“You cannot describe it to anyone, you have to go there and feel it. Which makes Kashi the most holliest grounds in the Hindu world. Every Hindu is supposed to see Kashi once in his life time and it is because of that energy and the vibration.” –Aman (our tour guide)
Despite the dark connotation that is often cast on India, to me, it still shines brighter than any place I’ve ever been. It seems obvious that India has more layers and personalities than anywhere else. Although I have only had the opportunity to experience Varanasi, one small section of the huge country, it was clear just from there how every person could take something different with them from India.
Located on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, Varanasi is known as the heartbeat of India and the holy city for the Hindu’s. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India attracting around 20,000 new visitors a day. Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city in the world and has been a center of civilization and learning for the past 2000 years. The Hindu’s come to see Varanasi and the River Ganges in order to achieve Moksha. If they have achieved Moksha, they will be freed from the cycle of rebirths and become cosmic energy. It means that they will have achieved complete liberation or salvation.
That being said, I’m going to attempt to describe it to you. But let me just say first, that Varanasi was much more a feeling, kind of like a buzz or a high, that you get just from being in its environment and consumed into its rituals and culture.
Our journey to the Ganges River required three modes of transportation. The nice air conditioned bus we had grown accustomed to which would take us from the hotel to the dirt lot where we would meet the rickshaws and then the rickshaws to the beginning of the overly crowded street where we would have to walk the rest of the way. The bus dropped us off at an empty lot where about 40 rickshaws were lined up waiting for our arrival. Rickshaws are bicycles with a seat connected at the back so the passengers are sitting about four feet off of the ground with no covering. As we stepped off the bus we went right to the first available rickshaw and climbed in. We weren’t even moving and I was already nervous. I was thinking about the traffic I had already seen in India, and thinking about the completely exposed seat I was sitting in, and the small Indian man in his GAP khakis and dirty baseball cap that would be responsible for my life for the next 20 or 30 minutes. Across the way my friend in another rickshaw called to me and Margo (my rickshaw partner) “smile!” and she pointed a camera at us. I put on a smile for the picture as I whispered to Margo “I think this might end up being the most dangerous thing I’ll ever do in my life.” Before I could think about it anymore, we were off. The rickshaw drivers filed out of the dirt lot one by one onto the crowded street. Deep breath. Here we go. There was honking coming from every angle. It was like surround sound, literally, because the honking wasn’t just coming from right behind us. Drivers in India don’t pay attention to the lanes on the street (when there are any) so the cars and other bikes and rickshaws along with their horns were coming at us from every direction. Despite my fear, I couldn’t help but smile at the situation. It was sort of like bungee jumping, exhilarating, terrifying, amazing, and something I would never do again. I didn’t know what direction to look so I’m sure I resembled bobble head as I was continuously turning in every direction I could without falling off the rickshaw. We passed by party stores that had hats and banners hanging down from the front of the small cubicle, clothing stores, one I noticed was called “Barbie” and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was named after the American Barbie doll we are all familiar with. Our driver dodged in and out of traffic as I watched mesmerized by the stores that lined the streets, filled with glittering saris and bangles. Every now and then I would be jolted back to the reality of the situation I was in. I would look at the driver and see that we had obviously been a centimeter from a collision, and without hesitation he would continue forward making the herd of people part ways for us. When the crowd got so thick that there was no longer hope for the rickshaw to get through, we jumped off the bench and continued by foot to the River Ganges where we would be seeing the “Thanksgiving” ceremony which is performed every night.
As I walked down the street I felt like a little kid at a carnival. There were neon colored banners strong between buildings and store signs framed by Christmas lights. There were small shops for everything; saris, jewelry, fabrics, scarves, sunglasses, and more. People were pushing through from behind, from the sides, and trying to go the opposite direction of the foot traffic. I found it hard to stay with the group because I just wanted to examine every store and watch the people go by. As we got further and further towards the river bank the crowd began to disperse and it felt like we had walked from one world to another. I began to notice more street vendors than store fronts and all of a sudden we were being approached by beggars and little kids who just wanted food or money. We continued walking like we were told to do by our guides and we eventually came upon the security checkpoint to get to the River. It looked so out of place, this modern technology standing alone, protecting the River Ganges from the rest of the world. This turned into more than just a security checkpoint; it was also a reality checkpoint. We have to go through security at airports, government buildings, and other “official” buildings, but it was somewhat devastating to see that people can’t even be trusted to respect such a sacred place as this.
I walked through the security scanner and once again felt like I was in another world. I could faintly make out the wooden boats near the river banks filled with tourists and the candles floating in the water (I later learned that the candles were to wish on and then as you make your wish you let them float away). There was a set up right at the top of the stairs that lead down to the River with seven arches, connected, and a rectangular area under each one for the seven men who would be performing the thanksgiving ceremony. The river bank started to fill up with locals coming to give thanks to the Gods and with tourists from around the world who were there to experience the ceremony. The men who stood under the arches began chanting and people in the audience would participate when they could. I watched in a trance, suddenly understanding what our guide meant when he told us earlier that day that this would be an experience we would not be able to describe to anybody.
I didn’t want it to end but as much as I was in the moment, I had to keep pulling myself out of it because I was on a schedule. That’s the downfall of Semester at Sea trips; it’s hard to let yourself become fully immersed in anything because you are always having to worry about leaving before the experience has even really started. So the clock struck 9 pm and it was time to head back to our meeting spot 15 minutes early to be sure that we would not be left behind. The group gathered and we went back to the way we came. It was like putting a movie in rewind. We walked up the stairs, through the checkpoint where we began to be followed by children asking for food and money, down the street lined with stores that glittered with saris and bangles, across the streets which could have easily been our last steps, back to the rickshaws which we climbed aboard and then through the streets which had quieted down, and finally back to the empty dirt lot where our air conditioned buses awaited our arrival.
On our way back to the hotel our guide, Aman, shared is life motto with us. After experiencing the thanksgiving ceremony which I thought was one of the most incredible things I had ever done, I was prepared for an inspirational speech. Aman began, “1. Money cannot buy happiness,” yes, this will be inspiring, “but somehow it is more comfortable to cry in a BMW then on a bicycle.” What? “2. Help a man in need and he will remember you when he is in need again. 3. Forgive your enemies but remember their names.” These were not the life lessons I was expecting “4. Many people are alive because it is illegal to shoot them. 5. Alcohol doesn’t solve any problems, but neither does milk.”
Yes, Aman’s mottos were funny, but something was lost to me. I had spent the day learning about this holy place and these religious people who seem to be so spiritually guided, and then I was hit with these mottos. Perhaps it was naïve of me to be surprised. I was expecting a stereotypical life lesson and instead I got these, which in thinking about them, seem to have more truth than most inspirational sayings. Another reality check I suppose.
And there they are, some of the many layers of just one small city in India. In the few miles from the bus to the River Ganges I saw the poverty, the wealth, the traditions, the religions, the tourists, the locals, the stores that shined bright with lights and glamorous items, and those that looked like holes in the wall hanging on by a thread.