As I sit in the dark, I watch in awe as seven priests ring bells as they each hold large candle holders containing over 100 lit candles. The holder appears to be engulfed in flames as large billows of smoke from the candle holders fill the air. As the bells ring, people sing and chant along with the priests. This is Aarti, the nightly Hindu celebration. I look down from where I am sitting, and see hundreds of people – most are sitting on the steps of the Ghats, while others are watching the celebration in boats, floating on the Ganges River.
I am told that most, if not all the people celebrating Aarti are pilgrims who have travelled all across India to be in the holiest city – Kashi, also known as Varanasi.
As I listen to the bells, I don’t feel closer to the Hindu Gods, but I can’t believe that I am in this city and I am glad I came. However, I didn’t feel this way a few hours earlier.
When I arrived in Varanasi, I was more than content to stay under the sheets in the bed in my hotel room. I was exhausted, not only from travelling but from the hot and humid weather. I wasn’t looking forward to visiting Varanasi, as I only heard bad things about the city. I heard stories about how a foreigner a day goes missing in the city, I heard about dead people floating in the Ganges River and I heard that the city was even dirtier than Delhi. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to exploring the city and would be happier in the comfort of my hotel room.
However, when my tour guide came to pick up me and my friend Jess later in the day, I decided to venture out. I decided this wasn’t going to be for my benefit, but our tour guide was very persistent, so I thought I would appease him.
Our guide Aman took us to the centre of the city, where hundreds of people surrounded our little car. I sighed and thought this was going to be hell. I was done navigating through hundreds of people, motorbikes and cows. However, Aman led us through a small walkway. The lane was so narrow that only two people could pass each other by comfortably. As we walked through the alley, I saw little shops and watched how the locals lived and interacted with each other.
Eventually, we made our way to an opening from the alley way.
“This is the real India,” Aman said.
I looked around as I stood on top of the steps of the Ghats. I looked down the steps and could see the steps for miles, winding between the towering three and four story buildings and the mighty Ganges River. I could also see hundreds of people – some gathering on the steps for Aarti, the nightly religious ceremonies; while others were in wooden boats on the river, while others were swimming in the brown water.
As I walked down the steps, I couldn’t believe that there was a sense of calmness despite the hundreds of people who were gathering on the steps. There were so many people. Aman said some people were pilgrims who wanted to cleanse themselves in the holy water of the Ganges, while others were there to cremate their loved ones so that the deceased could go to heaven.
I listen to the bells and singing and I am thankful that I left my hotel room. I have come to realize that the stories I had heard about Varanasi were not true. The lanes were not dirty, and although there were crematorium on the steps of the Ghats by the Ganges River, people were not carrying severed limbs around the lanes. I actually felt safe among the pilgrims and I realize I am smiling. I know that in this moment I am changing – as I decided to explore the city and make my own judgements about a place instead of listening to false stories.
Although I didn’t want to visit the city, Varanasi was actually my favourite place to visit. I have learned not to prejudge a place until I visit it, as it may turn out to be amazing.