What happened in Varanasi

Hindus, saints and hippies

Those who travel to India often carry with them a picture of colors, gods and an original life. These transfigured ideas shape the way many strangers see the country and how they behave. A city like Varanasi (Benares) makes it easy for tourists to uphold the myth of colorful and magical India.

Varanasi in northern India is a city with many names. It is the city of Shivas, one of the three main deities in Hinduism. In ancient times it was called Kashi, the city of light, later, in colonial times, it was called Benares. - «Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend; and it looks twice as old as all of this together. " This is what Mark Twain said when he came to Benares on his trip around the world more than 100 years ago. It seems like not much has happened since then, the breath of ancient India still pervades the city. There are gnarled trees between the houses, cows wander through the alleys, dignified and with sedate elegance. The residents dump the rubbish right on their doorstep, where they collect in stinking piles.

Fascinating chaos

Varanasi is more than 2500 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. While Indian metropolises like Mumbai or Delhi are inviting for tourists because they look modern and western, Varanasi is hard to digest. Everything seems strange in this place full of contrasts, the dirtiest one thinks one has ever seen. The sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the ugly, combine here to form a fascinating chaos that evokes strong emotions, love or hate. Among the foreigners who travel through India, the phrase is circulating: "If you can get by in Varanasi, you can make it anywhere."

The city lies on the west bank of the Ganges, which the Indians call the River of Heaven. From there the Hindu god Brahma sent him to the mountains of the Himalayas, where Shiva caught the waters with his hair so that their strength would not destroy the earth. For Hindus, the Ganges is sacred and its water is pure. The eyes of the non-believer see another river: brown and muddy in the rainy season, polluted by the ashes of the dead and the diseases of millions of pilgrims, it does not invite bathing. But the meaning that it has for the Hindus gives it an aura that even strangers can hardly escape.

The way from the dark of the alleys down to the river leads over stone stairs - the Ghats of Varanasi, literally banks or piers. More than seventy of them stretch from one end of the city to the other. At the ghats, which are traditionally considered particularly sacred, pilgrims and devout locals flock in the early morning hours to ritually clean themselves. Individuals meditate or do yoga exercises. Elsewhere on the river, laundresses lay out brightly colored fabrics on the steps to dry in the morning light. Children romp. Monkeys swing in the dry branches of the few trees, chasing each other over walls and roofs. A herd of water buffalos waits for the guard, who drives them to bathe in the murky river water.

Golden temple

Dashashvamedh Ghat is particularly popular. The name is reminiscent of the ten horses that God Brahma is said to have once sacrificed here. Countless bathers receive the blessing of the divine sacrifice every day, making the place an important pilgrimage destination and the liveliest place on the river. Pilgrims crowd alongside traders and tourists. Anyone who owns a boat calls for customers. Skinny, toothless men offer massages and grab them with unexpectedly strong hands. Old people sit in a long row on the steps, their robes glow in orange and red, their hair is long and felty, their faces are painted. They are sadhus, saints, waiting for alms. Those who give them improve their karma and thus the chance of rebirth into a better existence.

For Hindus, Varanasi is a sacred city. Pilgrims flock to visit the Golden Temple inside the old town and bathe in the Ganges. They begin their journey at dawn, the pious go barefoot, with festive make-up, some with shaved heads. Whole large families who find it too difficult to walk can row to the important places by boat. Five times they stop and bathe in the river. The religious rite, the puja, is performed countless times - at important temples or the many small shrines, inconspicuously attached to the corners of houses or under trees and always wreathed with fresh flowers. The objects of worship are sculptures of the elephant-headed Ganesha, images of Shiva or his lingam, a phallic symbol.

«Nectar of Immortality»

The most important stop on the pilgrimage route is Manikarnika Ghat. This is where the dead are burned. Elsewhere this happens outside because the soil on which corpses are cremated is considered unclean. Only in Varanasi, where life and death are closely linked, is the cremation site in the heart of the city. For the Hindus, Manikarnika is both a place of creation and destruction. The fires burn all day and all night, the wind carries the smoke into the houses through open windows. Four young men carry a corpse, wrapped in orange cloths, wreathed with flowers. But this is not a place of mourning, but a center of public life. Men sit on the steps next to logs of firewood as high as a house, chatting and passing the time. Those who die in Varanasi and are burned at the Manikarnika Ghat do not have to cry because they are freed from the eternal cycle of rebirths. The waters of the Ganges are called Amrita, the nectar of immortality. The elderly and the sick come to Varanasi to wait for death, relatives bring the ashes of their dead. A ragged old man in sunglasses grins the tourist's face with a toothless mouth: "Barbecue smell." - Towards evening the sky over the city is full of colorful paper kites, children let them rise from the roofs. The ghats belong to cricket at this time of day. With great passion and loud screams, teenagers play the game that is as popular in India as football is here. Foreigners gather in a tea room to watch, a couple of young Japanese people take photos, a little to one side sits a man with long gray hair, dressed in wide purple fabrics. Every evening there is a ceremony by the river with singing and tabla playing in honor of Mata Ganga - Mother Ganges. The believers draw water into their cupped hands and let it flow back into the river as a gift to their ancestors and the gods. Between the Indians, blonde women stand in the water and offer flower offerings as if they had done nothing else in their lives.

Yoga schools and tailoring shops

In the 1970s, the hippies came to India looking for alternative ways of life. Many were fascinated by the fairytale Varanasi, some stayed. Young people with dreadlocks and colorful clothes still shape the cityscape. Many come out of curiosity, others hunger for spiritual experiences. And some people get stuck because they can't find the way back. The meeting of cultures is pragmatic: the foreigners are looking for something, business-minded Indians try to give it to them. They offer an attitude towards life that has little to do with their own reality. Yoga schools are springing up, tailors and cloth merchants find a good living. They sell baggy trousers and colorful shirts made of coarse linen that they would never wear themselves. The myth is maintained, but at the same time mutual understanding is made more difficult. Because transfigured Western ideas cannot grasp what Hinduism and its culture mean for the Indians.

Annett Welsch