Varanasi was the busiest and most crowded place I have ever been, and I don’t just mean in India. To navigate the roads in Varanasi, one must battle pedestrians, rickshaws, bicycles, 2-wheeler motorcycles, tricycles, trucks, and yes, bulls. Bells clang and cars honk as drivers go at least 40 kilometers per hour in the crowded streets. My toes almost got run over by a bike.
The bulls roam around Varanasi freely. These are considered holy by the Hindus. No one owns them. The people keep cows since they give milk, but bulls walk free. I even saw one man pull something out of his pocket and feed it to a bull, then put his hands together and bow.
To see pictures of Varanasi, here are “20 Pictures That Will Pique Your Curiosity And Imagination” about the holy place.
The highlight of my day in Varanasi was going to the Ganges River. It was very busy. Stalls selling different items lined the street: prayer C.D.s, sarees, incense, souvenirs, pottery, etc. The Ganges is the holiest river for the Hindus. They bathe themselves in it because they believe the sacred river washes away their sins. Many Hindus also believe that if you are cremated on this river, your soul goes directly to heaven. Some Hindus believe they must visit the Ganges at least once before they die. I saw plenty of these pilgrims mixed with the tourists in the crowd.
That night in Varanasi, I saw a ceremony led by Brahmin men along the Ganges River. It was so beautiful. I could have stared at it forever. Though the environment was noisy and dirty, I was hypnotized by the aroma of burning incense. I decided to come back the next day before sunrise.
I woke at 5:10 the next morning and returned to the river. The weather was comfortable, the horizon a little hazy. A young man rowed us out in a boat. I saw holy men praying in the river, women wearing colorful saris bathing, as well as people gargling the river water.
I purchased another wish candle for 10 rupees. My first attempt with a wish candle the previous night had quickly turned anti-climactic when it fell off the plate. Surprisingly, it stayed lit as it floated away. On my second attempt, my candle was run over by a boat, yet it only swerved and kept burning. Wow, I thought. The Hindu gods must like me, since they’re keeping my wish candle alive no matter what happens to it.
We came to the area where a cremation was taking place. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures, which I completely understood. If my relative had just died, I wouldn’t want a bunch of tourists taking pictures of them either.
My guide explained that first the dead bodies are dipped into the water to be cleansed, and then brought back to the shore for cremation. Approximately 200 bodies are cremated on the Ganges River every day. There is only one family in Varanasi that has the authority to perform cremations. This family has held this duty for over 150 generations.
Varanasi is the only place in the world where cremation happens 24 hours a day. Here, it is believed that if you cry while someone is being cremated, their soul will not go to heaven. This is also why, according to some, women are generally not allowed in the cremation area, due to their sensitive natures. If a man starts to cry during a cremation, he is immediately escorted outside. We did see someone being cremated while the sun rose, but I could hardly make the body out, as it was nearly consumed.
Next, I visited the Golden Temple, which was constructed out of 850 kilograms of gold (approximately 1900 pounds). Here, visitors were only allowed to take their money and passports with them; no bags or cameras. I put my money and my passport in my jeans pocket and kept my hand in front of it to shield myself from pickpockets.
It was definitely a new experience moving with the crowd to try to get through one narrow, non-working metal detector at the entrance of the Golden Temple. Police officers inspected the men while the people behind us pushed against us. I quickly learned how to push back and surround my body with my arm.
Once we got through the metal detector, policewomen patted us down. This was not your typical pat-down. It was a full-frontal squeeze, repeated three times. After their inspections, the women foreigners, including me, all looked at each other like, “What was that?!” Others just laughed it off. The worst part was when the policewomen said things in their native language to the male police officers on the other side, who would then laugh. Great. I was harassed by a female police officer in front of the Golden Temple in Varanasi. Priceless.
I saw the temple from behind the walls, but only Hindus are allowed inside. The security there was very tight, as the Golden Temple is extremely holy to the Hindus. Plus, it’s made of real gold.
Despite the disorderly and polluted area, I would definitely recommend going to Varanasi if you get the chance. This city is a combination of holiness and entrepreneurship in which thousands-year-old traditions buck up against the trends of the modern world. I would go back in a heartbeat.