Do you remember that scene in ‘Midnight in Paris’ where Owen Wilson says something along the lines of: “Perhaps every city is a work of art”?* I felt the same way about Varanasi.
It’s been almost a month since I got back from my trip, and I still have the myriad of images, smells, sounds, colours, and tastes I experienced still fresh in my memory. Visiting Varanasi was truly like experiencing a work of art. It was not a particular monument, temple, sight or museum that was worth the journey. It’s the city as a whole, as an organic entity, with its people and its buildings, not to mention its culture and traditions, that constitutes a masterpiece of its own.
But Varanasi goes one step further. It’s not just a city-masterpiece like Paris or Venice. Varanasi is special in another way, too. It is imbued with spiritual energy. A spirituality that goes beyond mere religion. As a Christian, I felt more at home in some Hindu temples in Varanasi than in many Catholic churches in Europe. The palpitating heart of the city is therefore not only its artistic soul, but also its profound spiritual power.
I have decided to put together a few thoughts about Varanasi, which – I can confidently say – is one of the most breath-taking places I’ve visited so far. I’ve jotted thoughts and impressions during my stay, keeping a travel diary, and here I have selected a few (the most interesting?) bits.
“Here, everything seems to be permeated by spirituality, and it’s so good to be reminded about God so often, several times throughout your day. He should not be confined to the moments of prayer in the morning and evening (if I remember to have them at all – most of the time I don’t). He should be just present, here and everywhere.”
“In Varanasi, what remained with me the most were the smells: flowers, roses, curry, excrements, vegetables, garlic, incense, stickiness, sweat, all sorts of fragrances. It’s almost as if they cancelled each other, a pestilential smell chasing away a pleasant perfume, and vice versa. I also thought that amidst all this sensorial chaos, there was some sort of order in all of this, and everything and everyone was part of a bigger whole.”
“The cold is fading away, and my time here is becoming more normal, less shocking and more fruitful. I feel I am starting to appreciate things a bit more, to blend in a bit more, and while it’s still very overwhelming most of the time, the soul of the city and its people are starting to shine though. I’m really getting (positively) intoxicated with India and with everything that this culture entails.”
The Ganga by boat
“Eventually, we took off on our boat and we experienced the softness of the Ganga, and the placidity of the view of the ghāts from afar. The sight is so different from simply walking on the ghāts: corpses being cremated lie next to immaculately white sheets and clothes, and children playing next to old men bathing in the river. Kites and storms of birds peppered the blue, cloudless sky, which for the occasion had worn its purest light blue so far. It was incredibly peaceful, and it really gave me an impression of shanty (tranquillity).”
“I was very glad to see with my eyes and to experience some real Hindu devotion, with its loudness and excesses, but also its genuine, admirable faith. Such an in-your-face attitude when it comes to religion is really rare to find in the West. We tend to be ashamed of our religion, instead of making it an essential part of our life. I think this is one of the biggest lessons I have learned here. God does exist, and it’s up to us to let Him into our life. There’s no limit to the extent we can become His – we are indeed His own already, it’s only a matter of going back home.”
“I experienced a lot of beauty, a lot of humanity, and a summa of what it means to be alive. I was here for this reason, and a lot of fresh air is entering my life.”
Life and death
As we were waiting for our lassi (frozen yogurt), several funeral processions passed along, chanting “Rama Rama sattyia he”, “God alone is the truth”, which is one of the very first bits of Hindi I heard when I got here. It sums up the essence of Varanasi perfectly: here life and death coexist, and are celebrated in the same, multisensory and all-pervading way.
* “You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.” – Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris