Liberate the soul from the body…in Varanasi

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I flew out of the Delhi domestic airport on a sunny Thursday afternoon…still marveling at the Taj Mahal.  I’m now headed for Varanasi and I’m still amazed that it’s not raining!  Varanasi is the last “big” trip in India before I move on and like the Taj, I’ve really been looking forward to it.  I’ve seen pictures of Varanasi…the Ganges and the Ghats…and I knew from experience that what I was going to see with my own eyes would far surpass anything I could see on the internet.

Varanasi is old.  Saying that is like saying that the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground.  In fact, it’s the oldest living continuously occupied city in the world – more than 3000 years old and rumored to be possibly 5000 years old.  These few lines by Mark Twain say it all “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

As Mumbai is the financial capitol of India…and Delhi, the political capitol…Varanasi is considered to be its cultural and spiritual capitol.

Hindus believe that to die on the land of Varanasi one will attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth (reincarnation).   That means that every year, over one million Hindu’s will journey to this small town.  You see…they believe that time is cyclical. This means they believe people do not live and die just once but are reborn a number of times before reaching their final state. The process of being born, growing, dying and being reborn again for Hindus is called ‘samsara’. The aim of every Hindu is freedom from this cycle in order to be in the presence of God, or become one with God (moksha). In order to get freedom from samsara or journey to their version of heaven and their final salvation,after they die, they should be cremated on one of two funeral ghats in Varanasi.   If you are unable to be cremated here…then it’s up to your family to bring your ashes here at some later point so that your ashes can be put upon the fires (the next best thing).

The city resides on the edge of the Ganges River…which if possible…is more sacred then the city.  It’s believed that the Ganges is the Goddess Shakti and the water in the Ganges is sacred – godly sacred – that it has the power to wash away all mortal sin – no confessions required – just a bath – or a drink.  Bottom line…Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges or drinking the water remits sins and that dying in Varanasi ensures the release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations.  It’s the most important religious city in all of India.

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The other term that you need to know about with regards to Varanasi…is the Ghats.  A ghat is a series of steps leading down to a source of water…in this case…the Ganges River.  While there are very mundane purposes for these ghats…like washing, bathing and religious rites…there are also very specific ghats…like the cremation ghats.  The cremation ghats are where bodies are burned 24/7 – the fires are never allowed to go out.  By having the bodies cremated by the waterside, it allows the ashes to be washed away by the river.   You will see stacks and stacks and stacks of wood around the crematorium ghats. Seriously…these fires never go out…sort of like the eternal flame.

And so I arrived in Varanasi and was picked up at the airport as usual. I looked for someone holding a sign with my name on it and followed my new guide to an air conditioned car complete with driver.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to know that someone is there waiting for me…it’s beyond comforting.

I asked my driver to make a pit stop for laundry detergent along the way and then we headed to the next 5-star hotel and I got settled in…this one was The Radisson Varanasi.

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Laundry detergent store…and my driver (Vinod) with the bag of detergent.

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Again…another benefit of traveling during the monsoon season is being able to afford these lovely hotels.  In the high season…they would be way out of my budget!  As it is…I’m getting many of them for less than $100 a night!  I can’t stay on upper Peach St. for that! And frankly, after being out on the streets and exploring whatever city I’m in…these hotels are like a little oasis…you really need to come back to something clean and comfortable.

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The streets of India…no matter what city I’m in…fascinate me.  They are full of bustling activity and lots of color!  Indians seem to take to the streets for all occasions, whether they’re celebrating a wedding, a funeral, or a religious event.  For the poor Indians, the streets are the stage where the drama of their entire life unfolds.  If you’ve seen “Slumdog Millionaire” – it’s right on the mark.

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The multitude of shops along the side of the road remind me of strip plaza’s…not exactly like the ones you’ll find in Naples, Florida…but you get the point.  Watching life on the streets I’m sometimes saddened…sometimes my jaw just drops…and sometimes I smile…but I find that I can never turn away from it.

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Remember…the cows are sacred…it’s probably good luck to have her in your shop!

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And to think we put up screens to keep the mosquitos out…wonder what keeps these guys out?

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Room with a balcony – thinking balcony is another term for “easy monkey access”

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The plan was to take a boat up the river to the largest crematorium this evening and then back down the river to watch the nightly religious ceremony.  We would come back again in the morning to see the sun rise (though that has been elusive so far).

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The priests beg all day from the steps and then sleep here at night.

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We left land at the centrally located Dasaswamedh Ghat, famous for it’s busy street vendors, beggars and sometimes pushy boat people all jostling for a share of the tourist/pilgrimage rupee as well as the nightly religious ceremonies that we would be returning to see later.  Our transportation…

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That’s the Dasaswamedh Ghat behind me.

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The ghats lead right from the water’s edge to  a variety of buildings that line the river.  In most instances the buildings housed royalty or other important people…the 2nd and 3rd story additions came later with the influx of more people.  If you can’t build out — build up!

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Coming up to the crematorium.

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Once past a certain point you’re no longer allowed to take pictures…so I had to be sneaky (I’m not proud – but there was no way I was not going to take pictures or video).

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These are Indian pilgrims bringing their loved ones to be cremated…either bodies or ashes.

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Notice the stacked wood leading the steps

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There are bodies in each of the fires…

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We turned around after a while and headed back to the Dasaswamedh ghat for the evening ceremony.

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Little girls jump from boat to boat, carrying baskets containing flower boat candle offerings…

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…that they sell to people like me for 10 rupees (about $.20)

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…so we can light them, make a wish / say a prayer — and then float them on the river

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There are 5 priests on the stage performing their evening rituals for the crowd of pilgrims…

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We watched the ceremony for a while and then headed back up the stairs past the priests…

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…past the cows

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…back to the hotel for an early night.

We would be meeting up again in the morning at 4:45 am in an attempt to see the elusive sunrise.

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