Resting on the banks of the holy river Ganges, Varanasi has been a religious and cultural center of India for thousands of years. It is the oldest continually inhabited city in the country, and continues to awe tourists and religious pilgrims alike from all over the world. This weekend, in what was to be my last trip before the semester officially ends, a group of us took to the shores of the Ganges and got lost in the beauty, intrigue, and surrealism that is the city of Varanasi.
We arrived on Friday evening, and after watching the sunset from the roof of our hotel, set off for a stroll along the riverside. As a holy place, Varanasi is infamous for the open-air public cremations that occur on various inlets along the Ganges. I will never forget the moment when we first stumbled upon one of these sites. Many people stood around gazing on at the bodies burning on stacks of wood. The flames lit up the darkness which had previously enshrouded us, and for a while we all sat in silent observance. It was a somber and powerful thing to bear witness.
The next morning we woke up early and took a dawn boat ride along the Ganges. As the sun rose, the city woke up with it. We saw people bathing up and down the river, and were tempted to join in, if it were not that the Ganges is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. They didn’t seem to mind. For the rest of the day we wandered aimlessly around the city, occasionally stopping to visit temples or monuments.
On Sunday we took rickshaws to the Buddhist area of Sarnath, where Guatama Buddha delivered his first teachings. While the Ganges is the most sacred river in Hinduism, Sarnath is also a destination for Buddhist pilgrims all over the world. Just as Jerusalem in the West, Varanasi is a place where many Eastern religions and philosophies hold sacred ground, and it was a fascinating place to visit.
We left that night, and it is now back to Delhi to finish out the semester. Varanasi was an intense experience which will hopefully cure my travel bug enough to get me through finals week. For now, though, it is back to work.