Our Most Challenging Trip: Varanasi, India

Missy and I have seen a lot of the world, including many 3rd world countries, and it’s pretty difficult to give us culture shock… But that is exactly what happened on this life-changing adventure…

We’d been trekking through India for more a little more than a week, dressed traditional in Indian clothes, eating the local food, experiencing the local customs and taking in the EXTREMES of this fascinating culture; from the most spectacular opulence of the Taj Mahal, to the most intense poverty in the back streets and alleys of Dehli… But nothing could prepare us for what we’d experience in Varanasi.

We arrived at dusk, checked into our modest hotel and walked through the alleys to the Ganges River … Literally stepping over people who had made the journey of hundreds of miles on foot to lay down and die on the banks of the holy river.

watching the bodies burn

watching the bodies burn

When we reached the riverbank, we paid a young Indian man the few rupees required to board his creaky boat and row out to get a better view of the age-old ritual that was happening all around us; the priests at the many Ghats (temples) along the river were burning piles of human bodies to ashes. The remains of the bodies were put in boxes and handed to loved ones, who would row out and sprinkle the ashes into the river. Or if the deceased was poor and had no family, the priests would dump the ashes unceremoniously into the Ganges…

We watched in amazement from the boat for a while, then we walked along the shore, speechless and mesmerized, weaving in and out of the crowded funeral pyres, watching the bodies burn well into the evening. That is how our time in Varanasi began…

But the next day was literally the most intense travel day of our lives… (continued under the photos)

Our day began with a boat cruise on the Holy Ganges. Missy was sick, which is simply unavoidable in this country if you choose to eat the local food, but she was a serious trooper and braved the odorous, choppy river waters in spite of being REALLY uncomfortable.

The Ganges is grey from the filth of the city that runs into it, the ashes of dead bodies, and the occasional animal carcass floating by… Yet all along the banks of the river, you can see devout Hindus bathing, brushing their teeth and chanting prayers in the water. The sights, smells and sounds are SO INTENSE – we had never experienced anything like it. It was simply an amazing, mind-boggling morning.

And then the real fun began…

We were traveling with Jeff and Gungani (one of my best friends and his Indian wife). They asked if we’d like to go to the holiest temple in India, the great Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Shiva, the Lord of the Universe, a place where only Hindus are allowed to go. Are you kidding me?! OF COURSE, we are IN!

Our friend, Jeff, had converted to Hindu in order to marry Gunjani, so the only hurdle was to convince the guards brandishing machine guns that Missy and I were somehow worthy to enter the temple. We left that to Gunjani… And after a heated argument with the armed guards at the first check point, she convinced them that Jon was Jeff’s brother and therefore Hindu by relation… Nice!

Thinking we were home free, we removed our shoes, left our cameras, cell phones and bags with the guards. After a thorough body search, we started down the unbelievably crowded, narrow alleys that lead toward the temple.

As we walked bare foot in the gray sludge running over the cobble stones through the pungent smell of the alleys, more and more people, priests, pilgrims, and cows flooded in, packed like sardines. Not realizing that we were still very from the temple, we were stopped again by guards protesting that we were not Hindu and again Gungani convinced them after much yelling and waving of guns.

Varanasi alley

Varanasi alley

The farther we went down the zigzag streets, being pushed and pulled by the mob, the smaller the alleyways became and the more the intense the smell (of, I’m sorry to report, human and animal feces). We were being smashed by the crowd to the point where we could no longer look down and see our feet, we could only feel the sludge we were smelling squish between our toes. At this point, my poor wife was struggling not to hurl.

After a few more chaotic zigzags shoulder to shoulder with thousands of Hindus and dozens of cows, we were stopped and pulled aside a third and final time by armed guards. This interrogation took the longest and we thought for sure we would not be admitted into the temple. But Gunjani refused to give in and she got into a serious screaming match, arguing louder and more feverishly than ever and again convinced the armed guards that we were all in deed Hindu by relation. Unbelievable!

We could see the solid gold spire of the temple now, but were barely moving in the mob. As we were being pushed and pulled, we finally got to the entrance of the holy place, hanging onto each other so as not to get separated. As we passed through the first of the tiny stone rooms, we could barely breathe due to the intense odor and the sheer amount of bodies packed inside.

We finally made it to the inner sanctum, where a small gray-haired, face-painted priest wearing a loin cloth sat in the grey sludge that was flowing out of the holy Linga, chanting and blessing each pilgrim that passed by. As we were pushed closer we realized that he was scooping up a handful of the gray sludge that we had been walking in and wiping it on each forehead of the visitors while chanting his blessings. Each Hindu getting blessed would pour a small vessel of milk or a small amount of ashes from a loved one on the Linga – which was what made up the gray sludge. As the mob pushed forward, Missy and I got our turn to have our foreheads smeared by the kindly priest, who blessed us both (we needed a good blessing at that point). I thought for sure Missy would not make it out with out barfing on the holy man, which would not have been good, but she made it – and we retreated to a side hall where we could catch our breath…

We just both stood there looking at each other like, “Holy sh*t! What just happened to us?!” It was an experience we will NEVER FORGET. We just laughed, because we couldn’t think of anything else to do.

At the Taj Mahal

At the Taj Mahal

Though I must admit that this was not our most pleasant travel adventure, we would not trade that day in Varanasi for ANYTHING! We saw something few westerners will ever see and our lives are richer because of it. We’ve reminisced about that day countless times since then and we’ll remember it forever.

The pictures above are from this amazing trip (unfortunately, they took our cameras, so we we not able to photograph much of the temple experience, though you can see the temple alley BEFORE it got crowded:-)

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