Tuesday, February 24, 2009
This past weekend we visited India’s holiest city, Varanasi. It is the home of Lord Shiva and one of the world’s oldest living cities. It is here that Hindu pilgrims come to bath in the Ganges, perform religious ceremonies and even come here to die in hopes of receiving “moksha”, the Hindu liberation from birth and rebirth.
The more we told locals we were going to Varanasi the more warnings we received about our trip…everything from “wear bug repellant each time you step outside” to “don’t eat anywhere outside your hotel” to “don’t talk to anyone who is dressed in religious garb because they are tricking you into giving them money”…needless to say the more I heard the less excited I became about going.
After a very bumpy flight we arrived in Varanasi to find there were no guides available to escort us the next day. We went ahead and booked our driver for a full day of sights and I tried hard to ignore the feeling of uneasiness in my stomach.
Our driver picked us up before 6am and we headed down to the Ganges River to take the sunrise boat ride. As we walked from the van to the river I have to say I was happy for the lack of light…it wasn’t a far walk but it was straight through a little market whose “stores” were nothing more than wooden shacks with dirt floors. Cows, goats, dogs and who knows what else were all milling around and the smell was not the most pleasant. When we reached the Ghats (steps that lead to the Ganges River) we were swarmed by children selling flower lights. These small candles surrounded by flowers are used as an offering to the Ganges River, which in a city full of temples is considered the most sacred place.
It wasn’t until we had gotten into our little wooden boat and out onto the Ganges that I finally felt a little more at ease. The river was quiet and calm and immediately we began to see people bathing and performing rituals in its waters…truly sights to behold. We also saw the Ghats where bodies are cremated in the same way and with the same flame that has been burning for hundreds of years.
After the boat ride we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and then headed out again around 9am to Sarnath. It was in this city that Buddha sat under a Bhodi tree and became enlightened and where he gave his first speech to his disciples. There was a very nice temple and we even got to see the tree, albeit a tree made from a graft of the original tree because I guess it died. Nonetheless it was pretty cool to see the birthplace of a religion.
We then headed back to the hotel for some much needed siestas before our next boat ride to witness the evening rituals. Little did I know that I would need that nap for survival…without it I don’t think I my motor skills would have been up to the challenge of getting to the Ghats.
In the evening they do not allow motor vehicles into old Varanasi…I’m assuming to keep the noise from disturbing the ceremonies. I wish I had some pictures to show you the insanity that we waded through in the 10 minutes it took to get to our destination…but I refused even to take a picture for someone else. I needed to keep one eye on the ground to avoid feces and urine (hopefully just of the cow and dog variety-probably wishful thinking again) and the other eye darting from one direction to the next to avoid being run over by a rickshaw, bicycle, motorcycle or cow. It was a nightmare.
When we finally made it back to the Ghats we found it still filled with the children still selling their flower lights as well as hoards of people making their way down to the Ganges. Again, the uneasiness only subsided when we were back on the boat.
This ease was short-lived as our boatman decided we should take another trip down to the crematory. This time he promised many more bodies as if this would make us want to see it even more. I guess for most of the tourists he meets it is a plus but my heart was heavy as I watched these shrouded bodies dipped into the water by their relatives before being put on the pyre. I won’t say that from a distance it wasn’t fascinating to think how sacred and unchanged this ritual is but I had no interest in intruding on these families at such a private time and when the boatman pulled us up almost to the bank I pleaded that we go back to the other Ghats.
Bearing witness to the evening aarti (prayer ritual) was really astonishing. We have some pretty great video but until we get a replacement cable for the one I left behind in Atlanta (one that I had deemed unimportant) you’ll just have to look at the photos.
There was no way I was walking back through that lunacy so when our boatman suggested a motorized rickshaw I hopped on in. It was a crazy ride but at least I was sure my feet would stay feces/urine free and both my eyes were free to really take it all in.
It is so difficult to explain what it was like to be there and see all that we saw. Unchanged by time, it was like we were watching the living and breathing past.
Through all the crap (both figuratively and literally) we all felt we were really privileged to have observed something this unique and truly special to India.
Posted by MAV at 1:49 AM