We had been wanting to see Varanasi since our brief transit through its outskirts on the way to the Institute from the airport. One afternoon, finding ourselves free, we decided to take the plunge and go into town. Asking someone how to do something or go somewhere in India often means that they will show you, or take you there themselves, and so while we were just trying to gather information by asking Lakdhor how to get to Varanasi, what ended up happening was that Neema, one of our translators, "volunteered" to accompany us. What made us a little concerned is that two of the translators, Neema included, seemed to feel that Varanasi was "crazy", and told us they didn't really like going there because it was too chaotic. This, coming from a guy who lives in India, and lived four years in Chennai (Mumbai), a much bigger town, was disconcerting. No less, we decided to go.
As always, the sights and sounds begin with the ride there. The way to go is by auto-rickshaw: they sit three Westerners in the back (Indians manage to squeeze in unbelievable numbers of people, however), and so Neema shared the front seat with the driver. It's very difficult to give a sense of what traffic is like: a series of close shaves with other vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, a constant honking of the horn to alert other travelers of your presence, a racing spirit that compels drivers to try to pass the rickshaw in front of them, and thousands upon thousands of people, all going somewhere to do something.
After a harrowing and fun 30 minutes, we had to get off the rickshaw: traffic became so intense that motorized vehicles didn't have a chance anymore. We switched to a human-powered rickshaw, which took us a little further, and then we started walking. As soon as we turned into one of the labyrinthine side streets, the feeling changed drastically. Most of the traffic was on foot, and the houses are small and crowded against each other, and open to the street, whether it was to sell something or just offer a window onto the world.
We had to ask for directions a few times, receiving contradictory information, and took a couple of wrong turns (remember, this is with a Hindi-speaking guide!), but eventually we found our destination: the burning ghats.
Hindus believe Varanasi to be a holy city, and if one dies here, is burned on the banks of the Ganges, and has their ashes thrown in the river, they will escape samsara, the cycle of rebirth and worldly suffering, to go directly to Nirvana. The burning ghats (steps) are were the cremation ceremonies take place. Between 200 and 300 people are cremated daily here in Varanasi. This was also the
place in Varanasi where we saw other westerners. We decided to take a boat ride along the Ganga (this is what the Ganges is called here), and we were told a few instructional tales by our colorful guide.
There are five types of people who are not cremated, but are thrown directly into the river: pregnant women; children under 10; holy men; in all three cases it's because the children, or holy men, are already almost pure. Also, people who die of cobra snake bite, as the cobra is associated with Lord Shiva, and to die of its bite is considered a blessing from the god. Finally, people who die of small pox, for reasons that escape me. The ride along the river was lovely, and the sights unforgettable.
Back on solid ground, our guide took us to his favorite temple, which is underground, three stories deep. Visitors can look down into a well and see the statue of a bull, next to the symbol for Mother Parvati. On the way back to the auto-rickshaw, he helpfully led us to his relative's silk shop (located inside his house, of course), just in case we hadn't realized that we might want to take a look at some fabrics, maybe a pashmina or two. He was very dismayed at the possibility that we were not interested, but we eventually managed to extricate ourselves from there and make our way back to Sarnath.