varanasi, india: of ghats & gurus

We went to feel the spiritual pulse of India. Our quest took us through the frenzied streets and ghats of Varanasi, over dangerously chaotic Indian roads, and finally, sweet relief, to Rishikesh, the land of serenity and ohm. Never could we have imagined how different two of India’s most spiritual places could be. And never could we have imagined the future of our lives, as told to us by gurus at either end.

Sunday: Before sunrise in Varanasi, my friend Jayne and I felt our way in the dark down the maze of alleys called galis to the ghats, the long expanse of steps leading into the water on the western bank of the Ganges.

We met our English-speaking boat guide Ajay at lively Dasaswamedh Ghat, with its jumble of boats overlooked by jaunty Hindu gods painted on pink towers. A boy maneuvered our rickety rowboat out of the tangle, with Ajay standing at the helm. In the glowing pre-dawn light, Indians bathed in the Ganges.  Boats of orange-robed monks, photo-snapping Asian tourists, and fellow nomads floated past.  On the ghats, sacred rituals abounded: pilgrims offered puja, offerings or prayers, to the rising sun and washed clothes in the Ganges. Students struck yoga poses and meditated on the steps, while women darted about selling flowers. Ajay pointed out a group of students facing their teacher on the ghats and said they were studying Sanskrit.

Hindu pilgrims flock to Varanasi’s eighty ghats, named after maharajahs, to either wash away their sins in the sacred Ganges or to cremate their dead.  Varanasi is considered a holy and favorable place to die and thus is the center of the Hindu universe.

People are cremated along the river, either by traditional burning on piles of expensive sandalwood, or cheaper mango wood. If people can’t afford sandalwood, they buy packets of sandalwood dust to sprinkle on the fire.  In recent years, oven-like crematoriums offer electronic burning, which reduces the amount of wood used. Ajay told us that every Hindu is cremated at death except for: (1) children under the age of 15; (2) pregnant women; (3) people with leprosy; (4) people who die from snake bites; and (5) priests.  These deceased are thrown directly into the River Ganges.

Ajay gave us little candles set on a flower petal bed, telling us to light the candle and place it into the river.  I cupped my hands around the candle to shield the flame from the breeze, lit it and made a wish.  We watched as our candle-wishes floated away on the current, diminishing on the horizon to nothingness.

Ajay casually mentioned his friend, a famous guru who told the fortune of a famous actress named “Goal Lyan.” Baffled, we guessed different names, until Ajay called his brother, who revealed that the mystery actress was Goldie Hawn.  He told us if we’d like to have our stars read and our futures told, this guru was the one to see.  We must have looked like a couple of suckers to Ajay, and in fact we turned out to be just such!

Our boat pulls up after an hour to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat.  Day and night, hundreds of pyres are tended by the Dom, the untouchable caste, which has handled cremation for centuries. The pyres are lit with an eternal flame believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. We see smoking ashes and burning pieces of wood, but we don’t see any huge piles of firewood burning a dead body.  All the bodies left here have already turned to ash and have been swept into the river.  Everywhere, we’re overwhelmed by the stench of cows and general garbage and debris, but luckily, I don’t smell burning flesh.

We pick our way through the black ash, huge piles of wood, wandering cows, mangy dogs, and goats. An old man squats, shaving the eldest in a deceased person’s family with a straightedge to prepare him for the cremation ceremony. We must walk through this area quietly and respectfully and are forbidden to take pictures.  Ajay does allow us to take one picture of the eternal flame, which has been burning, apparently, eternally.

Walking down the narrow alleys, we encounter a queue of cows bullying their way through; we have to push ourselves up against the wall to avoid getting underfoot or gored. Down another alley, cows are lounging on steps. Vendors sell bags of sandalwood and spices and textiles.  Flies swarm everywhere around piles of cow dung.

Ajay asks if we’d like to meet the “famous” guru and we are curious about him so we go to Guruji Ashram.  This guru, after showing us photographs of some blond girl who vaguely looks like Goldie Hawn, tells us he can do several different tiers of fortune-telling, from $25-$80.  He asks for our date, time and place of birth and then tells us to come back at 2:00.

