Before coming to Varanasi, I was trying to prepare myself for a culture and city very much different to the one of my own. I read blogs of friends who had studied abroad there previously, read a bit of the history of the city and even looked up videos about Varanasi. However, those materials were from the experiences of others. What I expected of Varanasi and what I have experienced so far are slightly different. While there were multiple things I expected, but now I will only touch on a few aspects with a few recommendations at the end.
A city with over one million people is small?
No matter the population size, people had described Varanasi to me as being a “small town” or at least feeling like one. However when I arrived to the Program House, which was one hour away from Varanasi’s own airport, Varanasi seemed huge. There was a vast amount of people in what seemed to be small spaces. How was I supposed to remember where to go? Would I ever truly know Varanasi? Where most of the people in the program live is the southernmost ghat, or stairway leading to the Ganga, called Assi Ghat. Today this ghat’s name translates into 80 as there is believed to be 80 ghats in Varanasi. It is also where the Assi River meets the Ganga. That area alone was a maze to me. Thankfully as time went on, I am now seeing what people mean about the small town feel. You can make a large city feel small and the area of Assi Ghat is starting to feel like my own neighborhood.
Bikes and autos and cows! Oh my!
I also expected traffic to be a bit busy, but was no way close to what I expected. There were bikes, cows, rickshaws, the sound of horns and everything else in between. At first, I was a bit taken aback. I figured it would be a week until I was run over by an auto rickshaw. You had to look up to make sure you see the traffic but while also looking down to avoid pot holes and cow droppings. I have seen people reading and texting on their phones while walking along the street. I asked myself how people could ever do this? Now, I find myself going through traffic easily and seeing the patterns and flow of this seemingly chaotic city. It’s a bit fun to cross the street now.
However, the biggest thing that I noticed is how people described this city as the “holiest city in India.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I had only a grasp on what a few of the gods and goddesses names were in the Hindu religion. I did not have a clue how much Shiva influenced this city or how the myth and reality of Varanasi started to flow together. Now, I begin to see it. The devotion of a large portion of the people in Varanasi – whether it be Hindu or Muslim – is strong. There are temples and mosques in many places of the city. Each street and landmark seems to have stemmed from some religious background. After a few classes about Varanasi and its religious significance, I have begun to see just how important this city is to people. The Ganga (Ganges), specific placement of the temples and even the various names of Varanasi are important to the people who live and make the pilgrimage here.
What to do before Varanasi?
Now, Varanasi is a city that affects each person differently. What I would recommend to people before coming to Varanasi is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. My expectations have been changed and my views challenged. Varanasi is very different than what I am used to in the U.S., but coming with the mindset that it’s ok with me that things are different has prepared me for a lot that India has thrown my way. There are many clashing juxtapositions of worlds and realities here that to describe all what I want someone to be prepared to see would take too long for this simple blog post.
There are so many things that I thought Varanasi would be beforehand. Some expectations were met and some were completely off. However, Varanasi does not disappoint in bringing something new to my experience in India every day. I am excited to see what more this lively city will bring.