Time stops in Varanasi.
At least that’s how it feels in India’s holiest city.
Time stops for long enough to appreciate it. I guess this is what I’m trying to say.
Maybe it’s because we spent a lot of time walking around the city that we got to observe all the things people make time for.
Things like making time for game of cricket in the afternoon, on an open concrete foundation where a building once stood.
Making time to visit a temple for daily offerings of flowers to the Hindu God Shiva.
Making time to send off a loved one to their final resting place in the mighty river Ganga.
Making time to wake early in the morning swim in the holy river as the sun is rising.
Making time to go to the evening Ganga Aarti, going hours in advance to get a seat as close to the front as possible.
My friend Kate and I decided to spend a few days in Varanasi so that we had enough time to observe the daily rituals.
We arrived in Delhi on a Wednesday night and took a flight the next morning to Varanasi. Within 24 hours of being in India we had arrived in one of the country’s holiest cities, where the way of life appears much more traditional.
It’s a place for pilgrims, where you can’t eat meat or drink alcohol. It’s also very popular for tourists and we were there at the start of spring meaning that it was still quite busy.
We chose to stay at Monu’s Family paying guesthouse, which is within walking distance to the main ghats. Monu and his family were wonderful hosts, even though they were in the middle of installing a well for the upcoming summer.
Staying in the market area took a bit of time to get used to, we struggled to find our way initially through the maze of narrow walkways, dodging cows and squeezing past long queues of people waiting to enter the surrounding temples.
Through Monu we met a local guide, Ravi, who we spent a lot of time with. He helped us find our way to the main ghat and also gave us insights into the local way of life.
On the first afternoon we took a walk down to the ghats, it was exciting and overwhelming at the same time.
We got our first view of the Ganges from the Nepali temple.
We then took a boat ride along the river to see some of the different ghats and then to watch the evening Ganga Aarti.
We attended the Aarti every night for the four nights we were there and I’m so glad we made the time to do it. It was great watching from the boat but even more special on the nights we went a bit early to get a place to sit close by. Surrounded by local families it was a really special experience to witness the Aarti with practicing Hindus.
I’m not an expert on Hinduism, and am not qualified to explain what each part of the Ganga Aarti symbolises, but I will say that I was deeply moved by the experience of witnessing the proceedings.
We also woke up at sunrise twice for a boat ride to watch people swimming in the river and also using the river to wash clothes. It was such a special experience to be on the water surrounded by birds flying across a wide open horizon as the sun was rising.
Our guide Ravi showed us a number of different temples. At each one we had time to stop and walk inside the temple. I loved all of them, and we had different experiences at each of them.
Growing up in Durban, despite the fact that there are many temples my knowledge of Hinduism is limited. I’d never heard of the Hindu Goddess Durga before but I loved the red colour of the outside of the temple.
Inside it felt quiet and calm, not like at the Hanuman temple. It’s hard to describe the experiences I felt at each one, except to say that I felt that I was in a sacred space and there was a lot to observe. Considering that I’m not a practicing Hindu I don’t want to offend anyone by saying that I felt a connection at the Durga temple. Maybe it’s because I felt that I could relate to her story.
She is known as a warrior, the fierce form of the protective mother goddess and is often depicted riding a lion or tiger, with many warms each carrying different weapons.
I love this representation of women, which is a strong symbol and I think, something to aspire to, in a world where patriarchy, sexism and abuse of women is still rife.
My dear friend Kate bought me a Durga Goddess statue in Varanasi. I brought it home with me and it lives on the mantle above my side of the bed. Each time I look at it, it looks more beautiful and it makes me smile, reminding me of the special time in Varanasi.
For me personally it’s also become a reminder of the resilience of strength in women and to believe in myself when self-doubt affects my confidence.
On our last morning in Varanasi, after the sunrise boat ride we visited the Golden temple, also known as the Kashi Vishvanath temple . The whole thing was quite intense and over quite quickly as we didn’t get to spend a lot of time inside. I’m grateful for this experience and the blessings we received.
Something happened to me spiritually inside the temple that took me by surprise. It’s not something I can articulate in words here in this blog but if you meet me one day in person I will happily tell you about if you want to hear.
Our last meal was a breakfast lassi at the Blue lassi shop. Thanks again to Ravi who showed us how to find it, this was such a treat.
It took me awhile to process everything we experienced in Varanasi while we were there, in fact I think it was only after I returned home that I fully appreciated the significance of what we witnessed and how special it was to visit the city, especially so early into our time in India.
For this I will be forever grateful to Kate, for her wisdom and insight to suggest that we go to Varanasi.