The Rat has arrived! And instead of easing him into India slowly, our first stop is Varanasi. One of the most vibrant, spiritual and unbelievably indiscreet places on the planet. A very camp New Yorker we met in Jodhpur described it as “A fricking cess pool! But sooo spiritual!” And now I understand what he means. People come from far and wide to wash a lifetime of sins away in the sacred River Ganges. How this doesn’t result in mass polio though is completely beyond me. People bathe next to sewage and bloated dead dogs not to mention the human ashes floating down from the burning ghat just a few hundred metres away.

Varanasi has been known at times as ‘The City of Life’ and is considered one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. India is the birth place of many of the worlds major religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. I have never witnessed such an incredible faith in God as I have in India, I am yet to meet one person who doesn’t have a faith. Religion runs though people here like a stick of rock so the concept of Atheism is alien to most. I think a faith this strong explains their liberating stance on life and death; life is a gift and death is a passageway to a new life.

As a westerner, this philosophy is difficult for me to digest as I don’t know how I could ever perceive death as anything other than devastating. But whilst standing at the burning ghat, relatives weren’t mourning, it seemed to me that death to them wasn’t sad. Again, I think it comes down to the faith that their loved ones are still on a journey, they have just completed this section and moved onto the next.

I met an adorable Buddhist monk on a bus one day and when I asked about his family he explained that the only people left are himself and his parents. His brother, sister, aunties and uncles were all killed during the Kathmandu earthquakes. I was so shocked hearing this but when I expressed my sadness he smiled and said “life is a gift, we rejoice what we have”. Even though I am atheist (sorry mum) I am very open minded and see how powerful faith is.

These are Sadhus, India’s wandering holy men. They have left their families and possessions and now lead a life of celibacy and ascetic yoga in the search for enlightenment.

Sadhus have been known to ‘curse’ individuals and families and if one is to appear at a Hindu wedding this can be seen as unlucky as they represent celibacy and infertility. To avoid their curse, families part with huge amounts of money. Faith or fake: you decide. I find them so endearing but creepy, but then I would have reservations about anybody who uses human ash like talcum powder.

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