After a full week of touring sewage and waste management plants (and interviewing government officials, rickshaws and street sweepers), we headed out to Varanasi for a tourist-only weekend. This came with a clear direction of “no laptops” which we gladly followed. Varanasi is THE Indian town that makes every single tourist book, as well as the 500 or 1,000 places to see in your lifetime – and it lives up to it. After a rocky (literally and figuratively) 3 hour drive from Allahabad, we arrived and headed for some shopping and walk around the city. After a few of sarees, pashminas, silk scarves negotiations, we were ready to board a small wooden boat on Ganges to see the river banks from the water. I am personally not very religious or spiritual (full disclosure) but there is something about this city that throws you in a very quiet state of thinking and reminiscing (after the loud engine boats stop though). As the sun was coming down, we (and other 100 boats) stopped by the Dashashwamedh Ghat and waited for the aarti to start. What’s a ghat and aarti, you may ask….
Ghat is a series of steps leading to the river Ganges – and there are many of them across Varanasi. Aarti is a prayer ritual / ceremony which translates to a Worship of fire. The ghats fill up with people, the rivers fill up with boats – and the aarti begins. Richa was able to participate from the bank which was a very unique and rare opportunity for her – the rest of us watched from the water. Even though most of us didn’t understand what was going on, it was clearly very emotional for Hindus around us and absolutely fascinating to watch. And so was the traffic on the way back 🙂
The next morning, we experienced probably the busiest 430 am wake up call in the world, as close to everyone was heading out to the banks again for the sunrise. I was a bit skeptical – is this just a hype and a credit to the Varanasi tourism bureau or will this really be spectacular? It was fantastic – the dark walk thru the markets, the boats full again, the sun coming up and shining a beautiful light on the city. Seeing it wake up to the world, watching the families and Hindu tourists take baths in Ganges and praying, kids splashing water and playing – pictures tell a better story so look below. I think most of us were a bit conflicted though. Seeing importance and emotions the river ignites in Indian people was once in a lifetime opportunity. But seeing how polluted and possibly contaminated the water is, the trash on the river bank right next to the kids swimming, the ashes from the cremated bodies thrown in (and hearing about the dead bodies being thrown in as they can’t be cremated) – it is hard to reconcile. Enjoy the pictures…
We finished our trip with a visit to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Despite the brutal heat and humidity (the team decided to just call it a glow b/c you turn very shiny very quickly), we really enjoyed the brief history of the jainism and buddhism – and there are hundreds of stories, names, gods and traditions – so definitely a big to-do for some of us to “get a comparative religion book in local library” – you have to – once you visit these sites with so much history, tradition and spirit.
I almost forgot to mention that we met with the #ibmcsc team India 28 which is based in Varanasi for the next month. It was great to catch up, hear about their projects and for me personally to remember my fantastic IBM CSC experience – go team (picture coming later)!
And the glow? The river glows for sure – but everyone of us had a bit of a glow too – not just from the 40C degree temperatures, high humidity and the mix of repellent/hand sanitizers – but from being in a place of such a significant history, tradition and spirit.