Its whispered name sends smokey plumes down narrow cow-lined avenues in my heart. Death and rejuvenation upon the god-hair river, spices of every color and taste, children happily plodding off to school wearing wee nylon backpacks and wee smart uniforms.
If you’re a big city hopper, or a fabulous beach-bunny this ain’t the vacation spot for you. This town is for the philosopher playing with questions of mortality. It’s for those who celebrate Holi day – any day – with bhang lassis and candle light, riverside. It’s for the reverent and curious who bask in the awe and oddity of ceremony over 3000 years old.
City of lights, city of learning, the religious capital of India. Varanasi is nestled in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and is regarded as a holy city by Buddhists, Jains and most especially, the Hindus. According to Hindu Cosmology, Varanasi is actually the navel of the earth – little did I know, my first visit in June of 2010! I’d only heard the Ganga scene would make for amazing pictures.
But upon arrival, I fell deeply in love with the city. I felt at home, at ease in the dark nights when the electricity went out, at ease in the dark days spent rambling about its labyrinth.
To me, this town felt like a metaphor for the subconscious, and after doing some research on the spot, I can finally understand why. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and probably the oldest in India, you find yourself swimming in an atmosphere thick with history – which is a helluva lot safer than swimming in the Ganges! By some reports, the water here has sixteen million times the bacteria allowed in potable water. Yikes!
I arrived by train from Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Resigning to play tourist and take the obligatory shots in the front of one of the wonders for the world, I gave my yoga mat a rest – just for the week. But I couldn’t stay away for long. After a day in Agra, I was eager to settle into Varanasi for a nice five day stint, complete with daily yoga classes. I found a brilliant yoga teacher during that time, as a cherry atop all the amazing experiences uncovered. When it came time to leave, I’d wished I could simmer longer in Varanasi’s vibe – but I knew I’d be returning one day.
The first item on your Varanasi dream agenda is a morning boat ride down the river, along the ghats. Witness the cremation ceremony upon a 3000 year-old fire – three ghats down, brush your teeth and wash your clothes with the rest of the Gang! Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges purifies you of sins, which I suppose might be a reason worth contracting a few communicable diseases. :o)
More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit the city each year, many on holy pilgrimages. Roll with the spiritual crowd for at least a day and pencil in a few of the significant temples on your journey. The shrine of Kashi Vishwanath, one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva, is a must see.
The Golden Temple and the Durga Temple (aka ‘Monkey Temple’) are also worth checking out. You can get an easy tour, complete with air conditioning, but be ready to dish out a lot more than you would flying solo in the rickshaws and don’t expect to take any memorable pictures – not allowed on the holy grounds!
I met a man in Varanasi. He’d been traveling as a spiritual seeker for 25 years. He left his parents and family to set off for life as a sadhu, having no money, no home, and a long way to travel. By the time our paths crossed this last summer, his life had transformed yet again. He’d met a German woman whom he married and shared a beautifully romantic relationship with into these final decades. He reminded me that love and romance knows no age, and that transformation is more than possible – it’s absolutely unavoidable. Be sure to add ‘talk to a few locals’ to your list of must-do’s in this city.
On the lighter side of things, Varanasi is also a shopper’s paradise. All the Indian goodies you desire, sans the mad crowds – and prices are reasonable, least compared to the malls in Delhi or Mumbai. Sarees, scarves, bindis, om shirts and more! If something doesn’t fit just right, there’s always the option of taking your digs to a tailor, and for a mere three US dollars, he’ll take anything in or out. Just don’t be shy about changing in his backyard, there’s no way around it!
As far as food goes, I’m sure there’s some good grub to be had in Varanasi – I just didn’t happen to find much of it! I recall eating the blah blah norm of tourist food: dhal, rice, the occasional order of fries. And then, on the last day, my very last meal, I did manage to find a most excellent Japanese restaurant! Not only did they serve fresh (massive) portions of cold soba noodle salad – HEAVEN on a plate! – they also dished out some tasty miso soup and green tea to your hearts’ content. Mmm, yes please!
Another fabulous thing about Varanasi – it’s less than an hour from Sarnarth, site of the Buddha’s first official teaching to his original crew of Buddhist monks. But that’s the subject of another travelogue all together!
“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” ~Mark Twain