We head out into the onslaught of Varanasi.  On narrow two-lane dirt roads, cows roam and munch lazily on plastic bags.  They leave their mark all over the place, adding to the generally all-encompassing piles of debris.  Mangy skin-diseased dogs, small armies of pigs pushing up dirt with their snouts, goats, and more cows only add to the armies of creatures on the streets.

People’s clothes and faces and arms are covered in dirt and they mingle with the cows and other animals, stepping over their piles of dung, accepting, even embracing, it as a permanent part of the landscape.  Women in saris sit on piles of rubble hand-mixing the profusion of dung with hay and forming it into little patties, which they then form into larger igloo or beehive shapes to use as cooking fuel later.  Horns honk and screech and play goofy little ditties, a cacophony of loud abrasive noise. Whole families burst at the seams of auto-rickshaws, hanging on for dear life and smiling as if they are having the happiest moments of their lives.  Between the bicycles, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, the cows, the animals, and the people, there is not a space to breathe.  Everyone and everything is in constant motion, and you must go along with the flow or you’ll be swallowed whole.

While we wait to go back to our guru, we visit the Mother India Temple, which has on its floor a huge relief map of India and the Ti­betan plateau, carved out of mar­ble in three di­men­sions. The map is said to be per­fect­ly to scale both ver­ti­cal­ly and hor­i­zon­tal­ly with moun­tains, rivers, plains and oceans and the holy pil­grim­age cen­ters all clear­ly vis­i­ble. We visit the small Durga Temple, better known as the “monkey temple,” where monkeys add to the overall pungency with their droppings.

Finally, we head back into Varanasi proper and sit in the car at an old movie theater, waiting for Ajay to escort us to the guru.  Suddenly, a snake in a basket is thrust into our window by an Indian in a yellow turban. “Five rupees to touch my snake!”  I say, “No, thanks! You’d have to pay ME to touch that snake!” He won’t take no for an answer, but continues to harass us until we finally roll up the windows and ignore him.

Back at the guru’s ashram, I climb steep narrow stairs into a warm windowless room, where he invites me to sit on the floor. He tells me the following: I will live until 87 or 88, at which time I will die a natural and easy death in my sleep. I basically will have a good life with no problems.  I’ll have my own property by the time I retire.  I’ll have good health, although I might have some problems with gastric pain.  He asks me if I currently have these kinds of problems, and I say no, I don’t.  He tells me I’ve had four pregnancies.  I protest and say I’ve only had 3, but he insists I must have lost one. He says I’m independent and don’t rely on anyone and I’m very strong and controlling in my family.  He also says I have a mind like a child.  He doesn’t mention anything about love, so I ask and he says I will have problems between life and love; I will have a man, but no fixed man.  Men will come into my life and go.  I ask if there’s anything I can do about that, and he says I can buy a talisman from him for 2,300 rupees (~$37).  Ha!


ghats at Varanasi


on the river Ganges


Jayne and me

*Sunday, March 6, 2011*

This is the first part of a three-part series.  The journey from Varanasi to Rishikesh will post on Wednesday, September 19 and the second part, in Rishikesh, will post on September 25. 🙂


“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a 1,000-1,500-word post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose.

In this case, my intention was to capture my trip through India using my five senses, and to try to capture as vividly as possible my experience there.

It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction for this invitation.  You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose & poetry.  (This page is a work in process.) You can also include photos, of course.

While I’m in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago from August 31 – October 25, and then in Portugal from October 26 – November 6, I kindly request that if you write a prose piece, please simply link it to the appropriate post, this one or my next one as soon as it publishes.  I will try my best to read your posts while I’m on my journey, but I won’t have a computer or the time or ability to add links to my posts.

My next scheduled prose post will be on Tuesday, September 25.

This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!

the ~ wander.essence ~ community

I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community.  I promise, you’ll be inspired!  See below in the comments for any links. 🙂

Thanks to all of you who wrote prosaic posts following intentions you set for yourself.  🙂