I am often asked where my favourite place in India is. Easy – it’s Varanasi.
It wasn’t always. The first few visits to Varanasi, I thought it was a pretty cool place, but I was also very much challenged. It certainly didn’t rate as my No. 1 spot. However as I continued to visit Varanasi, and get to know it and its people, make friends and develop a deeper connection with the heart of Varanasi – its spiritual side, I grew to fall deeply in love with the city. A true love relationship comes with plenty of alternate bouts of ‘hate’ and that certainly does happen. Varanasi is still a challenging city, and I do sometimes have off days, where things don’t seem so easy, but it only serves to make me understand and appreciate the beauty of Varanasi’s deeper heart even more.
Benares; Kashi – city of light; the ‘oldest continually habitated city on earth’; Shiva’s city. Varanasi goes by many monikers, and when I’m asked to describe it, the best way is to say that it’s all of India crammed into one place, or India Squared.
What is it that I love about this intense, crazy, spiritual place? It’s the combination of all it is, the vast contradiction between the ancient Hinduism that permeates each and every square foot of the city and the modern crush of civilisation that threatens to push the primordial origins of the city far from view (but never will).
With a permanent resident population of 1.2 million, on a typical day, the population of Varanasi would double or even triple with pilgrims and tourists flooding to the city, the holy of holies for Hindus, creating within this city on the banks of the Holy Ganges the most Indian of all Indian cities. Varanasi attracts visitors and pilgrims from all over India, Indians speaking a myriad of languages and dialects, and who wear different clothing, eat different food and live many different types of lives. Even Hindu’s from other parts of the country practice a different Hinduism to those in Varanasi, although Varanasi is still the singular most important destination for a Hindu to visit at least once in their lifetime.
I could talk for hours about the history, the legends and the myths and the religion of Varanasi, but what I want to tell you here is how I relate to Varanasi, how I feel there and the reason that Varanasi is my favourite place in India.
My first vivid memory of Varanasi is taking a dawn boat ride from the Main Ghat. That would have been in 1993. Not much has changed about Varanasi over the past 2 decades. A dawn boat ride along the river, watching the pilgrims and residents bathe and perform their morning prayers probably looks much the same as it did a thousand years ago.
Back then, there weren’t loudspeakers piping out Hindu chants, but the Brahmin Priests on the riverbank performing pujas and the holy men ringing bells and chanting are still there. There were people performing yoga and meditating in the first rays of the morning sun. Still are today. There were locals out for their early morning walk. Still are today. Chai wallahs setting up their stalls and brewing their first batch of Varanasi masala chai. As today. I always feel a sense of serenity and peace that here, on the river, nothing has or will ever change.
My second early memory of Varanasi is the crowded backstreets and alleyways of the Old city – the Golden Temple area. The chaotic, noisy and utterly enchanting markets of Vishwanath Gali (the laneway leading to the Temple) and the little shops and merchants lining the way selling makeup and bangles, sweets, cotton & silk cloth and religious trinkets. This likewise hasn’t changed in centuries apart from the overhead electrical wires and signs.
I love the vibrant energy and colour of these back lanes, the pilgrims walking steadfastly and often mesmerised themselves by the sights – the cows squeezing past the crush, the excitement and peace combined of the hectic atmosphere.
The third initial memory of Varanasi is walking along the riverbank – along the ‘Ghats’. When the river is low, you can walk the entire 4+km stretch from Assi Ghat to Raj Ghat along the river bank, up and down stairs and around temples. Wandering slowing along the ghats in the afternoon, when it’s quiet is a very special time.
You’re not bothered by touts or beggars, except maybe for a masseuse man at the main ghat and by the odd boat man calling out ‘Hello boat’.
It’s magic to sit down on the steps somewhere quiet and just gaze out to the river, watching the boats lazily drift
by and the odd person walk past.
The last early memory is of people’s lives being lived in the countless streets and alleyways of the old city. Most lanes too narrow for even a cycle rickshaw, everyone walks, dodging the cows, dogs and cow-poo, the bicycles and odd motorbike as well as other people, some wandering slowly, others rushing by. The stone paths feel like literally millions of lives have been lived along them and millions of footsteps have trampled them for millennia, and I’m sure they have. Pass a doorway and peek inside someone’s home – a child is peering out, a cow nosing their way in looking for some scraps from the kitchen. A housewife is sweeping out the front room, or sitting on the porch watching life go by.
These days when I return to Varanasi (if I’m not with a group), I stay with my local Varanasi family in their home, away from the river, but I always take time to
head down to the Ganges for some spiritual ‘Me and Mother Ganges’ time. I have come to understand over the years what is so special about this river. Although it is one of the most polluted rivers on earth, it has special, some say miraculous properties, killing all microscopic bugs that find their way into it, as it’s a ‘self-cleansing’ river.
I don’t know the science behind it, but for Hindu’s the river is vitally important and one of the roots of their philosophy – that the Ganges is a goddess and although she can be fierce and unpredictable, she’s also the giver of life.
All life is carried on here – water from the river is used in all ceremonies, from births and marriages to death and everything in between. People come down to the river to pray, to wash their body and their clothes, or just to swim, meditate, exercise. Although I have never been game enough to swim in the Ganges in Varanasi, the river has a fierce magnetism and way up stream in Rishikesh, I have found myself submerged by the cleansing waters of the Ganges, drawn irresistibly into the river by some force I was unable to fathom.
Varanasi is an utter hodgepodge of everything good and bad, wondrous and crazy, rich and poor, colourful, fragrant and unpredictable about India.
It’s so difficult to describe how I really feel about Varanasi – the love and peace I feel when I’m there. Instead, I’d like to share with you a poem I wrote about Varanasi some years ago…
City of LightSaffron robes and fluttering flags
Joyous chanting and a rhythmic drumbeat
Kites flying high over rooftops Evening mist descending over the holy Ganga
The lowing of buffaloes
The waft of incense
Rickshaw bells ringing
Chai wallahs beckoning
A boat drifts away from the shore to be enclosed in the silence of the river’s flow
The beep of a horn
The bark of a dog
The faraway sound of a Bollywood pop song
A cow steps into the middle of the road and looks meaningfully into the distance as if contemplating life itself This is Varanasi.