The train from Jaipur to Varanasi took 24 hours, non-stop. It was only supposed to take 19, not that that's much better, but I'm pretty sure I've never sat in one place for so long in my life. So after that train ride, not entirely bad, we hadn't eaten in over 24 hours and hadn't had a good restful sleep in a couple of days, I'm not going to lie I was grumpy and hangry and feeling on the verge of homesickness. Proceeding to walk through the tiny, windy, busy, dirty streets with a backpack on the front and back for 45 minutes, I was pretty much ready to say goodbye to India all together.
I’m so glad I didn't! Today is Diwali in India, I think being in Varanasi for Diwali would be equivalent to being in Jerusalem for Christmas, or Beijing for Chinese New Year.
Where to begin? Varanasi is the Holiest of cities in India, located on the Ganges River. People come here to celebrate life and death. The day started by having delicious breakfast on the rooftop patio, overlooking the numerous ghats and definitely enjoying the Ganges from afar, it was a view similar to that of Venice from the Rialto Bridge. Stunning, breathtaking, vast and intricate. The smog and fog of the morning created a beautiful glow in the city, the lights from Diwali creating a magic in the air. Like Christmas morning.
We walked through the streets where no traffic is allowed, which is a welcomed break, getting our hands on a few goodies, some airy pants, colourful malas, fragrant oils, and gold bangles. I have never sweat so much in my life. I think it was hot out, but it wouldn't really matter. The streets are always hot, full of people and animals walking within each others personal bubbles (India - what do you mean, personal space?).
Walking along the ghats, basically like a sea wall for the Ganges, we made our way to burning ghat. The Ganges river is so important to people in India, they come here to bathe, send offerings, and die, among other things I’m sure. Two to three hundred bodies are cremated a day here. Literally on the banks of the river. The bodies are prepared according to gender and stance in life, wrapped in scarves, carried down the streets by a chanting procession (let me tell you, there is probably nothing more unnerving and uncomfortable than getting stuck in front of, and then alongside one of those, you can almost feel the warmth of the body and the weight of the life…this happened more than once), and bathed one last time in the Holy River. Then they burn. They burn for 3 hours and then ashes are given to the families to spread, and the left over bones are thrown in the river, the cremation spot ready for the next soul. The Ganges brings after life, it brings Samadhi.
I don't know that I have ever been affected, so much as to be in tears, by anything I've witnessed while travelling, or ever. There are no pictures allowed, but justice could never be done through a photograph anyways, a photograph could never capture the emotion that is felt when you see a flicker of body parts and flesh glowing from the fire under the hundred year old logs.
In the Western World, death is scary and sad, but theres something so refreshing, beautiful and enlightening to see people celebrating, rather than mourning. I will never forget the bodies and souls I saw being cremated today, being so close to something so sacred and so raw, one can only hope to have another experience like that.
The day ended with a Puja ceremony at the Dashashwamedh ghat. There had to have been tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people gathered to watch the ceremony, again think Christmas Mass. There were lights and fires and smoke and feathers and chanting and clapping and bells. It was amazing! The people in what I imagine are their best saris and outfits, everyone with bindis and gold jewellery. Varanasi definitely has a more distinct smell then other places in India, like Venice does - being so intertwined with less than potable water, and it was no different tonight, maybe just adding the strong smell of smoke and incense.
As I write this, there are fireworks, firecrackers and cannons being fired, boats and buildings are lit up and the energy in the air is that of an entire country coming together in celebrating for the holiday and in understanding for the sacredness of the river that surrounds us. Also, as I write this it’s Remembrance Day back in Canada, I am so grateful to have the opportunity to travel in my life. I know it’s because of the lives lost that I am lucky enough to have this freedom, and be Canadian. I will never forget that, I will never stop feeling huge pride when I get to tell people I’m Canadian, and then even bigger love when they say, “Oh Canada, what a beautiful country!”
India keeps getting better, we have another day and a half in Varanasi and I can’t wait to see what the city has in store. This is the perfect last stop before Yoga Teacher Training in Rishikesh for a month!