Take your pick as to the name you prefer – even the city’s residents use both.
We flew in from Khajuraho and it immediately became apparent that the contrasts couldn’t have been greater. Khajuraho was a Chandela empire which lasted for 600 years, before being overthrown but left behind a luminous legacy, an ode to life in all its glory; Varanasi is over 3000 years old, amongst the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, a city whose business is death – and life surprisingly. It is the spiritual capital of India and the birthplace of both Buddhism and Jainism. It is also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.
Varanasi is extraordinarily real, immutable in its’ existence and sublimely indifferent to the niceties of the rest of the world. To say that it is a complex, subtle place would be an understatement!
From the light and lightness of Khajuraho to the seeming appropriate glowering, overcast skies of Benares. We headed down to the river in pedi-rickshaws as nothing else could get through the narrow streets and unbelievable congestion. Naturally those overcast skies opened up. You have to have experienced an Indian downpour to get an idea – one minute it is humid but fine, the next you actually have to bend over so that the shelter of your body gives you some breathing space! We scrambled down from the rickshaws and took cover under a shop awning – along with a couple hundred other drenched souls. Packed cheek by jowl, the inevitable questions start, “Sister, where from?”, “Sister, what your name?”, and my fav., “Sister, photo please?” – which lets me turn loose and end up in a giggling mob for half an hour! “Sister” is just an Indian way of being polite to an unknown woman.
Despite the rain – which did taper off to more of a drizzle eventually, the preparations for the evenings’ aarti proceeded. I found the entire thing quite surreal. The Brahmin priests arrive once everything is all set up for them (nice job if you are born to it) and puja commences under canopies of fluorescent, neon lights, with the traditional accoutrements and likely in the same fashion and place as has been performed on the banks of the Ganga for literally thousands of years. It is such a mishmash of the practical and the sublime, the devout and the hawkers, the sacred and the profane. There are tourists, both Indian and foreign, the pious, the mourners, the sadhus and the cows.
Down the river a little ways, the cremation ghats are working 24 hours a day and the leaping flames from the funeral pyres lend the night an otherworldly glow. Up stream there is a modern electric crematorium but despite the much lower cost, most still prefer the traditional methods. I have to say that I’d probably prefer that as well – if I were to go that route – and was Hindu too!