Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Holy, holy, holy - the Ganges and venerable Varanasi!

Nov 22nd. Arrived in the holy city of Varanasi at 5:30am. Everyone just ever so slightly knackered! Jumped into a few handy rickshaws and headed to the hotel; "Hotel Temple on the Ganges" to be precise. Location is everything of course so just as our experience in Agra (which was 2.5 seconds from the Taj!); we found ourselves right next door to Assi Ghat, one of the more famous of the hundred ghats (meaning literally "steps leading to water") which can be found all along the banks of this holy river. Our rooms weren't quite ready so we took a democratic decision (ok, ok.. there were a few grumblers but in polite fashion, we ignored them!) and decided to head out for a sunrise boat trip along the Ganges (which is one of THE things to do when visiting Varanasi!).
Check out Helen and I looking "oh, so awake" this morning (not!).

What an amazing and beautiful experience. All of us sitting in this over-sized wooden row boat with two lovely boatmen rowing us up and down the holy river (gosh, that sounds very colonial of me! Not meant to!). There was such a hive of activity along the river bank. It's hard to imagine unless you have visited here I think...over 60,000 people a day make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to make their morning ablutions in the sacred waters! This number represents residents of the city itself but also many pilgrims from all over India.
From brahmin priests offering puja (prayers) to people brushing their teeth, from full-on morning baths being taken, to swimmers doing laps across the river and back to shore - we saw it all. Men bathing in tiny traditional shorts; a tad strange considering Indian people's modest views about showing alot of skin in public! Women bathed separately from the men but again, we saw much more skin than we were used to in other parts of India. (yes, i know that might sound a bit wierd.. we weren't being dodgy, but you couldn't help but notice as you sailed past). Mind you, of the people bathing or doing their morning yogic routines; some waved and smiled at us, others completely ignored us. Either way, they seemed pretty used to this strange spectacle taking place during the early morning! We also saw a number of women with shaved heads. These were pilgrims from the south of India who have had prayers answered and so in thanks, they shaved their heads! In addition, we saw tons of washing being done - from saris to jeans, to hotel sheets and individuals doing their own weekly wash!

Each ghat is paid for and representative of different states around the country, and Mahindra explained to us that he could tell where a pilgrim was from based on their clothes, esp. sari colour and the way it was worn, and of course which ghat they frequented! As we sat in the boat, watching the world go by, we lit candles in the dawn, and let them sail down the mighty Ganges, as millions of people had done before us, and I'm sure millions will do after us too! One very interesting note; many holy men (sadhus as I'm sure you remember!) practice their meditating while swimming in the Ganges. One such man was completely underwater apart from his nose and feet; another floated while he "oommmmmmmed" his way down river. Amazing! As was the incredible sun itself when it finally rose to bathe all of us in a vibrant burnt orange... really really gorgeous!

Some other facts about India in general.. did you know 38% of the Indian population lives on less than $1 a day? That is quite a shocking statistic when you keep hearing about the increasing wealth here and the fact India is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world.. hmmn dont think the trickle down effect has begun yet, at least not to the regular man or woman on the street! And regarding the holy Ganges itself; there are over 30 sewers that flow into it every day, and according to the Lonely Planet, a "safe" level for bathing is 500 fecal particles per some measurement (can't remember this part!). Needless to say, when tested, the Ganges had 1.5 million particles for that same measurement... hmmnn maybe not the safest option for us wimpy westerners.

We had much discussion about this particular point.. Mahindra explained to us that Hindu people believe that the calcium that leaks into the water from all the bodies that are burned on the banks of the Ganges and then their ashes are tossed into it, helps clean the water and make it safe to drink. In addition, there are some other rules which determine who is cremated and who is not. Anyone who has died and is under the age of 16; anyone who has died of a snake bite or of leprosy; holy men (who are never cremated i dont think), all of these groups do not have their bodies burned. They have a special ceremony and their bodies are weighted down and sunk to the bottom of the river. Mahindra demonstrated his confidence in the water by leaning over the side of the boat and taking a big drink! Now I wasn't in the slightest bit squeamish about this although some folks couldnt believe Mahindra could do this. But the whole point is, it is all about blind faith (and we all have it in our lives in many different ways, from religions to morals/values etc. that we believe in). Who are we to say it is disgusting and wrong and "how could anyone bathe and wash their dishes here, never mind drink and cook with it".

