Monday, November 30, 2009

Varanasi- The Holy City

(As Staci says, Varanasi was a profound experience and doesn't lend itself to joking about. I'll present my review later on but I think Staci's impressions pretty much stand on their own.)

It’s taken a bit of time before I felt ready to capture my memories about Varanasi. It seems like most of us in our group fell pretty silent for this part of the journey.

Varanasi is the holiest of the Hindu cities and is also one of the oldest cities in the world. There is written history that dates back more than 4000 years. Our goal was to see the Ganges river at sunrise and again at sunset. For the sunrise trip we were able to drive pretty close to the old city that led down to the river. Our driver parked as close as he could and then we all got out and walked the rest of the way. It was still dark and we were warned to watch out for cow patties (which is why we were instructed to bring flashlights on the trip - and here I thought those would be for the camping portion). As we walked the narrow walkways toward the river we passed tightly packed small wooden structures where the shop keepers sold their goods. Cows and dogs wandered aimlessly along with women holding babies on their hips and small children begging for money. Even though there were quite a few people it seemed like the only voices heard were those of the hawkers and beggars. Everyone else seemed to be caught up in spiritual quietness.

In single file, our group made its way down a long series of steps and landings to the waterfront where we got into a small boat and were rowed away from the shore. Looking back on the river front we could see many hundreds of people in both directions as far as the eye could reach. A small family sat on the steps together as they performed a ceremony of some sort; several priests performed ceremonies in solitude; a couple of girls helped wash each others hair in the river; an old man with long stringy white hair and beard bathed himself in the water, as did several other people. Men swam across the river and back. Some people threw flowers and/or incense into the river. Over a muted loudspeaker, a yogi called out yoga poses to a group of followers and several people washed clothes, pounding the material against flat stones along the river wall. There was an eerie quiet about it all and everyone along the shore seemed completely caught up in only what they were doing, as if they were the only ones there. As our boat was rowed up and down the river the same scenes play out again and again, until we reached an area much further down the river. As we approached the area we could see a little smoke rising. Our trip leader told us that once we passed a certain marker we were no longer allowed to take pictures out of respect for the families. Even the hawkers who had been coming along side our boat, with their boat filled with goods to sell, stopped and did not bother us as we were in this area. We saw family members stand close to the cremation pyres as they said their final good-bye to a loved one.

After we finished our boat tour we again walked single file up the stairs and through another very old section of the city where the passageways were even more narrow than they had been earlier that morning (that did not seem possible). We passed the shops where fabric was sold that the Hindus use to wrap the dead and shops that sold the flowers that they used to cover the deceased. We also passed a couple shops where men were having all of their hair cut off. It seemed kind of strange to me that they were all going for the same hair style. I was wondering if they were becoming Monks. Later I found out that when a loved one passes away, the eldest son or another appointed male will have their hair cut off as a sign of respect. It is also this person’s duty to care for all the cremation arrangements.

That evening we made our way back toward the bathing ghats. This time the city was much more crowded and we could not drive as close to the Ganges as has we had that morning.  Our driver took us as far as he could and then we took rickshaws the rest of the way in. The rickshaw ride was very entertaining but I really felt sorry for the guy who was peddling the bike with Denny and me in his carriage.

As we got closer and closer to the Ganges river the noise level got louder, the crowds were more densely packed and the air was charged with excitement. Once again in single file, our group made its way down the steps to the waterfront. The beggars and hawkers seemed more persistent this time and I was surprised to see that one of the young girls selling flowers and candles had managed to make her way onto our small boat. We were once again rowed out to the middle of the river where we could look back at the scene we had just left. As the sun set, the river banks took on a whole new look. Candles were lit all up and down the riverfront. There were priests, each on his own altar, one next to the other. They were all performing the same ceremony in unison which included fire, Ganges water and incense. There were bells clanging, chanting, singing, loud speakers blaring, etc… It all seemed like a rather chaotic gathering to me. It wasn’t until we rowed further down the river where it became very quiet, that it seemed like we saw something similar to what we had witnessed during the sunrise trip.

Again we saw smoke rising, but this time it was from several sandlewood fires burning one after another all lined up along the banks of the Ganges River. There we spotted the men who had shaved their heads, each one solemnly standing by a separate fire along with a small group of family members. There were also neatly stacked piles of sandlewood that had not been set on fire yet.  By each of those stacks was a body wrapped in cloth and covered in brightly colored flowers. A small gathering of family members stood by as they waited their turn for the priest to come by and perform the cremation ceremony. When the fires ended and all that was left were ashes, the family man with the bald head would take the ashes down to the river and throw them in. Surrounded by the smoke from the fires, we sat in silence as we watched. Even though it seemed like the family members were not aware of our presence, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on something that was so deeply personal.

As we started our way back to the main festive activities, where the crowds were gathered and several priests performed ceremonies, the young girl who had joined us in the boat gave each one of us a lit candle that sat in a small bowl surrounded by flowers. Vishal explained that we could each make a wish and that when we set the candle bowl in the Ganges River our wish would come true.

Vishal informed us that what we experienced that evening played out every single night in just the same way. He said that the crowds were just as large if not larger and that for many, it would be their first trip to the Ganges River and most likely something they had wanted to do for their entire lifetime. I came away from the experience with mixed emotions and a profound respect and envy for the depth of spirituality the Hindus have.

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