– believed to be the oldest living city in the world

                                                                               words & images: Pam Williams

India is exciting, colourful, chaotic, maddening and tiring, but what a                                                     journey, and one not to be missed.

It is Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, that give some of our most memorable moments while travelling in India.  It is said, that it is not for the faint hearted …  probably true, but what a time and what an experience!

As we travel from the airport the eyes could not believe what they were seeing…dusty dirt roads; people by the zillions (well not quite); cows and litter everywhere; dwellings  that do not resemble what we are accustomed to, and the closer we get to The Ganges nothing changes or improves.  “OMG what is our hotel going to be like?” was all I can think about, and yes, I am feeling apprehensive…is this really the place I so longed to come to?

Varanasi is known as the city of learning and burning.

  • Learning because of the commitment and respect for knowledge and   One university has 20,000 students and extends over 13,000 acres.
  • Burning as cremations take place 24 hours a day.

We take two boat rides on the Ganges.   The evening trip mainly to escape the crowds and get reprieve from the horrendous heat – what a ride.  The oarsman rowed to the Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats and it is here where the ritual of death takes place.  They say up to 80 cremations a day.    How did we feel?   We were not bothered by it, as it is factual and non-emotional – it is here the soul passes over from the mortal world to the immortal state for Hindu.   Our guide explained why, how, when and what happens when life is over, and for a Hindu to take their last breath in Varanasi is sure to attain salvation.

We also watched the Aarti (the evening prayer)…lots of chanting, flaming oil lamps,  colour everywhere and thousands of people line the Ghats or are on the Ganges in the boats.  We float candles on the river and make a wish.  Did the wish come true? – only time will tell.  The faithful and the tourist all love being here even though it is for different reasons.

But it was the early morning ride on the Ganges that gives the ultimate experience…oh the peace, the quietness, the spirituality that you feel from the people and the river itself.   The people prayed and bathed to wash away their sins and daily rituals were performed along the edge of the Ganges.   As the locals say, “ablutions and absolutions.”

Yes, the River Ganges definitely has pollution problems but there is a commitment to cleaning up both the Ghats and the River Ganges.

The ancient  temples, the architecture and the Ghats are remarkably  beautiful and as for the River Ganges …the stillness, the colour, the low lying mist all add to the mystique  and peace that you feel. The colours… I love those murky natural autumn/winter toning’s and that is the colours of the architecture.  There is the odd exception where a building has been painted a brighter colour… of course it is about marketing and the power of money talks, but why spoil the natural beauty of 3,000 years.    And as for the sunrise and sunsets…the brilliance of colour adds to this feeling of contentment.

I must add that the women are beautiful…they are unobtrusive/quiet and the colourful sari (some say  the most beautiful dress in the world)  is  draped gorgeously  around them.  I feel the women are the shining light in a country of chaos.

Varanasi with its labyrinth of narrow alleyways and disturbing odour (Mmmm, definitely challenging); the funeral rituals; the architecture; the noise; the miles of Ghats; the sheer number of people and of course one will never forget the cows roaming freely and having complete control.   But amid all the chaos there is time to sit on the Ghats and let life pass you by…there is time to contemplate and ponder in absolute quietness.  How can this be, when there is so much happening around you? but it truly does.

As it turns out our hotel was our haven…we loved it.   It is unique, enchanting and atmospheric and the mighty Ganges is right at its front door.  It is a place we relax after a day of experiencing unrelenting Varanasi.

I have come home content, and know that the experience of India was something special.  In fact, I feel so content that I may never travel again but “one should never say never”.

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.