Kress and I left Singapore bright and early for our nearly 12-hour travel day to India. After flying to New Delhi and then transferring to a flight to Varanasi we still had an hour-long taxi and half hour riverboat ride before we would reach our hotel. One advantage of staying in a hotel that is only accessible by water is that the hotel arranges all of the transportation from the airport. These days we’ll take any help we can get to successfully arrive at our hotel.
The flight to Varanasi was smooth, but it’s in these times of travel that you really see a slice of humanity you otherwise might miss. We had a higher number of very elderly people on this flight than on most flights we’ve taken. They all boarded before the main group, and exited last due to their mobility challenges.
Contemplating where we were going, my assumption is that they’re on their way to the holy city of Varanasi as a pilgrimage, and there’s a high likelihood that pilgrimage is with the intention of dying and being cremated in this sacred place. This is a pilgrimage thousands of people take to Varanasi each year.
When you consider why thousands of people come to Varanasi and the Ganges river it’s somber but also fascinating. Some travel to bathe in the mother Ganges, for it’s water is said to wash away all sin. For others it’s to mourn those have passed, for some it’s to knowingly and intentionally go on the last journey of their lives. To die; to be ritualistically carried to the waters edge where they’ll be cremated; to have their ashes brushed into the waters of the Ganges river; and be free from the burden of reincarnation for all eternity.
Then, of course, there are tourists who come for any multitude of reasons. For me, I think my initial interest was driven by my curiosity and fascination with death, with funeral rituals & memorials, with history (this city is 10,000 years old) and with faith. I say faith because I am not religious, and I have a lot of doubt about any afterlife. All I have faith in is that I don’t know what comes after we die, so I find it fascinating and very spiritually educational to see people expressing their faith and confidence in death with such unwavering purpose.
We disembarked from the airplane and were initially greeted in the Varanasi airport by a reasonably thick cloud of smoke hovering inside the terminal. I had noticed the smoke upon landing, but I was genuinely confused when I found it inside the terminal. During this trip we’ve encountered a wide range of air pollution, from nearly none in Canada, to extremely poor upon landing in India. My initial thoughts were that the smoke was related to the funeral pyres, but a quick Google search ruled that out. According to Google, the smoke is coming from, seemingly unregulated, industrial pollution from the nearby manufacturing plants.
We headed out of the airport terminal and found our driver waiting for us. Leaving the airport you might not think there was anything unique about the transportation system in Varanasi. Once you exit the cleanly painted traffics lines and paved roads of the airport you’re thrown head first into a dance of near-misses, car horns, and uncommitted attachment to traffic lanes. Animals, people, vendors, and vehicles all share the road with fierce determination and impeccable special awareness, all in an effort to arrive at their destination.
Shortly after entering town, I was introduced to my first Indian wedding processional. Our driver explained that this is “wedding season” in Varanasi, and based on his assessment, this groom was a very rich man. The groom, adorned with gold and white, seated upon his wooden throne, waved joyfully, with a huge smile on his face, as we drove past.
The processional stretched an entire city block, adorned with bright and cheerful lights illuminating the darkness. A carriage pumping loud dance music guided dozens of people down the road, dancing, walking and celebrating. Every few seconds fireworks from further ahead in the processional would explode in the sky as the dancers faded into a parade of men carrying illuminated umbrellas, which then faded into a dozen horses with their riders, and finally ended with an elaborately decorated elephant leading the group to their destination. Further ahead we could see that destination, which was a beautiful hotel, draped with twinkling lights from the rooftop to the ground.
There was a dignitary in town, so the traffic stretch across the road and sidewalk. Our taxi drove up over the curb, over to the wall of a building, around a firmly planted tree and past about 5 cars, leading the way for the creation of a whole new traffic lane. He then turned around to us and said, “to drive in India you need three things. A good horn, good breaks, and good luck.”
We arrived to our boat around 10pm to three gentlemen who had been patiently waiting for our arrival. The drive was longer than expected due to the traffic, but they greeted us with smiles and welcomed us aboard. Since it was so late at night, it felt like we had the whole river to ourselves. The men offered us blankets to keep us warm as we passed one Ghat after another.
The Ghats are the large, wide stairways that lead directly from the city into the water of the Ganges. They are the places people come to bathe in the river to cleanse them of their sins. At this hour, however, the only ones venturing near the water were a few stray dogs and their litter of puppies. We silently drifted passed the cremation pyres, whose fiery glow acted as a beacon along the dark shoreline. A few minutes later, out of the fog and smoke arose an elaborate stone building, with lights perfectly illuminating the ornate details of the façade.
After such a long travel day, I’ve never seen such a beautiful and glorious sight. We had overcome flight disruptions, a positive and then negative covid test, the struggles to get our visa on time, and now we had finally arrived. The universe wasn’t going to make it easy, but it genuinely felt like we were supposed to be there and had earned it by being persistent and patient.
