was an accomplished performance player and master of Indian musical instrument called the sitar. The sitar is a stringed instrument that dates back several hundred years in this region. I play a lot of guitar back home and have been fortunate so far in my trip to have been able to run into many guitars and keep my musical appetite sated. I'm seriously considering bringing a travel guitar along for my next trip. It would be blasphemous for me to have traveled through India and not try to sitar at least once! My lesson began and Tarak proved to be a good teacher, explaining some of the main concepts in a concise way. I picked it up pretty quickly due to my competency on guitar and loved the sound of this instrument. My lesson went well and I promised that the next time I go to Varanasi, I'm definitely going to be looking him up. I went back up to Babaji's place and we all had chai and then sat around for a while. I watched monkeys jump from rooftop to rooftop and observed a young boy flying his kite around. We finally bid farewell to Babaji and I thanked him for the hospitality and company. I promised him I would send him a cool picture I took of him when I had the chance. Babaji went to sit by the Ganga, as he always did at this time, He seemed to stare out at everything and nothing. I walked back with Cho and we explored more of the ghat front, the final time for me. We walked to one of the burning ghats and sat and watched for a little bit. I returned to my guesthouse and settled things with Sanju. I still had a few hours to kill. A meal a little later on and a quiet stroll along the narrow lanes, and then I was off towards the station.

Varanasi will always remain a special place to me. Amidst the chaos and cacauphony of life, there is a serenity to be found here unlike anything I know or can describe. The sobering reminder of how finite existence can be is only a short glance away towards one of the burning ghats. Many things are said of Varanasi; I would say that the soul of India resides right here. The oldest city in the world continues to amaze and I will absolutely return here once again.


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