Story & photos by Joshua Berida
I passed the initial shock of traveling around India after staying a few days in Calcutta. I got used to the almost nonexistent traffic rules, cabs with no or just one side mirror, the varying degrees of tidiness and untidiness of the streets, and the general chaos of the bazaars and narrow alleys.
I was ready for my trip to the centuries-old city of Varanasi.
A Visit to Varanasi
Howrah Station was a microcosm of Calcutta, chaotic and in-your-face. There seemed to be an ordered chaos where people knew where they needed to be. Amid this confusion, I managed to find the platform for my train ride to Varanasi.
The journey from Calcutta to Varanasi took longer than expected. I arrived at my destination a couple of hours later than the estimated time of arrival. As soon as I left the cabin, several drivers rushed at us passengers, eager to offer their services. I was too tired to say no to all of them, and just picked a random driver to take me to my accommodation.
“What a way to start my trip to Varanasi,” I thought.
One of India’s holiest cities
Varanasi, or also known as Benares, is one of the holiest and oldest cities in India. Situated next to the Ganges River, the city is a popular pilgrimage ground for many Indians. The river is a life-giving force to locals and devotees alike, whether it is for a practical reason (the Ganges is a water source) or a spiritual one.
The ghats, a place with steps that lead to the river, lining the river are a distinct characteristic of Varanasi. Some of the primary uses of these places are for bathing or performing puja (worship) rituals for locals, visitors and devotees. I had the option to walk along them, or take the boat ride at dawn or just before sunset, I decided to do both.
I joined a group at the hostel I was staying in for a boat ride that passed by the ghats at dawn and during blue hour. It was quite an experience to be boating on the Ganges River. It was winter time when I visited, but despite the single-digit temperatures, there were people bathing at the crack of dawn, stripped to their underwear or as little clothing as possible. Locals brushed their teeth using the river’s water, washed their clothes, or performed an act of cleansing before worship. There were also cremations and rituals performed at different times of the day. A walk along the ghats by the river is also quite the experience. Cows walk around and left alone to go about their business; locals willing to give them food when passing their houses. Devotees leave behind wreaths of flowers or offerings by the Ganges, or follow holy men seeking wise advice.
The Ganges is life and death to the locals and devotees. Here, they try to leave behind their old selves in search of renewal; some find it and never return, while others keep coming back because, to them, the journey is the destination. Some lay their loved ones to rest in the embrace of Mother Ganga, set afloat on the river or their ashes released in the waters.
Buddhism’s roots and devotion
Just around 10 kilometers from Varanasi is Sarnath, a significant place for Buddhists. This was the place where Buddha first imparted his knowledge about the Dhamma. The site is an important pilgrimage destination for devotees.
I went with a group to see Sarnath and the ancient relics of Buddhism in the complex. There were practitioners and monks coming and going, leaving their offerings and saying their prayers. The area reminded me of the other ancient Buddhist sites I’ve been to in Asia, the ruinous state of some artifacts and the stupa didn’t detract from its old world appeal.
A trip to Varanasi and Sarnath is like traveling back or getting lost in time. A lot of it has stayed the same, the act of cleansing performed by holy men and devotees, the bathing and washing in the river and the sacredness of cows, but manages to feel different.
The ghats, stupas and Buddhist relics have withstood centuries. Though their façades have been rebuilt and renovated; the seekers of enlightenment that comes from the east and west have remained the same.