This is a guest post from my dear friend Jo who lived in India for many years and travelled widely – Varanasi is an assault on the senses. It was with a touch of trepidation that we walked out into its streets. One thing that struck me almost immediately was how very normal death is here. It’s a business and it isn’t at all shocking or distressing to see dozens of bodies being carried through the streets on stretchers wrapped in white shrouds by the male relatives whilst everyday life carries on around them. There are numerous businesses selling wood for the funeral fires and bodies are taken to one of the many ghats for cremation. The smell is as you can imagine rather overwhelming.
The streets are narrow, crowded and dirty but also full of delightful sights; there are over two thousand temples in Varanasi, tucked away in every corner and crevice; from tiny little shrines by the side of the road to the splendor of the Golden Temple. Varanasi silk is legendary and we visited a local workshop and saw the craftsman at work and then on to the famous lassi shop to watch the world go by whist drinking mango lassi from disposable clay pots. It all seemed rather surreal.
In the evening it was really peaceful and serene, sitting on the stone step on the banks of the Ganges in the dark absorbing the sights and sounds and colours of the priests. Then walking back through the dimly lit streets negotiating thousands upon thousands of people and nearly as many cows resisting the temptation to stop and buy some street food that always smells so delicious.
In the morning we took a boat and rowed along the Ganges at sunrise. This was one of my defining and most memorable moments from our five years in India. The boy priests sitting meditating and some chanting cross legged on stone ledges high above the ghats. Hundreds of people bathing in the sacred river and saying their prayers. But all so calm and serene. We lit candles and laid them in flowers and cast them into the water. Apparently if you make a wish and your candle floats away and doesn’t sink your wish will come true. Mine did!