The journey to Varanasi is the pilgrimage everyone wants to have undertaken in their lives. The significance of the city is comparable with the Meccas for the Muslims and Jerusalem for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Some call the city as Banaras. The name Benares was in use at the time of the British rule and is still very common.
Other names are listed in the Mahabharata. The most appealing to me is Anandvan, the forest of bliss. Varanasi is considered one of the longest populated cities in the world. I thought about what was going to happen. Twice I had decided against the trip to Varanasi because I did not feel strong enough for the city and the confrontation with death.
When I reached Varanasi from Haridwar on the night train in the evening, my expectations about the city seemed to be fulfilled. There is probably no city in India with so many stories. On the other hand, I had repeatedly met travelers who had already visited Varanasi.
I had decided to get to the old town in a rickshaw, and then hit through to a hotel and beat all the smugglers. But when I walked a little bit down the railroad track and tried to prepare myself for what was to come, a rickshaw driver spoke to me. Without pledging, I followed him outside. There, the familiar picture of big Indian cities awaited me with too much of everything. There is modernization without plan, and a gray, leaden city that grew too fast.
The rickshaw driver was a bit suspicious, but finally I agreed to look at a hotel. I did not want to fight. I just wanted to go to the Ghats, find a nice hotel, explore Varanasi and move on soon. The fellow passenger was a sadhu with a large pigmentation on his face who did not consider it necessary to greet me.
A short time later we stopped, so that the two of them could take a fresh load of pan to their heart's content. The driver asked me to give money to the sadhu because he is holy man! Of course I gave him nothing, but I already regretted sitting in this rickshaw. Also the monotony of the infinite markets along the road, did not increase my well-being.
Finally we drove through a series of very narrow streets. And now the choice of the rickshaw driver and the hotel proved contrary to expectations as a real stroke of luck. Although there are certainly beautiful viewpoints on the Ghats the view from the roof was nice, but not breathtaking. The hotel only score with its very nice staff.
It was a surprise that in Varanasi two weeks after Diwali there is another festival for the full moon on kartik purnima which is only celebrated here. It is the Dev Diwali. It was a stroke of luck that I experienced this festival here. Before dawn I went to the ghats and went on a boating trip. It was the first time I could see the ghats from this perspective.
The time had come to go out and take a picture of the ghats. It was very different from my ideas. I assumed that the cremation sites on the Ganges would dominate but that's not the case. There are significantly more bathing ghats in which pilgrims take a bath in the ganges to clean their sins and pray to the goddess. I see garlands and floating candles.
Countless boats set off for rides across the river. Sadhus are particularly attracted to the ghats. Magnificent merchant houses, villas and temples from the 18th and 19th centuries dominate the promenade and bear witness to another age. There are only two incinerators in the city. The Harishchandra Ghat and the much larger and more significant the Manikarnika Ghat.
As I walked along the ghats, I was constantly being offered hashish by shady, sometimes sinister figures but not only that. The palette ranged from fake LSD, mescaline, opium and cocaine to morphine derivatives, and the sleeping drug ketamine. I didn't mean to imagine what would happen to be under the influence of ketamine on the cremation sites. For psychedelics that was certainly not the place to be to say the least.
I arrived at the Manikarnika Ghat, the most important cremation site. Especially the dilapidated houses directly above create a ghostly atmosphere. Flocks of bats had settled there. They flew incessantly through the glassless windows and their sight intensified the morbid impression. Below it, the fires burned for the dead. Every devout wants to be burned here as this place promises salvation from the cycle of rebirths, moksha, the equivalent of nirvana.
An intrusive man began a litany about the ghat rituals. His remarks were quite interesting. I listened to him for some time, even if that was not easy, because he spoke very unclearly and had clearly consumed huge amounts of hashish. In addition, I already knew what would follow. The whole thing goes like this. Already, when I approach the ghat, I am involved in an innocuous conversation. After listening to his monotonous descriptions, I asked him to hold his breath, because I wanted to look at the place in peace.
After watching the action from a distance some time, I went to a balcony from which I can look directly at the fire. From there, I could watch the relatives carry their deceased on a bamboo stretcher to the river. The hair is shaved by many relatives as a sign of grief. The corpse is wrapped in glittering silk scarves.
With the water of the sacred river a final ablution is performed. The eldest son circled the corpse one last time and set fire to it. It takes two to three hours for the fire to take away the body. Only hip and pelvic bones remain. They are handed over to the Ganges. At one point the relatives turn away to give the soul the opportunity to obtain moksha.
It was impossible for me to read emotions out of my face. There I stood, crowded on the balcony. The Sadhus smoked hashish through the chillum. The heat was clearly noticeable, and it was easy to perceive the smell of burning. The charcoal fires would blow all night. The higher the caste of the deceased, the closer to the river the body is burned.
Most, however, are burned on the terrace, which is also used when the Ganges during the monsoon get partially flooded. Over time, my senses became more open to life in this place. The sight of kids, cows, and water buffaloes, making their way through the unreal scenery and climbing over the sandalwood mountains that stood by, was a great contrast.
They seemed to take no notice of the morbidity of this place. The fire created a similar trance-like effect as looking into a simple campfire. The floating candles on the river bore witness to life. I too was particularly aware of my liveliness in this place. The feeling was similar when visiting a cemetery, even if the impressions here were much more intense.
But there was automatically a special mindfulness. It was a place that radiated great dignity. Perhaps all the thoughts I had about the encounter with death in Varanasi were worse than what I found. Maybe these thoughts had prepared me for that, too. In any case, I feel relieved. It touches me, but it does not scare me.
But I cannot interpret my own feelings completely. There was a deep feeling buried deep inside me. I could not decide which shape had that feeling. After spending an hour there, it became a bit clearer. The long break of a really intense conversation and the profound experience at Manikarnika Ghat made sure that the encounter was special from the beginning.
Then we went to the winding streets of the old town. Anyone who does not get lost here has not really ventured out. There is something new to discover on every corner, and the narrow streets seem to be medieval. In India, the different epochs exist side by side. By sunrise, the ghats were lined with thousands of pilgrims bathing in the Ganges.
Even more impressive was the return in the evening to the ghats, whose steps had been given a fresh coat of paint in the last few days and were already threatening to burst at the seams. We took another boat trip. I forgot my camera and that was good. The danger is always that I take too many pictures and forget to look around.
And what I had was the highlight in Varanasi. The ghats were illuminated by thousands of candles. From the outside, the crowd seemed to follow a certain order. After a selfless prayer both to those I loved and those I did not know, I float a floating candle in the Ganges. I was one with my surroundings. Nothing separate me more. I was moved. It did not need words to know that.
The sense of an ordered crowd disappeared the moment I mingled with the people. I get up to the Main Ghat. The atmosphere was incredibly intense and made me shine as well. But there was a challenge to get through the crowds and huge firecrackers exploded around us. Rockets rose in the sky.
I felt light, free and happy. My voice had the gentle sound of deep inner peace, and my movements were supple. I had found my peace. It was the right time to come. I was really ready! Varanasi will stay in my heart and I will return.