The foreigners that call India's holiest city home | Asia Pacific

The foreigners that call India's holiest city home

The foreigners that call India's holiest city home

Updated 27 August 2013, 13:15 AEST

The ancient city of Varanasi is known as the religious capital of India.

It is here that many come to die as they believe their deaths lead to salvation from the rebirth cycle.

Many foreigners have also made the holy city their home.

Presenter:Murali Krishnan

Speaker: Paul Drillsma and Christopher Burchett, Varanasi residents; Bhindeshwar Pathak, sociologist and philanthropist

KRISHNAN: The crowded streets and chaos is everywhere when one enters Varanasi. Travelling into the old city could be more problematic. It is a maze of buildings, temples and narrow streets teeming with thousands of pilgrims and tourists, many who go to the ghats or steps leading to the Ganges river to take their holy dip.

Varanasi is one of those cities which claim to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, along with Hebron, Jerusalem and Damascus. And looking at the town -battered and crumbling with antiquated infrastructure, it's not hard to believe.

Apart from the regular rush of pilgrims, this seat of Hinduism has also its fair share of westerners. They have been so much inspired by Indian culture that many of them have made Varanasi home.

BURCHETT: Varanasi of 40 years ago is entirely different to the one we have today. There is a peculiarity to Varanasi (Benares). It's a kind of laid back carefree life people used to live or lead here. Benares used to be the seat of learning.

KRISHNAN: Christopher Burchett, originally from the UK has been living here for nearly 40 years when he came here as a youth for a holiday. He stayed back, married an Indian and now has grandchildren.

Many say the city's spiritual heritage has left a deep impact on the minds of foreigners.

Burchett again…

BURCHETT: When I first came here I didn't imagine or conceive of staying here for a lifetime. Quiet honestly, it has been my home for 37 years and I can't imagine living anywhere else.

KRISHNAN: Those who stay here say Varanasi offers the kind of freedom- both artistic and religious - which no other Indian city offers. Some foreigners have learned Sanskrit, the literary and scholarly language, practice learning the tabla, the Indian percussion instrument or picking up Hindustani classical music.

So does Varanasi offer so much that foreigners from all over the world want to come here?

Paul Drillsma is from Australia.

DRILLSMA: I mean there are so many things.., I mean there is the river Ganga is a very special river and it has a special reverence for Hindus and other people. It is just an enjoyable place to be for a Westerner. It is so vibrant and colorful. Sometimes I explain to my friends it's like a 24-hour circus here. You know there is so much going on in the markets and the old city is beautiful. I say to people you can spend three years walking the old city and you can never find every niche and you would never find every shiv lingam…( the deity of Lord Shiva) there are so many.

KRISHNAN: But despite its spiritual appeal and being one of the most visited pilgrimages of the world, Varanasi has over the years fallen to neglect. Despite the relevance of the location for Hindus, environmentalists for years have tried to stop the religious rites being carried out on the Ganges River. Remains of burnt corpses are scattered about the river - whether they are fully cremated or not.

Commercialization of religion too has become rampant.

Mr Burchett mourns this fact.

BURCHETT: The Benares of 40 years ago was something else. Today it is highly commercialized and the spirituality you may find here… from my perspective it is highly commercialized.

KRISHNAN: Even Bindeshwar Pathak, a philanthropist who runs a few charities in Varanasi believes that the city is a magnet only for select foreigners.

PATHAK: They must ne spiritual persons. Commercial people can't stay in Varanasi. So those who are spiritual from other countries, they would like to settle here because this place is holy and you will find spiritual and learned people and you can talk to them. The moment you see the Ganga ghat, you will get some vibrations… some divinity coming from above. So only that type of persons can settle here.

KRISHNAN: Despite the many problems that plague the city, it still is a draw for foreigners and will continue to play a large role in the religious practices of Hindus, especially those in search of deliverance.

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