Day #54: Varanasi, the “orange moon” city
Our trip to Varanasi took nearly 24 hours and was pretty much like a horror movie. The first 9 hours of bus went by quite fast as there was a TV with Bollywood movies playing loud and proud. It was the first Bollywood movie that me and Antonio watched without understanding a single word! Still, we couldn’t keep our eyes away from the screen during the 2 movies as we were captivated by the action soundtracks and romantic storylines that were constantly interrupted by mafia schemes, killing with medieval sickles and women violence. The main actor always seemed to be riding a bike and pull amazing fight skills while looking like he was in an MTV videoclip.
We were dropped in Sunauli by this first bus where we had to cross the border and step back into Indian territory. Honestly, even then we could sense the difference between the two countries and how India is much more chaotic, busy and polluted. This led us to our second bus that took 11 hours to Varanasi. It was a red government bus: half broken, with sticky seats and filled with dust. We barely had the time to buy some bananas before we were on the way in this bus full of Indians and in an extremely bumpy road. We stopped several times during the night for the driver to stretch his legs and have a bite. We too were hungry and without any alternative had to adventure ourselves into eating some street boiled eggs that came wrapped in newspaper! We tried our best to sleep through the night but we would awake suffocating in a cloud of dust. It looked like a nightmare: the windows of the bus wouldn’t close, we were on a bumpy dirt road and the dust was coming in strong like a sand storm. Everyone was coughing, hidden under their shawls or t-shirts, trying to take yet another breath.
Despite all of this, we got to Varanasi earlier than expected. It was too early to go to the hostel so we had to spend some time at the station with every other Indian that was sleeping on the floor. We had just arrived and already we could tell this was the dirtiest city we had been by far. The air was thick and the sky was clouded with a grey layer. The rays of the sunrise would get lost in these clouds and instead it looked like you were starring at an orange moon. As we reached the city center, our first impression was confirmed: trash laid around every corner, cow pats dominated the streets, smoke from the crematory fires or random trash fires intoxicated the air while shoeless inhabitants were starting their day. Nevertheless. we could sense the spiritual authenticity in this city. Indians were preparing for their morning ritual: either offering the puja, bathing in the Ganga River to wash away their sins, doing some yoga or meditation while worshiping the river. The streets were filled with adorers of Hinduism dressed in colourful clothes, sharing chai in the streets with their family and friends. As the sun was rising, chantings and strong smells filled the city and we knew we had arrived to one of the holiest places in the world for Hinduism.
Varanasi was particularly magical at that time because we visited during Diwali, “ the festival of light”. This is a time in which families clean their houses, gather with family and exchange gifts. Similar to Christmas, it is a moment filled with happiness, marked with spiritual rituals such as offering puja and beautified by colourful drawings, Christmas lights and oil lamps in each house. The night was unique as firecrackers were burning non stop and there was a marvellous display of fireworks all night along, with flying lanterns being released in the skies and oil lamps set afloat in the river.
Nevertheless, the most impactful experience in Varanasi was indeed witnessing a public cremation. The smell of cremation at the ghats is overriding to the point of making your eyes cry. There are tons of wood piled for cremations and numerous active fires which are actually animals or people being burnt. We learned that the closer you are burnt to the river, the higher was the cast you belonged to. It was both odd and singular to witness the cremation of an old men that had just passed away. I never saw anything like this. The family is not meant to cry, instead it was going around the fire in circles while the body was being devoured by the flames. Celebrating , praying, taking pictures even. Suddenly, I could understand what my mother saw in Varanasi. Apart from the immense sight of colours, Varanasi gives a whole new outlook to death: a more courageous, hopeful and beautiful one. One that gives you hope that you don’t die but instead you are reborn to another life with the help and support of your loved ones, An elevated vision that gives a purpose to your death especially when your own is imminent which was the case of my mother. I understood why she wanted to come to Varanasi during her last months. It wasn’t just about a retreat but more about finding peace in what was about to happen by surrounding herself with people which celebrate this sacred moment. She was trying to find her own peace and acceptance deep inside and there is no doubt that experiencing this courageous vision of death is inspiring.
To top our days in Varanasi we decided to take a day trip to Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha was enlightened. Antonio was dreaming of going to that place and I was curious to experiencing the energy of that city and, in particular, discovering the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened. It turned out to be a 9 hour train ride so we could spend 1 hour in Bodhgaya but we still felt it was worth the trip! We went from the holiest city in India for Hinduism to the holiest city for Buddhism in a day and Bodhgaya too, felt magical. A world by itself. It was filled with monks that travelled from all corners of the world to worship that magnificent tree. Apart from the tree that resides next to the Mahabodhi Temple complex, the city is filled with monasteries and temples built by foreign Buddhist communities in their national style (Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Tibetan etc.). Despite it being busy, I felt the city had a monastic tranquility. When we finally got to the tree, we were both in awe: of its size, of its beauty and of the way it was being given constant worship and love. Pilgrims and tourists were around praying and meditating peacefully. The tree responded with vigorous life. It had beautiful shiny leaves and was inhabited by hundreds of colourful butterflies, just like in a dream. The roots of the tree were protected by a golden structure but its branches extended much wider than that perimeter, blessing all those standing beneath. We were happy to soak up the atmosphere of this sacred place and went back to Varanasi with renewed energy before heading to Goa the next day!