Passion Points: Learning
Twenty-year-old Indagare member Ritchey Howe is on a gap year before starting at Harvard in the fall. After spending three months in Paris she is currently in India and writes in about her impressions.
“India seems to be at a cultural crossroads. The country is emerging as an economical force, a manufacturing competitor with China, while simultaneously holding onto traditional social and religious values. When I flew into Delhi, I didn’t immediately feel as though I was in India. I was surrounded by other Western tourists, I drove by a McDonald’s, and saw advertisements for familiar brands such as Jockey and Subway. The larger cities within India have grasped, or have possibly been grasped by, Western influences.
“Varanasi, or Benares, is different. It is a true Indian city where the Hindu and Muslim religions simultaneously flourish. Every morning along the ghats (steps that lead down to a river) I see Hindus of all ages washing in the murky, polluted, yet extremely holy Ganga River. There are depictions of various Hindu gods grafittied on city walls, and almost every weekend there is some sort of religious festival that entails blasting music throughout the night and dancing in the streets. Within the Muslim neighborhoods of Varanasi the call to prayer from the muezzin can be heard at various times throughout the day and night, and women stroll the fabric markets donned in black burkas despite the city’s heat.
“While there are not many museums or sights to see within Varanasi, walking along the ghats of the Ganga River continues to excite me. Hindus travel for miles to receive the benefits of submerging within the divine water, or to cremate their deceased love ones on the banks. However, this hallowed river is infested with sewage, trash, and other mysterious substances. One morning, I decided to walk in silence and contemplate the spiritual power of the burning ghat, where the cremations occur. There were enormous piles of wood, and ashes still smoldering from the night before, and everywhere I looked there were various pieces of trash (including lots of Coca Cola bottles). It appeared more like a landfill than a holy place of death rituals. I desperately tried to see something spiritual rather than the daily mess of an Indian city. Varanasi remains the holy city of India yet it cannot help but face the consequences of globalization.
“As a New Yorker, I felt confident that I could meander through the streets of Varanasi. However, there is very little that can prepare one for the ever-present large cows and bulls, sleeping dogs, whizzing motorcycles, and honking auto-rickshaws. While dodging these various obstacles, I cannot help but smile. This is real India! There are few tourist groups and even fewer Westerners here, only two coffee shops, and no souvenir shops.
“Varanasi is not a city for those who want to experience a romantic India. It is a real Indian city where one can witness true Indian lifestyles, which can include throwing trash into the river or hitting cows to get them to move out of the street. But we travel so that we can be exposed to new customs and learn. For my desires, Varanasi is perfect. Spending time in a city that is so different from my own is enriching. It is the true, dirty, bustling, somewhat confused, traditional, and ever-beautiful India.”
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