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The holy city of Varanasi

 
 

Of all the trips we have ever taken, perhaps our trip to India was the one that struck us most. Not only because of the difference in the experiences we live there, but also because it was the most different culture we have ever encountered and perhaps the one that most impressed us. The different organization (or disorganization), the way people take their place in society, how they perceive it, how they act in front of it…

 
 

And the Hindu religion, a religion we had never contacted and never experienced in such a close way, impressed us as well. However, I think we could only really perceive all this feeling when we arrived in Varanasi.

 
 

The feeling we get when we are in Varanasi is that everything happens in that city on the banks of the Ganges. As soon as we arrived at the end of the day, we then drove to the river so that we could closely observe the ceremonies that take place there linked to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. As we approached the river, we became more and more impressed with how many people we saw. There were so many people on the street that we couldn't even get to the river, and we had to get out of the car just before to walk the rest of the way. The surprise started right away: we could barely walk, we were afraid of getting lost from the guide too, and it was really interesting to realize that we strangers were the only ones who had this difficulty. Everyone else there, families with children and all, moved in a super fluid way that circulated with all normalcy.

 
 

The feeling we get when we are in Varanasi is that everything happens in that city on the banks of the Ganges. As soon as we arrived at the end of the day, we then drove to the river so that we could closely observe the ceremonies that take place there linked to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. As we approached the river, we became more and more impressed with how many people we saw. There were so many people on the street that we couldn't even get to the river, and we had to get out of the car just before to walk the rest of the way. The surprise started right away: we could barely walk, we were afraid of getting lost from the guide too, and it was really interesting to realize that we strangers were the only ones who had this difficulty. Everyone else there, families with children and all, moved in a super fluid way that circulated with all normalcy....

 
 

The guide who led us advised us to take a short boat trip to the area where the cremations were taking place and soon we began to realize that the worship people have of that river is something that goes into detail. Our guide can still recommend recommending us to buy a flower and a candle so that we could also place it in the river as a thank you at the end of our trip. And so we did.

 
 

As we got closer to where the ceremonies were taking place, our guide explained to us in detail all the surroundings with the river. In the religion of Hinduism, the Ganges River is the river that came straight from Heaven to flow into the Earth. Hence Varanasi is the true Gate of Heaven, the Sacred City in which all Hinduists want to die. This is where they believe that after their last days of asking forgiveness for their sins, praising their gods, making their divine offerings, their ashes thrown into the river will allow them to get out of the cycle of life or else reincarnate in a new caste. Families attend the cremation of the body and have a cow, sacred animal, with them to add one more sacred burden to the whole procedure. And finally, the ashes are thrown into the river. So we spent the next few hours watching all these ceremonies. No photos, silent and with all the respect that deserves a sacred ritual like this. It was a very different picture from anything we had seen so far.

 
 

Towards the end, we began to realize a great commotion on the other bank of the Ganges. The ceremonies of praise, forgiveness, and thanksgiving were about to begin, the men now dressed in their colorful suits. We then headed in that direction too, placing the flower and the candle in the river to thank them for their trip and heading out into the street, following the crowd. Everyone was looking for a privileged place in the front row to observe this ritual. What followed was about an hour full of chants and incense. Some offerings were made with jars. The river was set on fire.

 
 

Around us, we began to notice several altars scattered along the banks with different icons and images. At the end of this ceremony, families scattered across the altars to make their offerings, to sing and to dance. Later we came to discover that after this holiday season these altars are destroyed and thrown back to the Ganges River to end with an offering in the purest place.

 
 

But all that is symbolic and mystical in Varanasi does not end here. Early in the morning, there are rituals in which people bathe in the river - their sacred bath.

 
 

Hinduists believe this is how their souls are purified. It is amazing because it is here that we realize that even people of different castes have precisely the same rituals with precisely the same goal: to purify themselves, to be able to offer their gods their washed, purified soul.

 
 

And seeing the Ganges River in this quiet at dawn was totally different from what we had seen the night before. To see again that staircase where thousands of people had been empty the previous day, now enveloped in all mysticism, is indeed impressive.

 
 

A few kilometers from Varanasi is another of the holiest places in the world - but this time for the Buddhist religion. The city of Sarnath, where we can find a huge Buddhist temple, is considered the cradle of Buddhism. It was here that there was the first sermon and where one of the great Asian religions was founded.

 
 

Being so close to Varanasi, it is a place that differs in everything. Manicured gardens, the total absence of confusion, not a hint of dirt on the floor. This is a very peaceful place. Interestingly, this dichotomy of meaning that lives in two places so close to each other. And even amazing to see how there is something so important to Hinduism and Buddhism in the same region - there is this sacred burden for both religions here. Sarnath has very interesting stories to know and this so intensely religious and sacred side of India is not to be missed.

 
 

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