Writing and Photography by Haven Lane
“Something, somewhere, is pulling me so violently in it’s direction, that to go any other way would be impossible,” I scribbled into my journal the days before I left my old life. I was writing everyday. Every sunrise and sunset had me salivating and chasing light, and a power bigger than myself kept me full of life, full of motivation, self inspired. Everything seemed a bit more romantic, a night’s drive turned into poetry for me, and sunrise a sacred event. I had been a seeker for a long time, but this was the year in which what I was seeking began to seek me.
When I first came to India, I found myself rejecting the passion which I had been so hypnotized by. I craved presence. I became bitter to the game artists play on social platforms; when you begin to create art for others and no longer for yourself, it ceases to be art. And somewhere along the way, as I lost my art, I began to lose myself.
So, what do you do when you find yourself unfulfilled in the most beautiful places in the world?
You take a deep breath, and then you head to Varanasi.
The Oldest City in the World
India is the mother of wisdom, from her you can learn all things. Here, knowledge is experiential, the yin to the yang of experimental wisdom in the West. Here, to discover the secrets of the universe, all you have to do is look within– and if India is the mother, then the heart of this mother is Varanasi. Fabled to have been created by Lord Shiva 5,000 years ago, locals will convince you that it is the oldest city in the world. Unarguably, Varanasi is timeless, itself an explosion of devotion, color, noise; a chaotic work of art Dali or the Gods themselves could not put on paper.
We arrived after a 30 hour train, full of chai, our bodies atrophied and minds burnt out, to what can only be described as a full power bombardment of light and sound. It takes a certain amount of grit and determination to travel through India, and our arrival in Varanasi seemed to predict hectic days to come. Looking back, this deep dive into disorientation seemed to be more an initiation, our Christening, something like the chaos an infant must experience as he is born into this world, earning the beauty that follows.
Tucked onto a steep embankment on the river Ganga, Varanasi is an urban planning marvel. The city itself is an intricate maze of alleys; no space un-purposed, with a few major roads stuffed with motorbikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows. And so we got lost, lost in the alley ways, lost in the color and the chaos, lost in every moment.
Contrasting the constricted pathways are the wide open ghats, all-purpose stairways leading to the river where anything goes. It’s here on the ghats where you get the profile of Varanasi, boats and temples densely layered into the distance. One can sit for hours on the ghats, watching the world go by. There is always life here; babas, tourists, beggars, children with kites, games of cricket, ceremonies, families bathing, and a thousand men asking if you’d like to take a boat down the river.
Every night on the main ghat one can find the famous aarti, a ceremony of fire for Lord Shiva and the Goddess of the Mother Ganga. The fire signifies a link between this world and the spirit world, and you will find many devotees cupping the fire and touching their foreheads for purification afterwards. Oceans of devotees fill the ghats and pile into boats at the river’s edge to watch. Here, one can’t help but feel connected, the energy tangible in the air as hundreds pour their hopes, fears, and desires into prayer.
A New Day
Eventually I took a small row boat between the two burning ghats, designated areas on the river where the dead are cremated and their ashes swept into the Ganga. While photos are not allowed out of respect for the dead, this is one of the most mesmerizing places to really feel the depth of Varanasi culture. Time stood still for me the first time I sat here, watching a covered body placed on the fire, feeling my own impermanence sink in. Even more humbling was watching the community effort as parades of men carry the bodies, wrapped in silks, chanting and praying as they offer the body to the fire. The beauty of it all is striking. All at once one feels so small, and so large. Each soul so insignificant, and so glorious.
There is nothing like observing death to reignite the fire of life. Here we are, alive and well, ground under our feet and sun overhead. What more could one need? This is the lesson the people of Varanasi teach. It’s proven that wealth and comfort don’t lead to fulfillment, or the ever sought after happiness, and there is no better example than the huge smiles of the barefoot and thriving children of India. Every child seems to have a kite, and is dedicated to the art of kite warfare, spending hours a day playing. Other’s create a game of cricket using pieces of bamboo. For others, life is a game, as they sing their hearts out while they walk up and down the river. Perhaps it’s the secret to life really, to play. Beneath it all, is the lesson of gratitude. When you have less, you are grateful for more. Grateful for a place to sleep, a warm meal, the love of your family. When you have even less than this, you become grateful for a sunny day, grateful for the embrace of a stray dog, grateful for the smile of a stranger.
Like being submerged in the holy Ganga, Varanasi has a way of purifying you. After hearing that call long ago, Varanasi answered with all the lessons I could ever need. The life of the city, raw, real, hectic, and beautiful, is a breath of fresh air, full of inspiration and rejuvenation. If you find yourself lost somewhere in the far East, don’t hesitate to take a deep dive into the indescribable experience which is Varanasi. Take a seat on the ghats, and stay a while.
For more from Haven, you can find her on Instagram @havensway