Darkness and Light — A Night in Varanasi

How do you find words to describe a city that is two thousand years old? Where spirituality mingles with revulsion. Where the engorged Ganges river floods homes of gentle sweet people trying to survive. Where streets are filthy with garbage, enormous cows stand motionless for hours and tuktuks spewing exhaust fumes pollute the air. And where a dark-skinned low caste man like Pramod Sahani is able to laugh when he talks to us about the dreadful living circumstances of him and his family.

One day in this city has brought up every emotion for me. There were times I felt like throwing up at the stench and disgust and at the same time wanting to weep with the enormity and overwhelming feelings from the inspirational sights and sounds.

We started the day in a coffee shop with Pramod, a new friend who was introduced to us by a mutual friend in Thailand, and ended it on the river Ganges, sitting on a makeshift wooden boat alongside floating garbage and a rat which made its way across the rope to our vessel.

Pramod had brought us to see the ceremony which takes place every night where groups of Brahmins chant while they play drums, gongs, and bells in a blessing for the ancient Pramod and meGanges.

It was just the three of us – along with a young fellow named Babu, who’d decided to tag along – and what began as a disgusting wade through knee-deep raw sewage turned into an hour unlike any I’ve ever known. Smoke and incense rose from the burning urns which were whirled in the air by the Brahmins on the rooftop next to us, and the hypnotic vibration of the drums drew me into a meditational state.

Alongside our boat, a reed thin dark skinned Indian with a long grey beard and draped in bright orange robes clambered from vessel to vessel till he reached a house which was half submerged, and two men hauled bucket after bucketful of black polluted water from inside their boats.

There was nobody else in sight. The immense crowds on the road had faded into the distance as we sat on the dark river and watched fire light up the night sky and rose petals being flung into the black water.

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An hour later it was over. We waded back through the water – Pramod holding my hand, watching carefully that we were safe – and we mingled with the heaving mass of people packing the winding streets on foot, moto, tuktuk and bicycle.

It was one night. A night like every other in Varanasi –where rain, flood, famine and death hold hands in a dance of life, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

For me, it was a night that will live in my memory for a lifetime and I know this jumble of wondrous, disgusting, beautiful, filthy, gentle and distressing images will remain vivid, sensual and indelible forever.

      6 comments

      • Anisha Patel

        Great story! You are so brave Gabi!

      • Christine Vella Borda

        Dear Gabi, God be with you because you need it. My son had been to there doing voluntary work he stayed for three months. I must be honest here, I was against it because he has health problems and I was terrified that he will end up in hospital there. On his return he had this to say, “whatever I see and do from now on, I will never take anything for granted anymore”.
        take care Gabi and I will also promise both of you my prayers. xxx

      • Theresa Hickey

        I am missing “the meanderthals” today. I think it may have been that photo of you, Gabi, with Babu that made me tear up a little remembering all the things you are–all the things you are becoming. All these things that I fondly remember–your capacity to adapt, your gentle and kindred spirt–you are now bringing these gifts to others along your journey. You tell friends and family how much you learn from your newfound friends no matter where you are , and, of course, that is true, but how grateful these new people in your life will be to get to know you. There is only one Gabi. Hugs, Terri

      • Amazing stuff gabi. I felt both their and glad I wasn’t. Me and the rest of Cambodia miss you guys.

      • Norgie

        Dear, dear Gabi,

        I have just written a reply to Skip which is meant to be a reply to you as well.
        Your optimistic spirit of adventure is amazing to behold! I have no desire to follow in your footsteps, but I am grateful to you for allowing me to experience your travels vicariously. I am happy to be in my safe, clean home but I am also happy for you that you are able to live your life to the fullest. May your travels continue to enrich your lives!

        Happy travels and be safe!
        With love and hugs, Norgie

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