Okay so the title may be misleading, I’m basically atheist, but I don’t tend to define as atheist as I’m not that clear cut for me. I believe that science can explain way more than religion can, as has been proven time and time again from my perspective. I believe religion has many benefits to society, but sadly from my perspective these are generally overshadowed by the turmoil that surround most, especially with regards to the wars and attacks we seem to witness daily across the globe now. I would never go as far as saying these things wouldn’t happen if religion wasn’t a thing, but I do believe we’d be in a very different world and sadly in some ways,coffee the better. For me, religions set clear principles and values that when adhered to (to a point) can shape a fantastic society, and a happy community, and improve societies. Obviously, though, there’s a flip side to that as well.
I’ve always been interested in theology, but not really studied it in great detail. Coming from an atheist family, but marrying an Irish Catholic girl and my family moving to. country in the Middle East my exposure to Islam and Catholicism has increased exponentially over the years. Plus, I’m now very much at that age where I’m spending more in time in churches for weddings and christenings, and sadly far too often, funerals, so the impact religion has become more commonplace in my life.
“Why the bloody hell are you chatting about religion Matt, this is a travel blog!?”
For those that don’t know, Varanasi is the most holy city in all of India. It’s history dates back thousands of years, and millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to the holy city every year. Hindus believe that if you are cremated and released into the Ganges River (River Ganga) you will break the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana (minus Cobain obviously😬). For this reason there are hundreds of cremations every day at a number of burning ghats, which I’ll talk more about later.
The city isn’t just Hindu though, across the skyline of the cityscape you see the minarets at mosques dotted all over the place, and hear the choir of the call to prayer. Alongside this, a scattering of beautiful Buddhist temples. Around our hotel in the old town, we could see at least 5 mosques, and had at least 5 Buddhist and Hindu temples within our immediate vicinity (as the crow flies, it probably would have taken hours to find them on the narrow backstreets of the old town). Because of this, Varanasi has an amazing aura around it, with so many people visiting to follow emir believes alone. As you can imagine, this brings with it a true melting pot of cultures and experiences. At one time, I was walking to see the Hindi Ganges ceremony while hearing the Islamic evening call to prayer whilst walking past coach loads of Buddhist monks who were arriving for a Buddhist festival. You wouldn’t see that at the Vatican!
The city itself is amazing, truly amazing. It’s so unbelievably different from Kolkata, with car horns and traffic jams replaced with rickshaws and cows. Yep, cows. The Hindu faith regards cows as holy creatures, so they are everywhere! The labrynth-like experience of the back streets around the old town is made even more ingesting by dodging cows, cow shit, stray dogs, uneven stones for the walkways, and locals on their motorbikes. That in itself is an experience, especially when you see a couple s having an argument! Whilst the are beggars and people trying to flog you stuff everywhere, the poverty on the streets is nothing like what I saw in Kolkata. I must say these street sellers week utterly relentless, and by the end of my 4 days there I was getting rather pissed off with a few of them repeatedly trying to sell me some cheap crap or give me a hand massage. Seriously, these guys will try anything, t always use he standard chat up line of “where are you from?”
For me Varanasi is about the sights and spirituality, the spirituality being the things that’s totally alien to me
The ghats offer a myriad of services, but basically, they are stairs to the Ganges. There are a number of ghats in Varanasi (83 in total I believe), the most famous are the Assi Ghat (where the river Assi meets the Ganges), Dashashwamedh (where the wonderful Ganja Artii celebration is held every evening) and the Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies are undertaken, about 400 each day.
Each Ghat obviously offers its own experience, but my favourite had to be Dashashwamedh with the ceremonies. Every night, people gather to watch the prayers to the river Ganja, thanking it for its good givings and bringing life to the people of India. It’s without a doubt the most wonderful religious activities I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and we were very fortunate to be there with about 10000 other guests on Ghandis birthday, and to top it off we were speaking with a Krishna throughout the before and during the ceremony about everything from Hinduism to world economics (and more importantly, the false economies and impact of gentrification on modern day society), global warming, and India on the whole. This Krishna completely went against the stereotypical “religious guy” image, and reminded me a lot of the chaplains from my old stomping ground, Anglia Ruskin (big up Nigel and Tony, you guys rock).
Many people I’ve met have talked about the burning ghats no sadly most of the focus tends to go to the smell. To be honest this didn’t bother me, but seeing the whole process was quite overwhelming and emotional, from preparing and washing the bodies, preparing the fire, placing the bodies, covering with more wood, and finally taking the ashes to the river. Even though I had no idea who was being cremated the openness was obviously alien to me, but the wealth of emotions around the area were very powerful. It’s just such a shame there are still people exploiting the ceremony by trying to catch out unaware tourists (take note people, if someone says to you they are asking for donations for the hospice, they aren’t, they are lying).
We spent our time at Assi Ghat watching the sun rise. We only just made it, t seeing the sun rise over the Ganges was beautiful, and following that was a fantastic yoga and meditation session run by a Krishna, definitely something I won’t forget any time soon!
I started this blog by talking about my position with religion. I can say hand on heart that Varanasi was the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. Whilst it hasn’t made me flick any internal light switches to on, it has definitely grown my interest in Hinduism, and question many of the priorities in my own life. How long that will last I don’t know but Varanasi will always hold a close place in my heart.
Two final shout outs to finish this post. The manager at our Guest House, Sanjeev, was an absolute legend. If you ever visit this wonderful city (and you should) I can’t recommend the Shivakashi guesthouse high enough. Sanjeev went out of his way on so many occasions to help us out. He got us train tickets, gave plenty of local advice on where to eat and go, and had I spoken to him sooner, would have even got us a boat ride down the Ganges, stopping us from getting ripped off! Sanjeev, if you are reading this, you truly are a legend and thank you for your help on manning our trip so special.
The final shout out goes to Matt and Charlie, a wonderful couple I met in the French bakery. We ended up chatting for about two hours about the world (they’ve been travelling a while chasing the best dove locations around Asia), and met up today as well over Lassi. We will hopefully meet up in Jaipur too if things work out. It was so nice to meet such a lovely couple who seemed to share a scary number of experiences, both whilst on the road and back home.
Sorry this is such a monster post. If you’ve made It to the end, CONGRATULATIONS! I’m sorry this is such a long one, but Varanasi really struck a chord with me, and I hope I’ve done it justice relaying that. I’m also writing this whilst on a 14 hour train journey and it’s only 9pm locally so I’m nowhere near sleepy yet! I’ll try and write something more succinct on our next stop, Agra.