Well, now that I feel that I have updated you with photos on the previous section of my trip, I am going to try to describe the mind blowing experience of having just left Varanasi, India. As my friend Dave discussed with me.... for folks that have been, no further explanation is needed... and for those that have not, it is almost impossible to portray the complete essence of this city.
I have read that Varanasi is considered the oldest living city in the world, even though it has been attacked and ruined several times, it has managed to remain inhabited and become resurrected. It is regarded as a very holy place by Hindus and Buddhists and has also been called the City of Shiva, a powerful manifestation of God depicted as the destroyer often represented by fire, a lingum (a penis shaped rock), or painted and sculpted with a snake around his neck and a trident in his hand.
The city is situated on the Ganges River and consists of wandering narrow pathways easy to get lost in interspersed with all sorts of shops, cafes and chai stalls. Pedestrians, cows, water buffaloes and motorcycles compete for the right away down these seemingly serene sometimes harrowing lanes. There are 84 Ghats or steep sets of stairs leading down to the Ganga along the length of the city where people from all over the world pilgrimage to in order to bath in the sacred river. There are many Sanyassis (monks) walking around in orange robes or all white begging, praying, performing ceremonies, and serving chai. There are a variety of classes offered in classical music, language lessons, dance, yoga etc. and you can commonly stumble across a concert or in our case one time, women practicing complicated circle dances with sticks.
The City is also considered to be The City of Good Death, the place where it is believed that a person and their ancestral souls could gain final release and be purified prior to reincarnation. Therefore, people come to Varanasi to die and to be openly cremated by the Ganga River. One can watch the funeral procession in the alley ways where family members are carrying the dead body wrapped in anything from fine cloth to old rags, depending on the financial status of the family, on a bamboo lattice while chanting, "Ram Nam Satya Hai," meaning the name of Ram or God is Truth. The bodies are brought to the open funeral pyres on the river bank, to a podium next to the river, or to the electric burning chamber, again according to financial status. I was told that the only people that can not be cremated are Sadhus, small children, pregnant women (who are all considered to be very holy and their bodies are placed whole in the Ganga) and lepers (who are believed to be a curse from God). There is a small ritual and the oldest son usually starts the fire. Traditionally women are not allowed to witness a cremation, because from what I have been told, they are considered to be too emotional. Typically a body takes about 4 hours to burn depending on how much and what type of wood the family can afford. During the final stage of burning, the eldest son offers a part of the body that hasn't burned to the Ganga for auspiciousness. I did not visit the beach across the river, but it is said that one can walk along and find human bones along the shore line.
According to Wikipedia, The Ganges river near Varanasi was ranked among the five most polluted rivers of the world in 2007, with fecal levels in the river more than one hundred times the official Indian government limits. A frightening fact when you realize how many people are dependent on this river for their livelihood. And off-putting to say the least when you see people bathing, doing laundry, brushing their teeth and fishing in the river.
I found myself drawn to watching the cremations and contemplating death. Who dies? Where is this person now? Is that body the person? Did that person stop being himself after his soul left? Now that his body has returned to ash, and parts of it have been set in the Ganga river and I have inhaled the smoke from the fumes of their cremation, is that person a part of the river, the earth, and me? And has it always been! I know, a little far out there for some! But again, this place fosters contemplation on a grand scale!
As you will see in the photos, we were in Varanasi during Shivaratri (The night of Shiva), a grand Hindu holiday. In Varanasi it is celebrated with parades, dancing in the streets and the massive consumption of Bhang (marijuana) lassis. (Apparently people of all ages, young to old are partaking and it is the temples that are providing the mixture). So as you can imagine, it is a “colorful” event to witness. Luckily my friend Dave and I have the same tolerance for blaring loud speakers, ambling through massive crowds of interesting people, bee-bopping and watching gyrating dancing men and taking it all in with child like curiosity.
Best news ever! Just ran into a friend from home!!!!!!! Started doing photos, but of course… didn’t work out the first try…. So will follow up soon! Big hugs!!! Jen