Varanasi, and the Ganges in particular are so sacred because Hindus truly believe if they die here, they attain instant "moksha" or enlightenment, and go straight to heaven, because the Ganges is the elixir of life. Known to many as Kashi the Luminous (the City of Light founded by Shiva), Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world, with records showing its religious traditions beginning in the 6th century BC!!!! (thanks Rough Guide!).

Anyway, after our exhausting morning (sitting on our bums doing nothing but enjoy ourselves!), we headed off to the fabulous Bread of Life bakery (yup, its food time!) for a scrumptious breakfast then we headed out for an orientation walk around the Old City, also known as Vishwanatha Khanda. Made up of tons of tiny little alleys, bursting to the seams with stalls and shops selling everything you could ever imagine, with special emphasis on flower and incense offerings to the gods, there was barely room to breathe. Slightly off-putting was the presence of many army personnel guarding both the Golden Temple (Hindu) and almost adjacent to it, the Jnana Vapi Mosque, as there have been some tense Hindu/Muslim situations in the past, with fanatics on both sides trying to vandalize the buildings..and more (so yes, you do have to go through metal detectors, no cameras, back packs etc. allowed!). And not many photos allowed to be taken around these buildings hence.. no pics!

Hung out for the afternoon then more exploring. Some people call this city "Varanasty" due to their perception of the Ganges (as discussed earlier) as well as the large contingent of water buffalos and cows who roam the streets here, leaving poop pretty much everywhere. It didnt bother me.. I really quite liked my first day here! Dinner at the fab Haifa restaurant (hmmn sounds more Israeli than Indian eh? but the food was fab!).... and a bunch of us snuck upstairs to the balcony to consume our illegal stash of alcoholic beers. This being a holy city and all.. not really allowed (oops tut tut such tourists we are!).

Nov 23rd. After a bit of a rough night (lets just say the cast iron stomach let me down a tad.. no more information needed here!), a bunch of us met up and went to a silk factory. After all, Varanasi is THE place to buy silk in India so of course, that's what we did! People were buying duvets, scarves, blouses but I was there to get my very first sari. Yup, in honour of my brother's wedding, which would take place in Sri Lanka in less than a month, I had decided (ok, my mum thought it was a good idea!) to buy a sari to wear. Now they may look graceful and pretty easy to wear.. if you are Indian. Me - i found it a little more difficult to keep that one piece of silk wrapped around me. And the colours - where do you start. Clearly, I'm looking a bit shell shocked in the purple/lilac; but the green, thats a winner! It was funny having an Indian man explain how you wear it...and even stranger to look at myself in the mirror with it on. As i mentioned earlier in my blog, coming to Asia, specifically Nepal and India, has been enlightening for me in many ways. My "Indian-ness" has been called out to me on so many occasions, I'm used to people asking me which state I'm from (and i dont mean the ones in the US!). But seeing myself, with my tan, long hair and this sari on, well, i had a wee moment, I have to say! So of course, I bought the sari (yeh!) and they measured me for the wee blouse that you wear underneath it.. to be picked up tomorrow! Also asked them to make me two dressing gowns (not quite sure what you say in the States) for my brother and his soon to be wife, Helen, as part of their wedding present. His and hers, to be embrodiered in gold with Bride and Groom! Great idea eh!

Later in the day, a few of us went to view the "Burning Ghats", Harishchandra Ghat being one of the two busiest in Varanasi. It might sound gruesome to think we went to watch people who have died burn on a funeral pyre; but in some ways it was a much more celebratory event than the silent way we do when we have funerals in the west. Bodies are wrapped in gold cloth, dipped in the Ganges, then once the gold outer wrapping is taken off, the body is put on a large bed of branches and wood, and set fire to. It was so busy here. There were lines and lines of bodies waiting to be dipped and burned. Once the ashes are gathered, they are scattered over the river, and the souls go directly to heaven!

