Sunday, December 12, 2010

Featured Article

The following article was featured on TouristAttitude, on Dec. 12th, 2010, click here to see it there.


"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Earlier this year, I found myself in Varanasi. This was my first adventure on the Indian subcontinent, and in typical vagabond style, I planned nothing ahead of time. I envisioned a quick stopover for one or two nights, nothing fancy, before trudging onward to New Delhi – a grueling train journey that can last upwards of 24 hours! After my first rooftop smoke, and listening to a passionate call to prayer as the sun was slowly setting – I knew I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.

My Dad had always told me that when he died, he wanted me to take his ashes to Varanasi and scatter them in the Ganges river, to do this he said was 'a passport to heaven.' I later learned that there are only fifteen days each year (determined by astrology) known as the 'festival of the dead' in which one can escape the cycle of rebirth, and the doorway to Nirvana is opened. While the chances of dying within this window of opportunity are less than five percent, many elderly people in India choose to live our their final days in Varanasi, in the hopes that they'll be in the lucky minority. 

There are many houses for the sick and dying in town, and with some of the more popular ghats cremating up to 200 bodies on any given day, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Varanasi is all doom and gloom. While death may be an everyday affair, life is too, something which people often forget. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, and while this claim may be disputed by scholars, the city has been continually inhabited for at least 3000 years. Legend has it that Shiva gifted this city to his wife as a wedding gift, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and bhang lassi (think marijuana milkshake) flows freely. Don't be surprised to see locals pouring tea or whiskey for a seemingly invisible person, this is Shiva's city and these offerings are a sign of respect. 

After two weeks in town, I decided to do as the locals do, and bathe in the holy river. The Ganges river is the holiest river in all of India, and is known in circles as the 'Hindu heartbeat.' Over two million pilgrims bathe in the waters each day, with around 60,000 in Varanasi alone. I decide to live in the moment, shake off the numerous warnings I have received both at home and abroad, and go for an early morning dip. (For an extended story on my plunge into murkiness, click here

The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of sacred water. Step by slippery step, I descend down the ghats and into the murky brown water. The color and consistency is something like French onion soup. It is at this point that my brain feels the need to remind me that along the 7km stretch of river that runs through town, there are over 30 sewers pumping out last night's masala dosa. As I remember a disembodied skull that was bobbing up and down beside the boat, only days earlier on a sunset cruise – I decide abruptly that it's time to dry off.

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