Every pre-conceived notion you have ever had about India can be found in Varanasi. It’s dirty, dusty, crowded, smells bad and beggars follow you everywhere. It is extremely intense; but without seeing it for yourself, experiencing it, I don’t believe you will ever understand India.
When I took my trip my travel agent, who lives in Toronto but is from India, included it in our itinerary — but not until midway through our vacation. It meant we had to jump around a bit, which made no sense to me, so I questioned her. She explained that Varanasi can be quite off-putting and difficult for tourists; and in her experience, when first time visitors go to Varanasi before having a chance to adjust to India, they tend not to enjoy themselves. But once you’ve become more accustomed to this amazing country, and its inhabitants, you’re much more apt to like and understand this ancient city, that is located on the banks of the sacred river Ganges — or Ganga, as the locals refer to it.
I didn’t really buy what she was saying at the time, but now that I’ve been, I am really grateful she organized the trip the way she did. It was challenging and overwhelming enough with more than two weeks in India under my belt. I can’t say I want to go back — or need to, for that matter — but I am very happy I went, and highly recommend it.
You need a fair number of shots before you go to this part of the world, and I remember my appointment with my doctor. I’ve been her patient for a long time and she knows me well. She knows how much I love animals and she also knows that I’m usually up for an adventure. A very seasoned traveler herself, she was full of good, practical advice; and a surprising lack of warnings. There were, however, two items on her list that she made me promise to adhere to:
- I had to promise I wouldn’t go near any of the many dogs there. India has a very high incidence of rabies.
- I had to promise to not even trail my fingertips through the Ganges.
The rule about the dogs I was iffy about (although once there I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and I stayed away). She had no worries with the Ganges. Sacred it may be, but never have you seen anything more gross. It is murky, brown in colour and you can see anything and everything floating in it — raw sewage, dead dogs, pieces of dead bodies that weren’t fully cremated, ashes, excrement — you name it, it’s there. I am not all that squeamish, but if I could have wrapped myself — head to toe — in saran wrap I would have.
What was most astounding to me — and is to most tourists — are the numbers of devotees who do their laundry and bathe (to be absolved of their sins) in the Ganges! Mind blowing, to be sure.
The oldest city in India, Varanasi, as described in Wikipedia, has been a cultural and religious centre in North India for several thousand years; and it is often referred to as “the holy city of India”. Because it is here that Moksha, or final release can be obtained, millions of people from all over India, and abroad, make the pilgrimage — to die here, to be cremated here in one of the 24-hour crematoriums, or to travel here with the ashes of a loved one, who died elsewhere — to be thrown into the Ganges, with the hope that the soul of the departed will be released from the cycle of rebirths and they will be allowed to enter Heaven.
There were six of us on the trip plus our travel agent. More than half of us had recently suffered a loss. So for us, this particular stop was deeply personal. It was also very moving, especially when Rashmi (the agent) arranged for a spiritual leader to perform a prayer ceremony with us so we could, each in our own way, say good-bye. A lovely, compassionate gesture in a trip that turned out to be full of them.