Varanasi: The Beauty and the Beast

As the early morning mist clears, it gradually reveals ancient domes and temples rising from the stone steps over the Ganges River. The sun has barely made its appearance over the horizon, and already the bells are ringing and hundreds of holy men are up to their waist in the water; reciting the Vedic verses and chanting. The hour of the day makes all the difference. It is at dawn that the gods take their bath, and that’s when entering the river allows you to become one with the divine spirit.

Forever covered by a pink haze, Varanasi looks more like a water color painting than the real thing. Its dreamlike essence attracts visitors from all over the world – tourists and photographers alike flock here to capture a drop of this illusion. But it is for the Hindus that this town really matters. Benares, as they call it, is the door to Nirvana; a release from the eternal cycle of reincarnation. If you die here and your body is burned in one of the cremation ghats, your ashes will be spilled into the river so that you become reunited with the Brahman. Luckily, there’s an alternative option for those who are still young and healthy: if you shave your head completely here, you will be handed your own personal guaranteed ticket to Paradise.

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However, as you move away from the waterfront the sublime image quickly fades; Varanasi is seriously filthy. The streets are littered with garbage and excrement from the hundreds of cows, dogs and goats. With no rubbish bins, the dark alleyways become their trash receptacle. You slip and slide in the mud, trying to jump to the side as the speeding motorbikes narrowly misses you. And everywhere you look, someone is urinating against a wall or squatting down to relieve themselves. Your lungs fill with the smoke of incense, bonfires and burning bodies. The stench can be overwhelming.

It seems like everyone you meet has something to sell, often mumbled with a mouth full of red, teeth-staining tobacco. “Boat, Sir?” is the most frequent way to address foreigners, followed by “Hello Boat, very cheap.” One of Varanasi’s most popular activities is drifting along the waves of the Ganga at sunrise, watching the city waking up. Other things on sale are chai, blessings with red tika powder on your forehead, massages (men on men only, please), rickshaw rides and a bowl-shaped leaf filled with orange carnations, yellow and red tints and a candle, which can be sent out on the river as an offering to the gods.

Unfortunately, it is this greed that may slowly ruin what is still one of the most mind-blowing places in the world. Who can tell if any of the dozens of sadhus offering morning blessings are real holy men? Anyone could set up shop by the river with a blanket, the right set of accessories and a painted forehead, cashing in on the fools who are willing to part with their hard-earned money in exchange for a benediction.

But all is forgiven once you sit down to rest in the shade and just focus on the real-life spectacle playing out before you. The vibrant colors, the glittering Ganges, the absolute conviction of those who bathe in the polluted river, drink its water and never get sick.

In the end it’s the ethereal beauty of this place that triumphs over the beast that shares its magnificent abode. And you know with certainty that you will be back one day. Again and again and again.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lolade
    Feb 12, 2013 @ 00:39:17

    Kristi,
    You are writing more like a pro with each article. Are you an undercover agent for National Geographic? These posts are soooo(what’s the word), poetic, and i like that you let us see your picture too and i know Eduardo is too shy to let us see his six pack or could it be that you are balding? (Hahahahaha).
    Honestly if you compiled all your blogs, i would buy it to travel because i am a little lazy as a tourist. I can imagine all the research that went into planning this trip, carefully choosing the sites that matter, the type we sometimes glimpse on “Travel Planet”. For a while, it sounded like you were describing a part of Lagos (“The men urinating freely all over” but then i remembered the over/rightly zealous agencies who nab you *ick in hand). Thanks for that picture, you look lovely and all travelled up (whatever that means?). Hey keep it coming, i am reading.

    Reply

  2. Kristi D
    Feb 12, 2013 @ 00:45:12

    Thanks Lola. I’m so happy people enjoy my writing, and especially you. You’re the best. Hugs

    Reply

  3. Lynn
    Feb 12, 2013 @ 12:35:14

    I agree with Lola your writing is visually stimulating. I am traveling vicariously with you two.

    Reply

  4. omchakrasauras
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 04:17:18

    Amazing photographs-such realness, clarity and beauty. They make me feel as if I am exploring India merely by looking at them-wonderful. I haven’t been to India yet but I would absolutely love to go all over India exploring-including Varanasi and the Ganges. Thank-you for sharing. Sat Nam. Namaste.

    Reply

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