The City of Varanasi

After spending three weeks in Nepal, my next destination was India with the first leg of my new journey to begin in Varanasi. I flew from Nepal to India, stopping over for a few hours in the modern, air conditioned airport of New Delhi. I then flew from New Delhi, East to the ancient city of Varanasi. The spiritual hub of India. It was a journey I was making alone. I had booked accommodation prior to my arrival at Varanasi and I managed to find a fixer straight away at the airport when I arrived. A fixer is a local you pay who can help show you around and take you places. I was to stay at Varanasi for five days.

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My time at Varanasi was one that I would never forget. It was a moment in my life that heavily influenced who I am today. I was a lone traveler at the time and though there were some people who spoke what English they could, I spent most of my time by myself. It is a strange thing when you are by yourself. Having other people around offers the opportunity to chat and reflect on experiences. I did not have that. I did not have the distraction of talking to someone else or talking about football or how things are in the world at the moment. It was a lot of alone time. Alone with my thoughts, with my camera and my curiosity of this old city and its people. Looking back, this type of alone time felt so surreal. I felt as though at the time I was really absorbed my surroundings. I felt more present. Present in the moment, where I was, and what I was experiencing and doing.

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To me, Varanasi represents the cycle of death and rebirth in life. New beginnings birthed in new endings and vice versa. Many Hindus from India, Nepal and Bangladesh travel to Varanasi to bathe in the river Ganges. A holy river. A river believed to be the personification of the goddess Ganga. The waters of the Ganges begin as melted water from the glaciers of the Himalayas, flowing through the subcontinent and into the Indian ocean. Bathing in the river is common practice as it is believed to absolve sins. People make the pilgrimage to this ancient city to also die. If they have already died, there body is commonly taken there to be cremated. Thus the banks of the Ganges or the Ghats are sites in Varanasi where people cremate their dead. Cremated to dust and swept into the Ganges river forming the basis for new life, and new beginnings.

The streets of Varanasi are busy, as with most Indian cities. Tuk-tuks, street vendors, chanting, prayers, these come to mind when I think about trying to describe the sounds of Varanasi. Sadhus and monks can be seen meditating on the Ghats. Wind blows smoke from the cremation ceremonies from the Ghats into the streets. The smoke diffuses the light giving the streets a slight haze together with a slightly smokey smell, mixed with other types of scents such as frankincense, sandalwood and incense.

I felt that the city Varanasi had a soul. It felt old. It looked old. Not Victorian era old, but old like ancient old. Mark Twain describes Benares also known as Varanasi, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. It is the center of the Hindu and Brahmin faith and it was the site where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. The city houses an estimated 23,000 spiritual temples and is believed to be over 3000 years old.

Those five days in Varanasi seemed like a dream. A place foreign to what I have seen and experienced previously in my life. I spent most of my time there walking the streets. I managed to visit the silk factories, the temple of Sarnath, the ghats, the cremation ceremonies and temples. Like I have previously said I had a lot of time to think. To ponder on life. I found that the experience of watching the process of bodies getting cremated really put a new perspective for me on life. Put by Horace, “We are but dust and shadow, born to consume the fruits of the Earth”. One day I am going to die, and there is nothing I can do about it but enjoy what time I have. This might sound morbid, but it is not my sentiment. Our existence is so finite. At times in our lives we work jobs we don't even like, to buy things we don't even need, to at times impress people we probably don't even like. We spend so much time valuing such things that really in the grand scheme of things when you are on your death bed do they really matter?

What I learned from my experience in my time in Varanasi is that the fruit of my life is found in the experience. The experience of meeting new people, going to new places and experiencing new cultures. These things, I feel bring me value and help instill curiosity and excitement for other future adventures.

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