Crashing Weddings in Varanasi, India
(In this video, you can see the wedding procession I later crashed; it’s filmed from a rickshaw I was riding, that actually crashed into a car midway through the video. I flew off the rickshaw and landed on the ground, hence the several seconds of black in the video, before my friend and tour-mate, Rick, helped me up!)
The first time I went to India was on a tour hosted by GAdventures (Kathmandu to Delhi). I had never visited India before, and honestly never wanted to! I know it sounds crazy, because I’ve visited so many times since this initial trip, but before visiting India for the first time I had some very bad preconceived notions about what India would be like–mainly hot, humid, and dirty. Turns out I was so wrong, and so bigoted!
As I said, I didn’t necessarily have India on my “must see list” of countries, but I ended up visiting in June because the Kathmandu to Delhi trip was one of the last tours GAdventures had with spaces available on my short notice leave (3 days before the tour started). Turns out, the reason the tour was so empty is because NO ONE SANE travels in India in June. It was 120 degrees fahrenheit almost every single day, and didn’t get much lower than about 90 degrees during the evenings and nights. Even though we stayed at fairly decent hotels, there was no escaping the heat, for even the most advanced and modern air-conditioning systems could not stop the heat from seeping into every corner of our hotel rooms, buses, train carriages, and restaurants.
However, as I’ve stated before–even with the unbearable heat, and the accompanying heat rashes and misery–India won my heart. I fell in love with the country completely and utterly unexpectedly. I’ve been visiting often, ever since; so often, in fact, that I have a 15 year tourist visa!
Varanasi was one of the stops along the initial tour I took of India and one of my favorites. There were too many amazing parts of Varanasi to include all in one post–the photos and videos would overwhelm you, much like the city of Varanasi overwhelms those Westerners who visit it for the first time. It is a colorful, insane, holy city, full of life and death (much like the rest of India proper). However, all of these aspects of Indian culture are magnified ten times in this city, as it is one of the most ancient cities in India as well as one of the most holy. If you are unfamiliar with Hinduism and Jainism, Varanasi (also known as Benares, the old British name for the city) is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) and it is believed that a death in Varanasi brings salvation or release from the cycle of death and rebirth. In addition, being cremated here is considered another way to reach salvation, and thus there are tons of crematoriums along the banks of the Ganges river, which runs through Varanasi. The city has also played an important role in the development of Buddhism, being quite close to the place (Sarnath) where Buddha first taught about Dharma. No matter which way you cut it, Varanasi is a spiritual center for a lot of Indians and for a lot of people around the world.
I had a great time in Varanasi, despite the oftentimes overwhelming smell of burning human flesh. I had a great time viewing the city from the river Ganges during our scheduled sunrise and sunset boat trips. I was also able to visit a silk factory in the Muslim quarter of the city, which produces some of the world famous Varanasi silk saris for which the city is renowned.
However–my favorite part of Varanasi was crashing an open air wedding procession in the street outside of the restaurant where our group decided to eat dinner. We were eating at a rooftop cafe, recommended by our guide, when we heard an upcoming wedding procession. In India, weddings are a HUGE deal–multi-day affairs, including painted elephants, grooms on horseback, dancing brass bands, neon signs, and thousands and thousands of wedding guests. No expense is spared, truly, and the entire community is involved in a local wedding! It’s really quite lovely! We had passed this same wedding procession on rickshaws whilst traveling to the restaurant, and when we heard the procession coming around the street corner with their neon lit, colorful signs, full brass band, drums, dancing and horses, our guide looked at us and said, “Do you want to crash a wedding??”. I, never one to turn down an opportunity to crash anything, emphatically said YES, and made everyone else in the group join me as we ran down several flights of stairs to meet the wedding procession as it passed in front of our building.
It was dark outside, probably around 8pm, and the procession rounded the bend as we all (10 of us total) jumped in line and started dancing with wedding guests who were marching and dancing along to the procession’s band of drums and brass. It was amazing–sure I was sweating like a pig in 95 degree heat and 60% humidity, dancing for all my heart, but it was absolutely wonderful! I love to dance and while the more shy members of the group just stood there and gaped at me, I made friends with the wedding guests, stole some dude’s sunglasses, break danced with a few kids in small, tiny suits, and then, finally, met the bride and the groom (along with their parents and family). We all were invited to the wedding, but we had an early morning the next day (for a sunrise Ganges boat ride) so we had to decline.
However, to this day, dancing with the Varanasi wedding procession is one of my favorite memories from that trip to India! I have many more stories from Varanasi (including silk shopping and Ganges boat rides and crematorium visits) but since Varanasi is such an complex and colorful city, I will break the experiences up into multiple posts, as not to overwhelm my readers. 🙂
Tour: GAdventures, Kathmandu to Delhi— $1499 (they no longer run the Kathmandu to Delhi tour, although they run the exact same itinerary, backwards from Delhi to Kathmandu, to which I have linked).
Hotel: Hotel City Inn — $45-50/per night (great hotel, good A/C, Wi-Fi that works and is fast, as well as a good restaurant in the lobby and a beneficial location close to the Varanasi railway station).