As I took my first step onto the famed ghats and gazed for the first time at the Ganges River in Varanasi, I stopped and felt that maybe I should close my eyes, turn around and re-enter. I embarrassingly admit that what I expected was an immediate spiritual awakening when I first saw the Ganges river, but that wasn’t the case. It was as if I tried to turn on a light switch but the lightbulb had fizzled out. It’s not that the river wasn’t beautiful, it was just chaotic.
I hesitate to describe my time in Varanasi because it wasn’t as positive as my visits to other parts of India. Moreover, I am of Indian origin so I want to say that I love everything about this country. I realized in Varanasi that not every experience is going to be something I want to write home about, and that’s okay too. It’s the not-so-great things in life that build character, right? So let me start from the beginning.
For Hindus, the Ganges River is the most sacred river and Varanasi is one of the holiest cities. Hindus bathe in the water, believing it will remit them of their sins. The ashes of loved ones are brought from far to the Ganges; cremations are also performed on the banks of the river. In Varanasi, every night an aarti (Hindu ritual involving the lighting of lamps), is offered to the river, drawing large crowds. Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, all with different names. Ghat is the word for the area that has steps along the Ganges. Some are used for different purposes, such as fishing, bathing, washing clothes, or cremations.
I arrived at the ghats about an hour prior to the evening aarti, giving me plenty of time to explore before the ceremony. I was walking alone, and from the get-go my instincts kicked in that this may not have been the brightest idea. People were staring at me as I walked by; I could feel their eyes burning into my back as I continued walking. I tried my hand at smiling at strangers; it had worked for me in Kerala, but this tactic didn’t work here. I was surprised; I thought there was no reason for the stares. I was dressed conservatively, and after all, I’m Indian. Actually the fact that I am (or look) Indian was the source of the unwanted attention. People constantly asked if I was Indian, or deliberated amongst themselves about my country of origin. Then they switched to business, offering me boat rides along the river. No tourist can walk along the river without being asked if they want a boat ride at least 20-30+ times. A few times when I spoke in Hindi I was able to silence the questions, but sometimes it caused the boys to mock me. I felt self conscious even when I shouldn’t have been ashamed about anything I was doing or wearing. And that really frustrated me.
I enjoyed the aarti for its beauty, but wasn’t able to appreciate it for its religious significance. My surroundings were a bit too hectic and for the first time I didn’t really trust anyone, not even a seemingly nice local man who sat next to me and talked to me for a bit about Varanasi. I thought he was harmless until I later decided that he might be following me; he seemed to be in the same vicinity as me more than once while I was walking around watching the ceremony. At the conclusion of the ceremony I quickly disappeared into the crowd, breathing a sigh of relief amongst the throng of people.
After my first experience at the ghats, I made the decision that I would try not to walk alone around Varanasi; I felt more comfortable that way. I met some great people at my hostel and explored the city with them, but the gawking continued. It was perplexing to the locals: she looks Indian, but she’s walking around with western tourists. Maybe she’s from Sri Lanka. But wait, she just said a few words in Hindi. What is she?
In the company of other tourists I did enjoy my visit much more. I saw the beautiful sunrise over the Ganges on my last morning in Varanasi and I sent an offering of flowers down the river in prayer for my family (the flowers really just ended up alongside the river, contributing to the pollution, I should have seen that one coming!). I also visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the most famous of Hindu temples, where a Hindu should make a pilgrimage at least once in life. That day, I finally felt more of the spiritual connection that I was hoping for.
Despite everything I have written about Varanasi, I was sad to leave the city. I wonder if I will ever return, or if I’ll ever see the Ganges again. The crowds, noise, even the hassling – it’s all part of the real India. I am happy that I had this bittersweet experience and it hasn’t affected my love for this country. My hope is that the change in government will help clean up Varanasi. Then I’ll be happy to return.