We carefully stepped off the boat and onto the Ghat that was at the base of our hotel. We took an elevator up and entered the elaborate reception. Every inch of this hotel was thoughtfully decorated.
Beautiful stone walls, floors and stairs gave the building the feeling of a mid-evil castle. Mosaic tile, hand painted walls and ceilings, and historic furniture made with rich dark wood made you feel like you’d stepped back in time.
We checked in and made it to our room, and were happy to find a beautiful 4 poster bed, a window overlooking the river, a large private bathroom, and the complete absence of smoke.
We wanted to make the most of every minute we had in Varanasi. The following day we took some time to get our bearings by walking along the Ghats. You can follow the river across the town just by walking from riverside staircase to riverside staircase.
There’s really no escaping the fact that we look like tourists. Literally nothing about us looks to have originated from his part of the world. As a result we were targets for all the hustles. I had entered into this portion of the trip expecting a lot of curiosity. I’m a very tall white woman, so I thought that might be reason for a few unplanned interactions with the locals. Surprisingly, I only had one person want to photograph me, but we had a few people who wanted to take us to their mother’s/father’s/brother’s/uncle’s/etc. shop to show us the authentic silks/perfumes/henna/etc. that they sold.
After having an afternoon to wander around, that evening we took a boat tour to the nightly ceremony that takes place along the river. Our raft left from the hotel and went about 5 minutes down river to where all of spectators gather. We drifted into a slot among hundreds of other boats, and were tied off.
Together we created a large island of rafts tightly wedged together. Priests used this floating platform to walk amongst the boats, from bow to bow, offering blessings and flowers.
There were of thousands of worshipers at this event, many grieving the recent loss of a loved one. On the shore, the crowd filled every possible space, standing on stairs and balconies, seated on the steps of the Ghat, and everywhere in between. The mass of people flowed onto the sand, and then onto the hundreds of boats tied off on the water.
The ceremony began with a loudspeaker projecting the chants of the priests on stage. There were large illuminated candelabras being held by the priests as they offered their blessings and prayers for the recently deceased and to the mother Ganges (as they all refer to the Ganges river). When the ritual concluded, all of the rafts released their ropes and drifted backwards like a thousand flower peddles back onto the flowing waters of the river.
For those of us who had chosen to, we had purchased small floating baskets with flowers and a center candle that were blessings for our families and friends. We lit the candles and gently dropped the flowers into the water. The offerings illuminated the dark river like a thousand fireflies drifting with the current. With that final blessing, we turned the boat around and headed back home.
It’s hard to put into words how it feels to be in the presence of this sort of ceremony. You, along with thousands of others, join together as one unit, much like the ropes are tying the boats together. You join in reverence to the significance of this moment, through the chanting, fire and music, and then, in the end, you each go your own way. You take from the ritual your appreciation for life and for death, thank the universe in your own way, and then you return to your world better for having been witness to such a profound moment.
We returned to our hotel to a beautiful vegetarian meal of paneer, naan, and rice. By far the best Indian food I had ever eaten. We had been warned on a number of occasions that we needed to be careful where we got our food while visiting India, but we were lucky to be staying in a hotel that offered three meals a day that were all expertly prepared.
The following day we woke early to get a walking tour of the city. We met our guide who was born and raised in Varanasi, and who was able to translate many of the Hindu beliefs and how the history of that religion places such significant on the city.
He was able to take us to a place where craftsmen were still hand looming silk saris using sophisticated, yet primitive mechanics of a wooden loom.
Each loom had a series of blocks that determined the pattern that would be created with the silk. They rotated with each pulling of the thread like wooden computers that had been programmed with punch cards.
The craftsmen worked in the darkness, under a single light, perfecting their skills, and yet would never make enough money to purchase the saris they were manufacturing. It’s one of the economic realities of this place and inequities that is both tragic and ironic.
We moved on to wander the streets past temples and shops until we finally reached the golden temple, also known as the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The walk to the temple was, at times, harrowing. There is clearly an art to navigating the streets in India that we are not familiar with. From what I’ve gathered, vehicles will go around you, but you cannot hesitate or stop and wait for them to stop for you. You have to just bravely (or recklessly) walk into the road and cross it, regardless of what is barreling towards you at the time. As helpful as our guide was, this was one area where he seemed genuinely confused. He didn’t seem to understand why this approach to walking wasn’t second nature.
Once we entered the temple, we saw and gave offering to the sacred Jyotirlinga, which is one of the holiest relics of lord Shiva. We continued through to the Nepali template, and arrived at the Manikarnika Ghat, which is one of two Hindu cremation sites that function 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s here where Hindus believe that after death your body can be burned, return to the Ganges and your spirit will end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
I wasn’t sure what to expect being here. It could have been scary, or even unsettling, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful and thoughtfully coordinated. The bodies were covered in robes and flowers, so you weren’t exposed to any visible body parts. Once burned, their ashes were placed into the river and the ritual was (seemingly) complete. It was very smoky, so we didn’t stay there long. Not to mention it’s not appropriate for tourists to come and watch these cremations like they’re a tourist attraction. This is a sacred event for these people and their families, so in an effort to remain respectful we left shortly after arriving.
