I know, heavy title, right. Hear me out.
India always presents such stark contrasts, but Varanasi is a paradox to me. It is a holy place. It is a sacred city on the banks of the holiest of holy Mama Ganga, goddess of the Hindus. It is a giver of life and sanctuary for the soul in more ways than one.
Wandering the endless narrow streets (much like Venice without the canals) and the addition of countless cows and consequent cow shit (holy land mines, as per my host). I came across temple after temple after temple. On every corner there was a shrine to Shiva, the creator of this town. Or the telling orange clothes of an approaching sadhu. They are holy men who have dedicated their lives to God. Not to be confused with a priest; only a Brahmin can be a priest (their caste system is a whole other post). But a holy man, who eats, sleeps and breathes prayer whilst sitting for hours chanting Sanskrit scriptures. He relies on the kindness of others for food. He is happy to offer advice and counsel if asked, but more so a man of solitary devotion to God.
Then there is the river itself, a holy living Goddess flowing for 2500 kilometres providing life and spiritual hope to all those who adorn her banks. Or better yet to bathe in this mighty river is said to cleanse the soul. Of course, I indulged in this opportunity to cleanse some sins away. I’m the Unlikely Pilgrim after all. Holy yes, pure … not the word that comes to mind when submerged in this water, especially with a buffalo within spitting distance.
Nonetheless I cleansed, I bathed, and I even headed to the temple to be blessed.
Like my previous entry (Cremations and Corpses) describes. There is commitment to the ceremony of this place. The dedication to rituals in ensuring the soul is clean is paramount. Pilgrims from all over India, and in fact the world, come in the millions to soak up the energy of Varanasi. In theory it is beautiful and spiritually charged.
However both times I’ve been here I’ve felt an underlying sadness; not a surface bad feeling, but a deep sorrow in my heart.
A sorrow for the conditions here: the streets are filthy with animal mess, rubbish and general grime. Children as young as three years old beg on the streets well into the night.
Seedy and uneasy feelings down by the river after dark surrounds me and the lower castes are avoided and disregarded. An example, the Aghori the men who work down at the cremation sites to ensure the masses get their golden ticket to heaven work tirelessly, yet I’m advised not to talk to them or risk being tainted by someone else’s woes. Superstition or discrimination? I’m undecided.
With all the colour and spirituality, Varanasi is certainly an incredible place to visit. I can’t help but invoke feelings of helplessness when I think of Varanasi though. A place so full of hope and maybe that’s why the poverty is more obvious to me here than in other parts of India. Albeit the divide is everywhere in India. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life here, because all the people need is their God.
Find out for yourself.
Yours in faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim