Monday, February 13, 2012
Blindingly colorful and unrelentingly chaotic
Let me start with the most visceral sight on my first visit to Varanasi:
While floating on a boat down the mother Ganga River in the early light of dawn, in the smoky haze of fire and smoke from funeral pyres on shore, a dog was chewing on the bone of a human skull.
What life did this skull contain? Who was the person among the masses of Hindus who come here, one of the holist places in India, to be cremated or otherwise to wash away their sins? Perhaps he was the Indian army soldier who fought in the Bangladesh war who came here seeking penance and reparation for those he had killed in his life. Did he come here, like thousands upon thousands of refugees we saw searching for peace of mind? The streets, river banks and funeral ghats are crowded with pilgrims from all over the world who come to sites like Varanasi and Sarnath (where Buddha preached his first sermon and found nirvana) to pray and meditate in an attempt to gain back some of the merit they may have lost in life. Others come to leave the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges. So many life stories begin and end here. And there were wedding celebrations going on throughout the crowded streets. In the evening we watched Brahmin Hindu priests perform the sacred Arati ceremony on the river banks and then we floated by the fires of funeral pyres prepared by surviving family members.
And after coming from the quiet jungles of the tiger parks we were overwhelmed by the hoards of life all around us. Just getting from our hotel to the river we took our mid-size bus as far as it would carry us through the narrow and crowded streets and then got on bicycle rickshaws to ride through the greatest mass of humanity all moving on foot, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, vehicles, anything that transports goods and people and has a loud horn. We moved through this morass of honking horns and dense congestion in a long line of 8 rickshaws getting separated further and further apart. At one moment, Ken and Barbara's rickshaw broke down and they found themselves separated from the rest of the group in the middle of the crowded city not having any idea where they were going or how they would ever get there. But like many things here, especially in tourism, the Indians always have a backup plan when things don't work out as planned, and everyone is glad to help. In this case, the rickshaw driver called a colleague who came right away to take them to our meeting point.
Lonely Planet describes Varanasi best:
"Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners."