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Discovering Varanasi

By Sarah Grimaldi

            Although I visited Agra, Delhi, and Chennai, my most memorable visit in India was the city of Varanasi. Each of these cities gave me a cultural sense of India but Varanasi struck me as the most unique with differences I have never witnessed before. Varanasi is considered a sacred city and is home to the holy Ganges River. As my travel partners and I made our way to the river at 5am, the streets were filled with small tea shops, milk stands, and also several vendors selling goods. As I observed the environment that surrounded me, a parade of men sang a religious song as they walked past me heading to the sacred River Ganges. The Indian people perform ritual baths in this river and bodies are cremated with ceremonial importance. Strikingly there are dead bodies and animals in this same sacred river. My tour guide informed me that even if people become sick from this highly polluted river, they believe that it is sacred and have become sick from some other source. Sickness from the Ganges River is unheard of.

            There was no form of modern infrastructure whatsoever in the city of Varanasi. The stores are shacks with few items to choose from, and the barber shops consist of mirrors hung outside with a chair in front. The smell of mildew reflected the battered- down buildings that surround the city. There were cows, wild dogs, and monkeys roaming the streets and bathrooms seemed nonexistent as the streets seemed to fill its place for the animals and the people. In juxtaposition to these sites was the beautifully decorated temples scattered throughout the city. The people in Varanasi visit their temples and shrines once, twice, or even three times daily.

            As I observed the infrastructure in Varanasi, I reflected on the fact sheet I read about Chennai and Mumbai. What I witnessed in Varanasi is only a small portion of India. Chennai having a surge of foreign investment and Mumbai with its huge entertainment industry and skyscrapers are completely different from this city with hardly a two story building in it. The fact sheet read that Navi Mumbai is one of the largest planned city projects of the world. Varanasi seemed to be completely opposite. The barely paved roads and traffic chaos made it seem even more distant to structured Mumbai.

            As we walked through Varanasi, countless vendors and beggars bombarded us because we were foreigners. What was particularly unique about this situation is that the Varanasi vendors would at first speak to us in a foreign language such as Spanish or   French. This strongly reinforced the idea of globalization and how it affects communication. Not only are multiple languages spoken in important industrial and financial centers, but even in a developing city such as Varanasi at the remote River Ganges. Witnessing the most distant forms of lifestyles and environment I am accustomed to, the city of Varanasi strongly tested my understanding of another culture unlike ever before. I feel I have made an accomplishment by beginning to understand the people of Varanasi through my observations and appreciating it as highly enriched learning experience that I am grateful for.    

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