The Cyclical City
Few cities of the world could capture the imagination, the spirit and the very essence of being alive quite like the city of Varanasi. I have dreamed of this place for what feels like my entire life, imagined what it would feel like to walk the ancient streets, float on the river Ganges and learn what life is like in one of the world’s oldest and most spiritually significant cities.
Varanassi is the cradle of existence for many Indians. It is a place where many come to live, and also to die. It is a city of perhaps unparalleled spiritual significance, where Buddha gave his first sermon and Lord Shiva lived. Since the middle ages this has been the epicentre of Hindu devotion, an important place of pilgrimage, mysticism and culture. It is believed that those who die here are freed from the cycle of reincarnation, and to walk the streets of the city, exploring it’s hidden temples, burning ghats, flowing river and vibrant culture is to embrace a profound and vibrant way of life.
We arrived in Varanasi by train in the middle of the night, after catching a tuktuk to edge of the old city, where the streets are so narrow that no vehicle larger than a motorbike can get through. We were then left to navigate the ancient narrow stone streets by the light of our phone GPS, stepping over large cracks, massive cows and defensive dogs, twisting and turning through the alleys until we arrived at our hostel. Arriving at our room we were rewarded with our first view of the Ganges River, glistening in the moonlight just beyond the rooftops.
The Ganges River is the lifeblood of Varanasi, and sacred to all Hindus, who worship it as the goddess Ganga. Throughout the day and into the night, the banks of the river are the epicentre of life in the city. Starting at sunrise, the river wakes to the chants of the sunrise ceremonies, the first ‘Ganga Aarti’ of the day. Ganga Aarti comes from the Sanskrit word “Aratrika”, meaning a ritual that dispels darkness. Using water, flowers, candles, incense, and a brass vessel adorned with a snake head (signifying Shiva), priests perform rituals happen on the banks of the Ganges twice a day, before the sun rises and after it sets.
In these early hours, the banks of the river come alive with ritual. Past the Ganga Aarti is a meditation circle which gathers every day to chant with the intention of bringing light and peace into the world. All around the river we see men and women who have dedicated their lives to spiritual practice in this city, beginning their day at the waters edge. It’s not even 6:00am, yet the city is coming to life, and it seems to all start at the edges of the river Ganges.
We board a boat and explore the banks of the river, where the ritual of everyday life lives alongside the sacred and spiritual. The shores are lined with people cleansing themselves, hands together in prayer or working and washing. Floating further down the river we find the burning ghats, where Hindus come from all over the country to cremate their dead. At one time, those who couldn’t afford cremation on the sacred wood pilings on the river banks resorted to throwing the bodies of their dead into the river. Today, our guide proudly informs us that a tenacious government initiative to clean up the Ganges has made cremation free for all, and in result bodies rarely burden the banks of the sacred river like they did when he was a child. As he reminisces, telling us that it has been two years since he has seen a deceased body in the river, one such empty vessel happens to float by before our very eyes. The locals bathing nearby were unperturbed, casually waving it away in the water before returning to their morning rituals.
The sight of the dead body does not so much distress as it does remind and teach me that here, death is not an ending – it is a continuation, a new chapter. Therefore locals mourn their dead in a very different way that one would expect in the West. Walking through the burning ghats, the faces in the flames are watched over by family members who show no remorse on the outside, even if there hearts are heavy. The comfort is that their loved ones are free from the hardships of this life, the limitations of this body. They trust that wherever they go next, it is a better place.
We walk through the many levels of the old stone city, much of which seems to have been on top of itself for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is May, the beginning of the dry season, and the river is the lowest our guide has ever seen. Temples dedicated to Shiva are everywhere, rising from the banks of the river and hidden in alcoves off busy streets, offering unbelievable peace and beauty amidst the daily chaos that even the most sacred Indian cities embrace. We stop for a lassi (a refreshing Indian drink similar to a light yogurt smoothie) at the famous “Blue Lassi” shop, hidden in the streets of the old town but sought after by locals and tourists alike. We arrived at a magic moment when there were no lines, and the grandson of the original owner artistically created our delicious mango and mango-apple lassis (he has over 80 flavours to choose from) sprinkled with herbs, pistachio and rosewater. As we enjoyed our treats we heard a chorus of exuberant singing approaching, and soon a wrapped dead body carried by singing family members jogged past us on its way to the Ganges.
I think of Varanasi as the city of circles. An embodiment of the circle of life, reincarnation, rebirth. A place many people leave or briefly visit, only to circle back again. Therefore it is only fitting that we end a day where we began, on the banks of the sacred Ganges. As the darkness falls, the evening Ganga Aarti begins, and once more tribute is paid to the goddess that gives life in this sacred city, nourishing those who worship on her banks. Now the fire in the lamps burns brightly against the dark water. A large crowd gathers to watch. Further down the river, classical Indian dancers perform for tourists, their anklet bells adding to the music of the night. Candles in small leaf bowls filled with flowers are offered to the river, floating out past the boats that line the shore. As the ceremony finishes and we walk back through the ancient streets to our hostel, our guide ushers us through the a small, unmarked stone doorway next to ours. We walk into a stone courtyard, and discover that we have been sleeping on top of, and surrounded by, one of the many obscure temples found throughout the city. As we walk through the old stone passages, past the deity houses in rooms at the end of seemingly endless corridors, I am once again struck by the multifaceted, never ending layers of this fascinating city. It seems one visit, perhaps even an entire lifetime, does not seem enough to truly know it, and by this thought alone I am drawn to the concept of death and rebirth, fantasizing of another day, another chance, another life to know this cyclical city.