Varanasi: Spirituality Laid Bare

Varanasi / Kashi / Banaras. This city of many names occupies a space between life and death. And that is not only because people come here to die in a final hope of reaching moksha, or to be cremated by the holy Ganges. Many of the beings here seem to be hanging on to life by a thin thread.

The sky is a hazy, dull blue. The old temples and buildings are discoloured and crumbling, mere relics of their old selves. The holy River Ganges is polluted, full of factory effluents, human excrement, and worse. Are the blessed waters actually a curse?

IMG_0335The dogs, goats, and cows wandering around or lying motionless, seemingly dead, are slow and greying. You can see their ribs under their thinning fur, patched with scars and bare pink flesh, fresh from a recent fight. New-born puppies stumble around in search for food to keep them in the life they have only just entered. A dead cow lies, eyes open, belly distended, inches from the holy river and in the shadow of a sinking temple.

Emaciated men wash themselves in the river, hunched over, baring their knobbly spines. You could wrap your hand around their spindly arms.

Sadhus (holy men), wrapped in their orange robes, line the ghats. These men have renounced everything, relying on the generosity of others to live or resorting to begging.  Some, the Aghori, are covered in white, often from the ashes of the dead bodies, and stay near the cremation ghats. It is questionable whether all of these sadhus are real, though, or decorating themselves in order to attract money from tourists.

And yet, this shadowland is also full of life.

Bodies, stripped almost naked, wash in the Ganges. A tangle of living flesh. Some swim or play in its waters. Marigold and other brightly coloured offerings are on sale. Children laugh and play with their kites.

A man, shy and quiet, sits painting the ghat scenes. I sit with him briefly, watching him work. A melody floats over on the breeze from a bansuri or a snake charmer.

The sunrises, on a clear day, are a beautiful pink. You can watch them from a boat on the river. At 6 in the morning, just before sunrise, and 6 at night, the ghats light up with the Ganga Aarti ceremonies, where fire is used as an offering.

There is a free mass yoga class at Assi Ghat every morning, where you can move in unison with almost a hundred other people.

Varanasi is also famous for its classical music. I didn’t have time to go to an actual concert, but sat down for a brief chat with some teachers at the International Music Ashram about the tabla, basuri, and Indian classical music. They were more than willing to share their passion and expertise for their music.

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I expected to be harassed by touts and scammers, but found people mostly minded their own business, and weren’t too pushy. The majority of the people I met were friendly, inquisitive, and happy to help, not pernicious. I understand this is a new and welcome change for the city, partially due to the installation of CCTV cameras.

IMG_0327Varanasi is far from a comfortable tourist location. Walking around the city can be shocking, tragic, and incredibly dirty, but there is something in the air which makes it special. Perhaps it is the intimacy of watching people bathe almost naked or witnessing the funeral of someone you don’t know. Or perhaps it is because it feels like a glimpse at the true India, with all its paradoxes.

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