Trigger Warning: This touches on death and Hindu cremation rituals.
Varanasi is a tightly woven tapestry of the ancient and the sacred. The streets reflect this. They are haphazard and cracked, zigzagging between buildings, and littered with trash, standing water, and feces. As the oldest continually occupied city in the world, it’s the urban rendition of lasagna: layer on layer on layer of city.
Our first morning in Varanasi, we set out early to try and beat the heat. At 8 AM, it’s 100ºF. We pile into auto rickshas and zip into the street. Traffic here would be terrible anyway, with hundreds of pedestrians playing Frogger, incessant horn-blowing, and nonexistent lanes. But add one ton, lumbering cows to the mix, and it feels like absolute chaos to this American.
It doesn’t even phase our auto ricksha driver. He takes us as far into the city as he can. But, because portions of the city were built before motorized vehicles existed, some streets are off-limits to engines.
We hop into a bike ricksha, and an older man (who probably weighs 150 pounds) peddles both my husband and me through traffic like it’s nothing. He takes us as far as he can because, like motorized vehicles, bicycles are not allowed in the city’s oldest parts. From here, we must walk
Our group winds single-file through alleys older than my home country. Colorful tarps and fabric stretched overhead between walls afford us some shade and dye the sunlight in blues and oranges. Bollywood music, blaring from an unseen source, clips and garbles. It bounces off walls covered in decades of graffiti and painted advertisements.
Anant leads us to a large opening in an alley wall where a barefoot man sits cross-legged, with a large silver mixing bowl in his lap. Around his perch are bunches of bananas, mangos, and jars of dried fruits and spices. Behind him is a small, high-ceilinged room filled with mismatched chairs. A fan whirs overhead.
“Who would care for lassi?” asks Anant.
Lassi is a dairy-based dessert beverage, not unlike yogurt, that can be flavored and topped with whatever goodies you like. I decline. Something about diary-based street food made me nervous, mostly because I don’t see any refrigeration machinery anywhere. I like my lassi super cold. And super safe. We still have days of travel ahead of us and a tight schedule. I’m not going to risk getting sick. Most people in our group place orders, including Tim, who orders a sweet saffron lassi, and we sit down inside the little room.
As our eyes adjust to the dark interior, we notice little square passport photos covering the high walls. Hundreds of faces look back at us. Some are old and faded, the corners curling away from the wall. Some aren’t even photos, but hand-drawn self-portraits on scraps of paper added by those who wanted to participate but were unprepared.
Tim happens to have a copy of both our passport photos in his pocket by some strange coincidence. We add our faces to the mosaic of memories inside the shop just as his lassi is served to him in a little red clay pot. When he finishes, the barefooted man mimes instructions on where to put the empty pot.
“You can throw it into the gutter,” translates Anant. “It’s cheaper and safer for them to use these clay pots instead of plastic cups.” Looking on the street’s sides, we notice that there are hundreds of red shards from previous patrons. Like a kid who’s just been taught to spit, Tim gleefully obeys, and the pot shatters.
We resume our trek through old Varanasi. Suddenly, we turn a corner, and there she is, glistening in the sun: the River Ganges. And she is stunning.
Hundreds of Hindus trek to her banks every day to bathe in the holy water and wash their sins away. She is a Hindu goddess: a watery ribbon springing from the hair of Shiva and flowing through heaven, earth, and the netherworld.
Here, on earth, she is disturbingly polluted. The level of fecal coliform bacteria from human waste in the water is more than 100 times the government’s official limit. The endangered Ganges Dolphin (unique to this part of the world) is nearly extinct because of this pollution. But as we walk along the riverside ghats, people are swimming, bathing, doing laundry in the water, and collecting it in plastic containers to anoint their homes and shrines. Honestly, the heat is so intense (with no shade anywhere), I begin to envy those splashing around in the dark water.
The Ganges fluctuates dramatically – during the rainy season, she can rise twenty feet or more. Large ghats (massive stairs along the river’s edge) were made to give people access to the water regardless of its height. After the rainy season, when the water retracts, the ghats are covered in mud and refuse, but they are cleaned every year.
Later that night, we head back to the banks of the Ganges and board a small boat. Viewing the shore from the middle of the river, we can better see these enormous ghats and riverside palaces built by wealthy or royal Hindus centuries ago in preparation for their deaths.
Hindus believe that if you die close to or in the river, you go straight to heaven. That is why we’ve come back in the evening. Every night in Varanasi, on the Ganges’ shores, there is a massive ceremony, a funeral, for Hindus who have died. Massive, open-air cremation fires blaze onshore as our boat putters along. Bodies wrapped in white and adorned with marigold blooms and gold jewelry are carried in on stretchers by their chanting family. Some bodies are simply placed into the water. But most are cremated. Their ashes are pushed into the water to release the deceased into the arms of heaven. I order my eyes not to look too hard at the flames.
Our boat reaches the ceremony site and joins dozens of other boats filled with mourners. The boats pack together so closely that kids selling postcards, hot chai, and cold water can walk across one and step onto the next in the dark. The air smells like smoke and dirty water as the holy men begin performing the rites.
In the boat just in front of ours, I notice two women staring at me. On the first night in Kathmandu, Anant had warned our group (made up entirely of Western women except for Tim) that people would stare at us, ask for selfies with us, even thrust their babies into our arms. And he was right. But I’m still not quite used to it. I meet their gaze a few times and quickly look away. They keep staring.
Since entering my fight against PTSD, I feared intimacy greatly. At times, even eye contact was a dangerous level of intimacy to me. My soul had become such a Pandora’s Box of dark thoughts and messy emotions; I feared intimacy with anyone. I might explode all over them and pull them down with me.
Or, if I dared open the floodgates, I feared I’d get the same bumper sticker, dismissive, Christian answers that just proved abrasive to my raw soul. In locking myself away, it became very difficult to be a good wife, friend, sister, human.
Intimacy is vulnerability. It takes tremendous courage to simply show up and be available to those around you, just as you are. You risk rejection. You risk being snubbed. You risk being misunderstood. You risk being judged and being shamed.
These are significant risks.
As I sit in the Ganges, the holy Hindu men and the chaiwallahs both shouting their respective chants, I risk one more glance at the two women in front of me. They are still staring, bold and unblinking.
We meet each other’s gaze, but I don’t look away this time. I risk a smile and a small head wobble.
Both their faces blossom into big warm smiles, with earnest head wobbles. They both bring their hands in prayer position to their foreheads and bow in my direction. Namaste.
I acknowledge the divinity within you.
Intimacy requires significant risk. But this great risk creates the space needed for great gain. To be seen, as you are, and be received into the arms of your fellow man – this is one of the most divine (that is to say: “of God”) experiences. He has given us to one another.
I felt, at this moment on the Ganges, that these two women were global ambassadors. They were simply watching me as the world watches each of us. They waited as the world waits for you. Are we going to keep looking at our shoes, arrested by the thought of risk? Afraid to see and be seen?
I hope you look up, frightening as it may be.
I hope you see the divinity inside yourself and your fellow man.
And I hope you let yourself be seen because you are enough, just as you are.
Even in your struggle and your becoming. You are enough.
We are waiting for you.
Before our boat returns to shore, we light small candles held afloat in bowls made of sal leaves and release them, with a prayer, into the ripples of the Ganges.