entering the land of the gods

a study abroad journey

Varanasi

Varanasi was the first stop of my “final journey” in India. It just so happened that my friend, Connor was also going to be in Varanasi for a day. It was so good to see him after saying goodbyes to so many friends in Hyderabad. The two of us stayed with a host family near Tulsi Ghat, making it easy to walk all over the ghats and Old City.

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On our first day, Connor and I were so excited to get out into the city that we headed to the ghats at 2pm. This was a terrible idea considering that it was the hottest part of the day, but it ended up being the most content time to be on the ghats. In the afternoon heat, no one else was walking along the ghats. Groups of men sat in the shade playing cards, others took naps on the steps of the ghats, and cows lounged in the water. It was so utterly peaceful. Making our way into the Old City, we were grateful for the shady alleyways. And there is nothing like cooling off with a thick lassi, served in a clay cup!

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The next morning, Connor and I woke up at 5am to experience a sunrise on the ghats. The way that the sun reflects off of the holy water is truly magical. While there is a strong community feel as locals bathe and wash clothes, there is also an air of tourism. I was annoyed at having to barter with a boat man to receive a fair price and then being called “Madame” as we walked the rest of the way down the ghats. Tourism takes the magic out of places sometimes.

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I found the true magic of Varanasi in the winding alleys of the Old City. After Connor left, I had two more days to explore the city. In this time I had a lot of time to observe and write. Let me tell you, it felt beautiful to be able to put pen on paper! Here are some excerpts from my journaling:

May 4 – 2:21pm “My goal today was to talk it slow and take it all in. As I began walking the ghats at 6am, I was surprised at how hot it was at this hour. Once I made it to the busier sections of the ghats I made my way up to the street level, appreciating the shady streets. For the most part, I could go mostly unnoticed at this hour in the morning. Well, I shouldn’t say unnoticed, but rather, respectfully noticed. Despite guesthouses and stalls selling western items, the area is quite local. Every corner has its own chaiwallah brewing spicy liquid in a kettle set over hot coals. I desperate wanted to sit down for tea but every stall was either packed with people or only contained male customers. Therefore, I moved along. Wandering was a good options. It allowed me to observe daily morning habits of the people living here. I found myself tucking my camera deep into my bag, trying to blend in with the people and respect their life.”

At one point, I found myself in a small alley lined with vendors selling puja items: colored powders, milk in paper cups, sweets stacked in high pyramids, bins of flowers. I was squeezed betweens masses of devotees making their way to a nearby temple. The great thing about the Old City area is that you can come across a temple at any moment. Some are small shrines, tucked into a wall, and easily ignored if you are not paying attention. But I was clearly coming upon a larger temple. I suddenly saw the entrance and stopped in my tracks. While it would have been great to observe, the area was much too crowded to stand around. I eventually made it out onto the main street. The smell of sweet, hot oil immediately overcame my senses. Men sat with huge vats of oil, frying puri and jalebi! I was happy to see that there was plenty of seating with both men and women enjoying the food. I sat down to order my breakfast- chai and jalebi. The juicy sugar melted in my mouth and churned my stomach at the early hour but I was content.

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Making my way back through the streets, there was more activity in the alleys. Many chaiwallahs were now also frying jalebi of their own. Larger stalls steamed idly, fried vadas, and simmered large pots of sambar.”

May 4 – 5:32pm “Blender + fresh mangos = pure bliss!!!”

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May 5 – 10:50am “Out and about in the Old City once again! Today I skipped the ghats to avoid the sun. Walking the streets, I enjoy the familiarity I have acquired from my exploring- here are the sleeping puppies, there is the milk woman on the corner…

There is a bit more traffic this morning, it being Sunday- market day. I made my way to the market area and after roaming around, found myself in an indecisive mood. Again, I was craving a spot to simply sit and observe without sticking out. I resisted the urge to buy every samosa in the area and found a small cafe to order chai. Continuing my walk down alleys, I marveled at the small surprises around every corner! Though I have traveled don some of the paths multiple times, with each passing hour something changes. The corner stall selling vada and idly are packed with hungry customers, but and hour later lonely vada sit a bowl with sambar spilled over the sides of the pot. The chaiwallahs scrub the tea leaves off the bottom, preparing to start a new batch. The milk lady on the corner is sold out and now sleeps on a stone bench. The sleeping puppies…are still sleeping. Though I craved for some human interaction and conversation, I avoided all the touristy “german bakeries,” now hopping with customers.

My breakfast became progressive as I continued to explore: vada and sambar at a corner stall, jalebi wrapped in newspaper, fresh orange juice.

If I ever lost my bearings, it was easy to head towards the ghats to regain my bearings. On one such occasion, I cam to a ‘T’ in the road and turned left to toward the river. Up ahead, I saw a large crowd and a man getting a hair cut. It seemed like a long line of people wanting a hair cut. As I passed by the crowd, I realized what was happening. Preparation was being made for a funeral burning. I literally walked right next to the dead body, wrapped in orange and gold fabric. I realized I was t the small burning ghat. While I would have loved to stay and observe the ceremony, this is not a place to go unnoticed. For more information on Hindu cremation, read here.”

May 5 – 4:30pm “On the train to Gaya, I am drenched in sweat and I couldn’t be happier! As the train pulls away from Varanasi, a wave of happiness is wiping over me. Seriously, I could cry right now, and I have no idea why! As we pass over the Ganges River, the women sitting next to me bow and give their blessing to the sacred body of water. The twinkle of metal is heard as passengers throw coins out the window. I wonder how many millions of rupees are down there? Observing snapshots of the countryside:

  • men carrying hay bales on their heads
  • rows of sunflowers
  • a woman standing in the middle of a field, her pink saree blowing in the wind
  • three men laying idly in the grass
  • a flock of goats tended by a shepard
  • a village of mud huts, colorful kurtas hanging on the line
  • a game of cricket in the hay fields

I also had my best temple experiences in Varanasi! A friend, Manisha brought me to three different Hindu temples. With her there to explain who the gods were and why they were important, made the experience worthwhile. Without an explanation or background, temples are merely beautiful structures. Thanks to Manisha for offering such a cultural learning experience for me!

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