Varanasi (Part 1)

Varanasi was interesting. As an apparent exception to all those who have gone before, I had neither a very positive nor a very negative response to the city; there were many things I found interesting and wonderful, and many things that I had problems with or disliked, but as Darcey is wont to say: “Eh… that’s life.”

The river was beautiful, and at least looked less polluted than I was expecting: it certainly wasn’t the beautiful blue-green of Rishikesh, but neither was it the muddy brown associated with popularized pictures of people bathing in the muddy waters of Kolkata.

A view of Varanasi from the Ganga

Our time was split between wandering the ghats – the word translates literally as steps, but with the added connotation that the steps lead down to the Ganga – and exploring the back alleys of the old town as well as several of the busier thoroughfares through what seems to pass for downtown.

The city itself is a blend of filth and fable; the air is thick with exhaust and the smoke from burning garbage, incense, and bodies, the alleys and streets filled with trash and excrement alongside shrines and monuments to Shiva, who is said to have founded the city five millennia ago.

This legendary foundation is the source of the city’s importance; because it is Lord Shiva’s city, any who die on the banks of the Ganga here are freed from the Karmic cycle of death and rebirth. For this reason, thousands of pilgrims make their way here to die and be cremated on the famous burning ghats.

Every night, Dasaswamedh Ghat is the scene of an elaborate ritual in praise of Shiva. Although I confess ignorance of the exact significance of the pooja and arti, it is nonetheless breathtaking to witness a ritual that has undoubtedly been performed almost unchanged since Buddha walked these same shores.

A priest of Shiva performs the arti on Dasaswamedh Ghat

It just so happened that our visit coincided with the winter festival of Makar Sankranti, a harvest festival that is celebrated by flying kites. Throughout the week it was frequently possible to see hundreds of kites in the sky across the city.

Fallen in battle or simply cut loose, kites litter the streets after Makar Sankranti

After the festival was over, many children continued to fly kites – either their own, or those retrieved after having their strings cut by another flyer. While stopping to purchase a kite or two myself, our helpful autorickshaw driver Vijay suggested if I were serious I would get a string lined with glass shards so I could compete in these battles. Having no interest in being embarrassed, I opted for a plain nylon string, and if I have time to practice, perhaps I will partake in the aerial arena next year.

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