Varanasi

Another overnight train brought me to one of my favorite places on the globe: Varanasi, the spiritual (and madness) capital of India. This was the third time I have been able to visit Varanasi and if I could somehow make this my local weekend getaway I definitely would. It’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (founded by none other than the Hindu God Shiva) and nowhere else on Earth can you so easily rub elbows with people who are basically about as different from you as is conceivably possible. 

People come here to pay homage to the Ganges River, the most sacred river for all Hindus and the main hangout for Sadhus, the ‘holy men’ who have given up all of their worldly possessions to worship next to the sacred waters.  As you might expect, this process also involves growing a sweet beard and impressive dreadlocks, while smoking boatloads of hash.  Less logically, it can also involve covering your entire body with ashes, sometimes the ashes of human remains.  This, and most other baffling rituals on open display here, goes straight over my head.  

It is said that if you are cremated on the banks of the Ganges you will skip the pesky reincarnation process Hindus are privy to and go straight to Nirvana.  This means that there are some pretty graphic funeral processions around town and large open fires cremating bodies are burning around the clock.  It’s a heavy atmosphere around the burning ghats, but it certainly adds to the WTF factor.   Also, I wouldn't recommend looking too closely at anything floating downstream of these ghats (in the same waters used routinely for bathing, washing, and drinking) because I have a few images burned in my brain that I wish I could somehow un-see.