We followed our guide back to the hotel, which is when the next round of “the hustle” began. It seems as if everyone has to at least try and lead you to a friend or family member who has a shop. He attempted to redirect us to a place where his friends sold authentic silk fabric. At this point we were physically tired from walking around 5 miles, but also mentally tired from using all of our senses on full blast throughout the day.
We were immersed in the sounds of cars honking, people yelling and ceremonial bells and singing; the odor of incense, car exhaust and smoke; the sights of historic buildings, colors and obstacles to avoid; and a consistent pattern of unwanted touching. On a related note, the definition of personal space is seemingly larger for western people than for those in other parts of the world.
During the previous hustles, we could quickly dissuaded people with some general excuse; we don’t have time; we can’t carry anything because our trip is so long; we don’t have money, etc.. Our guide, however, was able to swat away each of our attempts with his own deflections. As I began to slowly fume in the background, Kress worked with all her charm and patience to persuade our guide to return us to our hotel. Each time he’d either ignore her entirely or explain to her how our perceived priorities were out of order. This went on for about 25 minutes, but I noticed we were going in the direction of the hotel and the spaces around us were beginning to look familiar.
Finally, he turned a corner and said, ‘this is it.’ He pointed to a dark stairway deep inside the hallway entrance to a building. This is where my survival instinct, and the slowly growing anger at his dismissal kicked in. I stepped in front of him and said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this. I want you to take us back to our hotel.’
He was shocked, and you could see the anger flash across his face. Not only was he clearly annoyed that we refused to go into his ‘friends shop’ but I got the impression he was not used to women standing up to him in such a direct, and confrontational way. I was ready to take Kress and simply ditch this guy and walk back to the hotel myself, but I had been trying to give him a chance to do the right thing. He said, ‘I have to do what you want’ and turned around to take us to the hotel. He walked about 20 feet in front of us, never looking back and clearly sulking. I realized in that minute that he was in many ways beholden to us. All we needed to do was tell the hotel about this experience and he’d lose a huge amount of his business as the hotel was his top referrer.
I was still fuming when we got back to the hotel, but in an effort to not put a damper on what had been a nice day, we gave him his customary tip and walked up to our room.
I fully intended to tell the hotel about what had occurred, but after a lot of consideration and talking with Kress I decided not to. This isn’t our country, and this isn’t our culture. It’s possible that something that was infuriating to me, was standard practice for them. There was no reason to hurt this man’s livelihood because he offended me. I still struggle wondering if I should have said something, but in the end, I think it was better for my own mental health to try and let it go. That said, we had already hired him for a tour the following day which we promptly canceled.
During the remainder of our time in Varanasi we enjoyed more riverboat tours, and took advantage of some of the other offerings of our hotel. Both Kress and I received beautiful henna tattoos on our hands/arms, which in retrospect I believe means we went to a wedding. Little did they know, we had gone to a wedding…our own.
We continued to eat delicious food and soak up the atmosphere of this historic and beautiful town. Prior to our arrival we had brought a lot of food with us just in case we couldn’t eat the food at the hotel. For 5 countries we had carried tuna packets, crackers, energy bars and other pre-packaged food with us just in case of emergency.
On our final day in Varanasi we checked all of our food for dog safety and took everything out that had ingredients that were harmful to animals. We packaged everything together and went in search of puppies (of which there were many).
There were so many stray dogs that it broke our hearts to see them all scavenging and emaciated. Many of them had puppies to care for, and those were our focus. We walked a long the Ghats feeding every puppy we could find. Eventually the locals could see what we were doing and would start directing us to puppies that were hidden in boxes or crevices of buildings. There were so many we wanted to bring with us, but that obviously wouldn’t be possible on this trip. If I could have taken every one of them back to America I would have, but instead we are committed to finding an organization that helps the homeless dogs in India that we can help support.
Feeling like we’d done very little, but at least did something, we returned to the hotel and packed for our departure the following morning.
Getting out of India was much like getting into India, so I’ll leave that for a different post. In the end, our time in India was profound. There are a number of obstacles stacked against the people living here, and yet they live committed to ending suffering. I’d never been exposed to anything like this in my life until this trip, and now I’ve seen it in two places (Koyasan and Varanasi). It’s a noble, beautiful, and honorable way of approaching life that I am going to try and integrate into my own life moving forward.
As our guide kept telling us, ‘you only live once.’ If this is our once chance at life, we better do everything we can to end suffering in ourselves and in the world while we can.