Varanasi, Part Two

“Benares [Varanasi] is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

– Mark Twain, Following The Equator , 1897

We almost missed our first trip to the Ganges. The kids and my mother-in-law and Leslie the babysitter were still jet lagged and decided to sleep in but Jeff & I were game for an early morning trip and booked a ride at 4:45 in the morning.

Monsoon rains came overnight, rain that makes Seattle rain look silly. It’s huge, head pounding, bas assed fat raindrops that hits the ground like fists. The air is cooler but still hot, if you can image that, and the rain feels really good on your skin. Like good enough to walk around in it for hours and just keep wiping the water out of your eyes. It’s like standing in an outside shower that’s just the right temperature. The rain is an important part of this story.

Anyway, we woke up at 4 am to try and make the 5:20 sunrise over the river but the weather was awful and we stood doubtfully on the edge of the lawn and peered out on the darkened grass where the peacocks were asleep under the trees and Jeff was texting our driver about canceling the visit when out of the dark shadows of the old palace turned hotel, a young Indian kid in a hotel uniform stepped forward and said

Mom? (with an Indian English accent, “ma’am” sounds like “mom” to me, which I find endearing)


Are you not going to the river?

Well…..(gesturing to the pitch black drenching rain five feet from us)….no. I don’t think so.

(long pause)

You should go, mom. The river is very beautiful in the rain.



Really, mom. Very beautiful. It is my favorite time at the river.

Ok, then. (waving arm to Jeff and giving thumbs up) We’ll go.

(big smile from kid)

You won’t be sad that you went, mom.

And with that the driver pulled up and Jeff and I slipped into the car and headed for Old Varanasi.


Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city in the world. It feels like it too.

It’s buildings built on buildings built on buildings, all sloping, twisting, crumbling, and following the edge of the water. It smells bad. There is trash everywhere. The noise, the cacophany of non stop car horns, blaring Bollywood tunes, and about a billion people, numbs your head. Holy cows are wandering through leaving cow patties everywhere they please. The flies are chunky and persistent and unflappable. You shake your arm to get them off and they just hang out there like, really? an arm swing? that’s all you’ve got?

Varanasi is so hard core that most tourists see it from the water, from boats, which is apparently incredibly beautiful. You appreciate all the ritual bathing on the ghats (big flat steps built in the riverbank) in the Ganges from a distance. No stepping in cow patties or dead rats or being besieged by people trying to sell you ten cent trinkets.

However, for us, a boat was not an option because  of monsoon flooding that had turned the normally well behaved Ganges into a torrent of thick muddy water. The current was strong enough that three days ago there was an accident involving a tourist and the government had closed the boats until the water levels go down. No one would be specific about the accident. One assumes it was bad.

So, land. Normally an undesirable way to see Varanasi but this morning, this particular morning, was special.

The streets were  empty, dark, quiet, and flooding. After three blocks, I gave up on the umbrella and left it by a small shop door.

By the time we got to the ghat, Jeff and I were completely wet, every piece of clothing soaked down to the skin. My bra was wet, my shoes were oozing water, water was pouring off my face. I found a piece of plastic floating by in a gutter and wrapped my phone in it.

What we saw in front of us was truly amazing.

As the sun rose (more like a dim glow with all the rain), the small group of pilgrims was in the water, standing on the platforms of old stone that go down into the river, splashing, filing jugs, praying, and repeating over and over again. No one was smiling. It was serious business of the most ancient kind. The rain hammered down on our bodies and the tin roofs and stucco walls of the buildings.

The only noise was a soft collective murmur of prayers and the deep percussion of rain.

Before I even know what is happening, Jeff is reaching down to unstrap his sandals and is threading his way down the ghat towards the water.

I follow right behind him but it’s hard. The rocks are slippery. The rain is in my eyes. It feels good but I’m unsteady and lost and worried about my iPhone getting ruined.

I lose Jeff. I stop and buy a floating basket of paper filled with rose petals and a waterlogged candle that is somehow burning. I keep my hand over the candle to keep it alive but it’s hard to stay on my feet, look for Jeff, and protect the candle. I wind up handing it to an elderly woman in a water logged sari next to me. I’m wading through the crowds in the waist deep water of the Ganges and the rain is just coming off me in sheets and then I spot Jeff.

Calm. Peaceful. Right in the middle of the pilgrims. As I saw him, I fell in love with my husband all over again. Of course he gets it.

Right as I spot him, the rain breaks for just a moment and I can get my phone out of the plastic bag in my pocket.

We both took turns doing a full dip in the Ganges, an experience that Hindus believe will wash away sins.*

*As an atheist, I don’t believe any of that but I do believe in the history of *people* and to stand and go through a ritual that has been happening on the same spot for thousands of years was a joy.

As soon as I stood up from my dip, the rain opened up on us again, and we slogged out of the river to our guide. He signaled to us to follow him and we trudged head down for more than 15 minutes, all of us, though calf deep water in alleyways that was basically sewage.

At the end of one of the alleys, we hit a two story high stack of blackened wood and an usual burning smell. As we snaked around the stacks of wood, smoke blackened men in loincloths started appearing and grabbing big chucks of wet wood. We flowed them to a large wooden mound about the size of a small living room. At the top were six burning piles of wood.

The rain stopped again as we climbed to the top of the earth pile. Each burning pile had a human body in it, mostly covered with wood but in some cases you could see legs and arms peeking out.

The rain stopped again as we stood next to the funeral pyres.

It sounds horrifying but it wasn’t really. I felt honored to be there. Hindus believe that when you are cremated on the banks of the Ganges, you will go to Nirvana. That ends a long, painful journey of reincarnation and rebirth and gives the soul within the body a final, happy resting place.

As we walked back to the car, about a twenty minute walk, the rain opened up again and it just absolutely poured.

Jeff and I couldn’t talk on the way home. The experience was so transcendent and extraordinary.

Back at the hotel, we took a thirty minute shower in stinging hot water and washed every single part of ourselves several times over, had some hot tea, and started ourselves on the antibiotics I brought for emergencies.

Then the kids woke up and our day started.


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