In his 1897 travel novel “Following the Equator,” Mark Twain remarked, “[Varanasi] is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
My guide, Abhinash, said the same thing. In his unexcited monotone he announced that, though it is rarely credited as such, Varanasi is the world’s oldest remaining city. The history major inside me began to immediately question the veracity of the statement.
“Isn’t it Damascus, or Alexandria?” I wondered out loud. My aunt, who lives in India, chided me, and insisted that India is the cradle of civilization. She was right — Wikipedia later confirmed that it dates back to the 12th century B.C.
Varanasi, also called Benares or Kashi, is known as the religious capital of Hindu India. Located in northern India, it rests on the left bank of the holy Ganges River. To devout Hindus, the Ganges is seen as a sacred river, and any town or city on its bank possesses an auspicious air. However, Varanasi is of special significance; it is believed that Lord Shiva created the town, and it is where he stood when time began ticking for the first time.
Furthermore, many believe that to die here on the banks of the Ganges is an assurance of attaining moksha, a state of heavenly bliss and emancipation from the eternal cycle of birth and death. As a result, many Hindu pilgrims come to the city to spend their last days along the Ganges.
But there’s more to Varanasi than just death. The inherent spirituality does not, by any means, equal tranquility. It’s a cacophony of auto-rickshaw horns, angry cows wading in traffic, buzzing motorbikes and swirls of dust and more dust. The smell of exhaust fumes, chai and curry, plus the occasional waft of incense, intermingle and create a tiring, somewhat toxic fume. The first time I exited the car, my mind raced through the possibilities. What if a motorcycle ran over my foot? Or if a cow charged me? Neither was out of the realm of possibility, and both (almost) ended up happening.
My trip to India had thus far revolved around such concerns. Not having been in 10 years, and traveling without any immediate family, my regular level of neurosis had spiraled out of control. I was constantly worried about pickpockets, traffic and the efficiency of domestic airports; I even had two nightmares of malaria.
I continued to Varanasi in this mindset. The city center was incredibly packed, what felt like thousands of people jockeying for a few inches of road. This was not the India of techie call-center employees and upwardly mobile professionals to which I had grown accustomed. Varanasi is far less globalized and cosmopolitan than many other Indian metropolises. Mumbai might have its Bollywood stars and Delhi its politicians, but Varanasi has its crumbling riverside palaces and temples, and of course, the dead.
The nature of stress was different here. I wasn’t confronted with issues of safety or missed flights. I was confronted by how little I know about India and faith. For so long I had fallen into superficial criticisms of India often espoused by the Indian Diaspora. It took Varanasi—its deeply intense spirituality, its multitude of cremations, its dirty, narrow streets—to force me to recognize the complexity of my relationship with India.
The day I arrived, my aunt told me that Hindus search through meditation for “bliss through nothingness.” That concept seemed hard to grasp in Mumbai and Delhi, with their high skyscrapers and intense, commercial ethos. In Varanasi, though, it made sense. Symbolically, the far side of the Ganges, where Varanasi is located, is said to be devoid of desire and ego and grasping, because — well, there’s really not much there. I’m a long way from such a condition, but for the first time I was able to recognize this concept of “bliss” that Indians so often speak of. While Varanasi is the city of death, it had the opposite effect for me. After my two days there, I walked away feeling fully arrived, making my exit from Varanasi with a renewed energy to find my own bliss from nothingness.