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The Holy City

by Gianelle Alba

India is not one single society. India is made up of so many different cultures, religions, spiritual beliefs, customs and people. One city cannot be compared to the next one. You have to think of India as an eclectic, disorganized place that has a unique rhythm to it.

This past weekend, a group of other study abroad students and I visited Varanasi–the holiest of the seven sacred cities in India–on the banks of the Ganges River.

I noticed very quickly that Varanasi was a place frequently visited by foreigners. We stayed in a hostel which accommodated all eight of us in one room where there were bunk beds and a private bathroom. It was a vibrant place, a homely and peaceful stay for foreigners. The hostel was covered with murals, paintings all over the walls, books visitors left for others to enjoy, and each common room was covered in throw pillows and comfortable cushions for all guests to lounge on. It was a great place to meet people and hear their stories. Some were travelling alone, taking time off their lives to do things they were afraid of, some were studying and many were volunteering all over India.

On our first night, we were taken on a short tour of the city. We walked and weaved through small alleyways and streets that twisted and turned our walk through the city into a walk through a maze, decorated with pictures of deities, garlands and bright lights. Since it was Ganesha’s birthday, Lord of Success, the streets of Varanasi were filled with families gathered to worship him by offering sweets, rupaiya and the constant burning of sandalwood incense. We then were taken to the Ganges (Ganga) River where we embarked on a 2 hour sunset cruise. Coming from the ocean state, anything that involves being on water is automatically a go for me. We floated and glided on the water, passing by the Burning Ghats and men bathing in the waters, paying homage to their ancestors and gods.

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When the sun finally set, we were surrounded by the mystery of the power which the Ganga River is believed to hold. We watched as family members brought the body of a deceased relative to the water. The body was wrapped in cloth and mounted on a stretcher made of bamboo, preparing it for cremation. Initially, I will not deny that I was not sure how to feel about what I was witnessing. I wasn’t afraid or disgusted, but I felt a sense of intrusion on my part, like I was invading the privacy and mourning of a family. However, after having the ritual explained to me, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of peace overcome me. Niravapanjali is a sacred ritual in Hinduism where after the cremation rites, the ashes are ceremonially immersed in holy water by the closest relatives, so that the soul may rise to heaven. Those who die in Varanasi are cremated on the banks of the Ganges, and are granted instant salvation. Other families brought the ashes of their loved ones to the river. I can only imagine how many people venture to this Holy City just to gain salvation for their loved ones’ souls.

The trip was filled with great shopping, visiting of temples and walks through the city. But this trip meant more than just a place to cross off my list while in India. The following night, as I was standing on the roof of the hostel overlooking the city, I came to another realization. Varanasi, and many parts of India, seem disorganized, but have a unique rhythm. To me and other foreigners, India may seem chaotic and hectic. But, as chaotic and disorganized as it first seems to us, everything has a function. Everything interconnects and is indeed well organized in its own way.

Between the foundations of cities in India there are the sounds: cars honking, music, prayers over intercom systems; the smells: sandalwood, car exhaust, spices and ripe fruit; the spirituality and various religions. India is diverse in every sense of the word and unified in the most authentic way

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