A Semester in India: Varanasi
“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” — Mark Twain
VARANASI, Uttar Pradesh — Landing 45 minutes late due to a no-fly zone caused by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coinciding arrival, our plane touched down in one of the world’s oldest cities, Varanasi, also known as Benares. The smell and visibility of smoke cloaked over the city added to the 3,000 year old mystic.
In the airport parking lot, countless Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the ruling political party in India — flags adorned light posts and poles to welcome Modi to his constituency. It would be the equivalent of going to a U.S. airport and seeing GOP flags plastered all over the parking garages. Numerous security personnel also dotted the city.
Our initial Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) itinerary had our tour group experiencing the famous Ganges river boats for an evening ride; however, the Ganga boatmen had called for a strike after a luxury cruise liner started picking up passengers from their “sales territory.” As a result, this evening we went to our hotel and enjoyed a private Indian musical performance which featured the sitar, a plucked string guitar, and tabla, a traditional Indian drum. When played together, these two instruments form the basis of Hindustani music.
After the performance and dinner, our guide Som offered to take us to our first Bollywood movie, Zero. Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan was the main star, but it was an all-star Bollywood cast. Despite the movie being in Hindi, Som assured us that he would translate all of the dialogue for us. Two other young men in the tour group and I agreed to go.
We entered the theater 15 minutes late, and Som immediately began translating the dialogue for us. We were expecting him to do it quietly, but he was practically shouting loud enough for all three of us to hear him at once. Expecting the other moviegoers to begin throwing popcorn at us, they did not care one bit. Later in the movie, a baby began crying and the parents did not take the baby out of the theater, then another person answered his phone and began a full-on conversation. So, Som shouting the translation was apparently not out of the ordinary.
The movie had a completely outlandish storyline (too outrageous and long to detail here, click here for a synopsis), great music, and synchronized and spontaneous dancing. During the movie, disclaimers would occasionally scroll across the bottom of the screen, and liquor bottles were blurred out. After about 1 hour and 30 minutes and in the middle of a scene, the screen went black and the lights came on. I asked, “Som, that’s it?” He laughed and said, “It’s the intermission!” We could hardly believe it.
During the intermission, we saw a commercial on a skin product that purported to whiten skin. Fair skin is held in a high regard by some here, and most of the Bollywood actors and actresses have noticeably whiter skin when compared to the general population. The move finally restarted and eventually finished with an overdramatic and highly implausible scene.
The next morning, we went to Sarnath, which is where the Buddha gave his first sermon, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma.” We then visited the Sarnath Museum which houses Ashoka’s Lion Capital, the national emblem of India, and the famous Teaching Buddha statue.
We had a free afternoon, and one of our fellow travelers went to McDonald’s where he ordered a chicken burger (other burger options included veggie, paneer (a type of cheese) aloo tikki (potatoes, peas, and spices), kebab, and beans), fries, and drink for 140 rupees (~$2). Several of us then did tourist yoga at the hotel, which consisted of the yogi master spontaneously construing moves and a plethora of meditation/relaxation/sleeping on the mat.
Experiencing the Ganga Aarti
That night, we set out from the hotel with our guides on several tuk tuks. The sheer number of vehicles, scooters, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, punctuated with cows, goats, dogs, and a seemingly endless stream of people moving towards the ghats were remarkable. It was so packed with people and vehicles that we had to disembark from the tuk tuks and a local guide had to lead us through an extensive back alley maze. We dodged cow and dog dung with every step (with the exception of one of our fellow travelers).
Eventually reaching the Ganges, we saw the famous Manikarnika Ghat — a cremation ghat that hosts between 80 and 200 cremations a day. The smoke rising from the open cremation sites surrounded by loved ones was a moving visual. The masses of people, cremating of bodies, burning of incense and trash, Brahmin priests performing a several thousand old ritual of putting the Mother Ganges to sleep, other priests attempting to forcefully bless us, aggressive vendors, and cows wading in the water were unforgettable. Amid the famous prayer ritual, a small Varanasi security drone hovered overhead. The scene provided a revealing dichotomy of India: an ancient culture maintaining its historic past while selectively adding modern aspects. We returned to our hotel for our farewell dinner via a wild 45-minute tuk tuk ride. Our clothes and skin bore a thin layer of black dust by the end of the day.
Early the next morning, we visited the same ghats which were tumultuous the night before. They were tranquil. A few dhobis, or clothes washers, morning bathers, and sadhus (Hindu religious men who have renounced the worldly life) were on the ghats. The normally bustling river was silent with all the boats moored. We returned for breakfast and headed to the airport for our flight to New Delhi, where we would spend the night before departing for the Kerala backwaters.
Varanasi is the most spiritual and extraordinary place that I have ever visited. It is the only place in the world where my senses felt overwhelmed. Our fellow travelers who have visited cities all over the world said that Varanasi is the most overwhelming place that they have ever visited. Our time in one of the oldest cities in the world will be remembered forever. Varanasi is a must-visit city for any world traveler.
Next stop: Kerala backwaters.