February 5, 2017
One of the best ways to see any city is to walk it, and my favorite way to go about that is to just set off on my own and wander, exploring off the beaten track and discovering hidden gems. Varanasi, however, is not the place for such initiative. Even the locals here will tell you to be careful venturing through old town on your own, as your chances of getting extremely lost are virtually guaranteed.
The “streets” of Old Town are really just narrow footpaths, crammed with people, cows, dogs, motorbikes, chai carts and mobile food stalls, bookended on either side by a never-ending stream of shops, homes and temples that line the haphazardly laid out lanes. It is a literal labyrinth with zero symmetry or structure to it’s navigation, so the tall height of the buildings combined with the virtual ceiling of awnings, banners, decorative lights and streamers hanging over the narrow paths make it nearly impossible to get any sense of where the sun is. This makes tuning into your inner compass nearly impossible, even for someone like me who almost never loses direction. On the other hand, if you like adventure and discovery, these lanes give you plenty to work with.
So for three dollars each, we decide to hire a guide to take us on a two hour walking tour, and I am immediately in love. Our guide, Vijay is an older man who has lived in Varanasi his entire life and knows these streets like the back of his hand. And while his knowledge of the city is an obvious asset, the best thing about him is his absolute, unshakable zen. He slowly and peacefully walks us around yelling vendors, large bulls, honking motorbikes, scrambling children, funeral processions, and more piles of dung than you could possible imagine, always looking back to insure we’re able to keep close proximity behind him… which given the virtual minefield of obstacles is a real challenge despite his leisurely gait.
We stop in several temples where no tourists go and he gives us tidbits of information on the city’s history, the people and the pervasive religion that defines the culture here, but the real point of the tour is to simply soak up the intense and unique Varanasi vibe and see how people live their daily lives here. I note that there seem to be very few tourists at this time of year (not just here, but in Jaipur as well) which I love. It makes me feel as if I am seeing the authentic side of the city and not simply a city that caters to tourists. He even takes us into the market area where the locals shop and helps us buy a few needed sundries, haggling the prices down on our behalf. Overall, it’s an incredible couple of hours spent in authentic Varanasi.
One of the most beautiful rituals found all along the Ganges is the fire ritual called ‘aarti,’ which is a blessing and offering to the holy river. On any given evening at dusk you will find several different variations of this prayer ceremony being performed. Sometimes it is a simple act of setting a small lit candle afloat on the water, other times, for the more devout, you will find small groups performing the intricate and detailed prayers or, as done by the large temples, it can be a huge production.
I became enamored with aarti on my last trip to India when I spent time in Rishikesh (where I’m headed after this) – a spiritual hub with a completely different and considerably calmer vibe, located on the upper part of the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it was with a fair amount of excitement that I looked forward to enjoying this daily celebration again from the Varanasi perspective.
We had two evenings here to enjoy the spectacle, the first of which we did from the river itself. As the sky begins to darken on the way to our viewing destination, patches of fire begin to dot the water as people cast their individual offerings into the river. If you left shore without buying something to offer into the river, have no fear. Floating vendors are close at hand, selling these requisite offerings… beautiful bowls of ornate flowers, each with a small candle centerpiece to be lit before being set afloat with your prayer.
After a slow boat ride up and then back down a long stretch of the river, and after making our own offering to the Ganges, our boat along with what must have been a hundred others found a spot to moor in front of Dashaswamedh Ghat, which puts on one of the largest shows on the riverfront.
Pictures at night from afar don’t do any sort of justice so I’ll refrain from posting, but the experience was absolutely delightful. The ritual/show, which lasts about an hour, consists of music, chanting and loud blowing of the conch shell combined with the intricate and rhythmic offerings being thrown into a large contained fire on the platform. Things escalate into a dance of sorts, as the monks stand along the front edge of the platform facing the water, holding candelabras and large lanterns illuminated by hundreds of tiny fires. It is a spectacular sight.
The singing and chanting continues for quite some time, meanwhile vendors walk from boat to boat (the boats tie themselves together to stay moored) selling chai, souvenirs, and more beautiful little flower-candle bowls, should you decide more personal offerings are in order. Whether you identify with the Hindu religion or not, aarti is a beautiful ceremony to partake in and worth engaging in for the aesthetic alone.
The next evening we walk along the ghats and as dusk approaches, whatever tourist action was hidden during the day now becomes apparent. The activity along the ghats becomes somewhat frenetic as monks prepare for the evening show and people begin searching for a suitable space from which to watch.
This ghat, one of the the largest and the one we viewed from the water last night, is without question, a tourist trap of sorts. There are baba’s pulling you in to adorn you and give you blessings (for a small fee, of course), astrologers offering their services, makeshift food stalls selling delicious smelling fried snacks and of course souvenir stalls galore. It’s safe to say that much of the religious essence is lost in the Disneyland-esque feel here, but the visual feast is incredibly satisfying nonetheless.
All in all, I found Varanasi to be incredibly intense and not for the faint of heart, but as someone who is in love with aesthetic and intrigued by devout ritual so entirely different than what I grew up with, I found the sheer volume of visual stimulation inspiring… at least in small doses. Thank you, Varanasi, for a beautiful adventure.