Varanasi part 1: water and fire

The place I looked forward to the most on my trip across Northern India was Varanasi. I heard that it was a mystical place displaying both life and death which intrigued me and excited me about what experiences awaited me! Varanasi is located along the banks of the Ganges River and considered the holiest of all cities in India by Hindus.  We arrived in Varanasi after a flight from Kolkata and a long, terrifying bus ride along the busy and chaotic country roads. We made our way down to the Ganges where 2 boats awaited to whisk us away to our next accommodation. Much to my giggling delight, I discovered that many of the animals were dressed in sweaters and dresses here!  We then made our way down the many steps, or “Ghats” to the water. We were immediately mobbed by dozens of bright-eyed little girls doing their best to sell us candles in a little bowl made of flowers and leaves used as offerings to the Ganges, or reverently called “Mother Ganga.”  The river water brings life to the people and they send gratitude to her for these gifts.

A goat wearing a dress in Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India Photo Credit: Kate Burrus

We waived good-bye to the pleading girls and the dozens of people bathing as we sputtered along in our noisy boats down the river.

The Ghats are filled with all aspects of life.  They are lined with colorful houses and temples, laundry hanging to dry, cows wading in the river, people praying, children running, and pilgrims worshiping.  There are cremation Ghats where corpses are carried to Mother Ganga one last time before their funeral pyre is ignited on the steps. A kaleidoscope of life and death are happening around the clock in Varanasi.

Colorful Varanasi on the banks of Mother Ganga

Along the Ganges River

Our group attended a fire ceremony called Ganga Arathi. We navigated through the dark, narrow, and windy alleyways (past many cows!) to reach the worship platforms located on the Ganges.

The ceremony is a decadent display of devotion to God - it is extremely ancient and has been performed nightly by Hindu priests for thousands of years. The ceremony involves dancing with various candles, torches, and burning lamps weaving a swirling fervor of smoke into the air.

A Hindu Priest performs

Fire Ceremony on the Ghats of the Ganges

Fire opens us up to transformation

Fire is symbolic of transformation from one form to another - cremation, for example, transforms the physical body as the soul continues on its journey.  Fire offers an opportunity to transform or release something that no longer serves purpose and opens the lines of communication between worlds. As the dancing of smoke and flames continued, the music crescendoed and everyone joined in with chanting, clapping, and ringing bells.  The energy and emotion within me felt like it merged into the energy of the entire crowd - that there was no separation or distinction among us - everyone felt joined together, sharing in the brilliant ceremony.

The contrast of life and death in Varanasi, of Water and Fire, of growth and decay is powerful.  Both internal and external observations and discoveries are enlivened by the continual Reality of Life brought to you by the people and city.  An awakening of your soul begins and any dark tidbits begin to float to the surface. I could feel my soul begging for more - more challenge, more growth, more destruction of what holds me back.

Varanasi is a place of transformation.