More walking then later in the evening, we were going on our "sunset" (this time as we had already experienced the sunrise!) boat ride on the Ganges. This flower ceremony was much more solemn than that of the sunrise event. We all got into the boat; Mahindra and the boatmen lit tons of tiny candles which sat in dried leaves made into bowls with fresh flowers around them. We rowed out into the slowly enveloping blackness of the night; the sun set and we gently dropped literally hundreds of these candles onto the river; and watched them bob along in a haphazard line behind us, afloat and twinkling into the night. It was just one of the most special moments I have experienced in India (and there have been quite a few already as you know!). (oh yes, and check out the name of this row boat!). Mahindra led us in some wonderful meditative prayers (I know it sounds a bit much, but you had to be there; it was so beautiful!), then we had three minutes of silence as is the custom. Honestly, in that moment, looking out onto the water, watching our candles and those of other boats (pretty far from us tho') twinkling away, hearing the muffled sounds of the activity on shore, as well as Hindu music playing from one particular ghat; it really made your heart full - and felt like a very hypnotic, holy, spiritual moment.

But enough of all that earthy-crunchy stuff (ahh...not really, this is the holy city of Varanasi after all).. back on shore, we watched a traditional prayer (or puja) ceremony that a family was receiving from a priest with burning candles surrounding them, prayers chanted in offering, songs sung, and the looks on peoples faces.. this place really has a special feeling about it - you can feel the faith here! So our last "holy" thing of the evening, was to receive a tikka from a local brahmin priest Mahindra knows. This particular tikka (there are so many and all mean different things and are offered in memory of different gods; and remember, there are over 2 1/2 million Hindu gods!) was the tikka of Shiva - white stripes across with a large red line down the middle. Quite fetching eh! I know some of you are thinking (as did some of the gang here), "Why are we getting these things on our foreheads? We don't really know what they represent, they are someone else's religious beliefs and here are we, using them merely as a tourist attraction, making them somewhat meaningless". So ok, i can see some folks might feel that way, but when i talked to Mahindra about it, and how much i had enjoyed the evening, he said to me that the tikka ceremony was part of the whole experience for him to show us the real India, and religion is so deeply wrapped up in Indian life, how could we not experience some of that? As long as you respect someone else's beliefs and enjoy your small part in it, in the manner it is given.. what is wrong or fake about that.. well, that's my opinion anyway! So a very spiritual evening all round! Loved it!

Nov 24th. Packed up this morning (damn, how did my backpack get so gigantically huge and heavy again!) for our next journey; our last stop in fact, Calcutta, the city of joy! Liv and i headed out and found a nirvana of a place, and just around the corner too.... the Open Hand Cafe (with amazing craft shop attached). Not only was the food incredible, the jewellery, duvets, cards - all handmade - were gorgeous! This was a one stop shop.. so of course.. we shopped!

Time to leave the wonderful city of Varanasi. I have to say i thoroughly enjoyed my time here.... it was very different than some of the other places we visited, which i loved. But most of all, i loved the spirituality that pervaded through here (i know, i know, here i go again!). That's it - just thought it was wonderful!

PS Check out this wierd sign for a local convent.. hmmn! Oh yes, one other quick note here! As we settled down for our overnight (actually our 16 hour) train journey to Calcutta, we were (as usual) befriended by lots of curious folks (this time students on their way home on break). Not only did they want to practise their English with us; they wanted to sing (and us to sing with them..) Ahem - for those of you who have heard me try to keep a tune, it is literally impossible. But not for these guys. So, in a crushed carriage packed full of people, without the slightest hesitation, my little friend began to sing "We Shall Overcome" in English. Mahindra then sang it again in Hindi and Helen finished off with a verse or two in Bengali (which she learned from her time in Calcutta!). Not bad eh!!! Pretty impressive i thought! And yet another special moment that made me think "I love India"!!!


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