In the weeks leading up to my departure for India, I tried to mentally prepare by releasing my expectations of what India was going to be—I knew that there was no way that I could accurately imagine what it would be, so it would be better to simply arrive as a blank slate—open-minded and ready to take it all in. Of course, I learned pretty quickly that I had not at all succeeded in dismantling my expectations, because in the first few days, they were continuously overturned.
By the end of February, I had mostly forgotten those early, disproven assumptions, since they’d been largely overridden by my actual experiences here. But upon arriving in Varanasi, they all came flooding back—because suddenly I was living them. Narrow streets crowded with street food vendors and bustling with people; cows roaming mildly among pedestrians and rickshaws; sadhus clothed in orange or nothing at all, praying by the river. The city was beautiful and disorienting, a seeming chaos with something to see every direction I looked.
We rose early the first morning of our stay to see the sunrise over the Ganga; we hired a boatman to row us to the opposite shore, from where we watched the bright colors of the ghats on the opposite bank slowly coalesce through the haze of the morning fog. We spent most of the day walking up and down the ghats, and in the evening we watched the Aarti Ceremony, a daily ritual of fire and light, at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
On Saturday, our group split up, with a few people going to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela, and the rest of us visiting the archaeological sites at Sarnath, about an hour outside Varanasi. Sarnath is the site at which the Buddha gave his first sermon after becoming Enlightened; there are several enormous brick stupas to honor the site, in addition to a beautiful temple and a sacred Bodhi tree. We also visited the famous Sarnath museum, where artifacts from the many excavations of the site have been preserved. It was a peaceful, slow-paced day, a welcome relief from the hectic excitement of Varanasi.
On Sunday morning we visited Ramnagar Fort, across the river from the ghats; the weather was overcast and drizzling, only the second bout of rain we’ve experienced throughout our entire time in India. The coolness was refreshing after the near 100-degree heat of Hyderabad, and no one complained of the showers.
In the afternoon, a small group of us headed to a village called Sarai Mohana; we were hoping to see traditional silk production techniques. The village was quiet; women sat on the porches of brightly-colored buildings, weaving what appeared to be soccer nets (but were more likely for fishing) and nodding friendly and slightly confused “Namaste”s to us as we walked by. As we wandered, looking for looms and silks, we heard the sound of drumbeats and singing, and moments later, a group of women dressed in beautifully embellished sarees and one in an ornate red veil appeared from a side street—it was a wedding procession. We moved to the side of the street to allow them to pass, but the women gestured insistently that we join them, and suddenly we were in the middle of the crowd as it moved through the village streets. We danced to the enthusiastic music of the drums, and as soon as the dancing ended and we made to leave, we were ushered into the house of the bride’s family and served the most delicious gulab jamun I’ve ever had. The room was crowded with family members and wedding guests, eagerly introducing themselves and taking selfies with us. They insisted we return in the evening for the ceremony, but we had other plans and our other friends to return to; we thanked them profusely for their generosity and excused ourselves as politely as we could manage.
On Sunday evening, excitement was already building for the festival that would commence in the morning, Mahashivaratri; the streets were crowded with festival goers, some already lining up to visit the famous Vishwanath Temple in the morning, some beginning the 125 km devotional route that they would walk all night. In the morning, some of the franticness had died down but the crowds had not, and we only managed to navigate our way to the temples we had planned to visit with the help of a pair of very friendly locals. That was the theme of our time in Varanasi, really—friendly strangers, excited to show their city to a group of eager foreigners, talking to us about themselves and their culture, and helping us find our way through a place that seemed bewildering to us, but to them was simply home.