A Holy City of the Dead...Julie's Version

Trip Start Sep 20, 2006
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Flag of India  ,
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Looking out of the window of our plane I sorta laughed to myself when i read a big blue sign with bold white letters that said, "Welcome to Holy City Varanasi." I was soon to find out just how holy this city is.

Our re-entry into India started off with a bang, literrally. We arrived on the biggest day of the biggest Indian festival of the year, Diwali...the festival of lights, or from what I've gathered, something like the Hindi New Year's Eve, and the Indians definitly know how to celebrate. There were orange flowers everywhere, lining every window, and every door. Christmas lights were flashing, and flags were strung up above every street in the complex labyrinth of narrow alleys and walkways that make up the old town of Varanasi. Each family lit candles to put in every corner conceivable throughout the entire city. And to top it all off, war-zone fireworks were blasting every five seconds in every direction. Kids were running up and down the narrow streets setting off as many cherry bombs and firecrackers and shooters as they could. They laughed hysterically when i jumped about three feet up and covered my ears after a cherry bomb went off unexpectedly right next to me.

Ruthi and I, having arrived later in the afternoon or evening, took a taxi as far as they could take us considering the massive crowds of people...and then took on the maze of winding, dark, narrow alleyways covered in a thick paste of cow shit and mud in search of a guest house. We ended up coming under the graces of four eclectic europeans who took us a to a small oasis in the midst of the madness...a little family run guesthouse with a breathtaking rooftop view. Standing on the roof, admiring all of the lights and fireworks, staring down to the sacred ganges river and the ghats, and watching the father light fireworks with his little girls was just one of those moments.

Somehow we slept that night...I think it was the prescription sleeping pills ruthi and i got from a friend, and awoke the next morning to sun streaming through our windows, and a more peaceful, rooftop view of the city and the river. We grabbed a little bit of breakfast, and then headed to the infamous ghats of varanasi. The ghats are literally translated as the steps, and descend into the ganges river, one of the most polluted, foul, brown rivers i have ever seen...its completely septic, meaning that no oxygen exists in the river, and there are many environmental campaigns to clean up the water. And yet, this river is one of the most revered and holy rivers in the world. People travel from all over India, and beyond, to bathe themselves in the water so as to remove their sins, and also to die in this city, so that their dead bodies may be washed with the water prior to cremation, thus circumventing rebirth.

I think the epitomy of the ghats was when we came upon the ghat used for the cremation ceremonies. Perched on a balcony just above the burning pyres, I saw more dead bodies than i ever thought I would see in a lifetime. There were colorful cloths and flowers wrapped around bodies that were placed on wooden stretchers in a line waiting for an available pyre. When ready, the cloths were pulled back and the family would poor water from the ganges onto the face and then place the body on the pyre, and light the wood with a flame from the eternal fire. But not everyone gets cremated...there are a few exceptions, such as children, pregnant women, people who are bit by a cobra, and holy men, who are not to be burned, but to be thrown into the river with a stone tied to them. I almost lost it when i noticed a dead child floating in the river, past cows in the water, and about 5 feet from a group of people bathing themselves in the same water. Not soon after, the smoke smelled too horrible, and the heat from the fires was intolerable...and ruthi and i left with a confused, troubled, yet, astonished feeling, as well as a little nausea.

This city embodies almost everything i associate with india. The smells, the culture, the beauty, the poverty, the religion, the food, the joy. It is a dark city, but it is also a city of joy and life and vivacity. Even though there is so much death here, there also so much happiness and life. People are smiling, wishing you "happy Diwali." Their sins are cleansed, and they feel hope. From an outsiders perspective, their rituals and bathing in this polluted river may seem barbaric. But from their point of view, its a cleansing process of purification. Its a place to let someone's soul be released and go forth, and to celebrate the life they lived prior. I find it somewhat ironic that we are here in Varanasi, a city so closely associated with death, celebrating such a joyful festival of life.
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