Day 5 – Trip to India – Varanasi and Hinduism
Varanasi is a two for one city situation. You are visiting a the physical city of Varanasi and the spiritual city of Kashi. Physically Varansi is located at a point where the Holy Ganges river makes a you turn from its southern flow and flows north. Spiritually the Ganges which has its source from Shiva’s head turns to touch Shiva’s feet before flowing Earthward to the Bay of Bengal. The city sits atop Shiva’s trident.
We begin our day with a morning river tour of the Ghats. The Ghats are the steps down to the river. They are steep! The river swells and rises more than 50 feet from the low point we were at during the dry season before the monsoons arrive. The benefit for us is we saw the most of then Ghats possible. Downside, I guess, was there were more steps to climb.
The activities on the Ghats and in the river perfectly demonstrate how life and death can peacefully exist together. The most solemn funeral rights are performed 24 x 7 in two public crematoriums where funeral pyres are in a constant cycle of construction, combustion, and smoldering. For a westerner like myself this is the most remarkable sight. I have a respectful image of a flame bathing a clear corpse imprinted on my retinas. This image was the most human form I saw, the other pyres, more resembled bonfires. The ceremonial cremation is organized and limited to just the two official crematoriums. Prior to my visit I had a misperceptions in several ways. I expected hat familia might perform the act anywhere along the ghas. I also had envisioned families placing their love one on a flaming bamboo bier that the set off floating down the river. The bamboo bier is simply the stretcher that the family uses to ritualistically carry their loved one to the sight of cremation after they are securely bundled in cloth which hides the body.
Life goes on immediately around the crematoriums. People live adjacent, somewhat nearby is a riverside laundry service (dobhi ghat), elsewhere is a lesson for twenty kids learning to swim. Then up and down the Ghats the pilgrims come to take their dip in the Ganges to have sins washed away. Our guided pointed to a 90 year old woman slowly descending the steps to take he daily dip that he has observed for 15 years.
We returned to shore after taking I the north to south expanse of the city and stepped into the narrow by lanes of Varanasi. Our focus on the morning trip was primarily observing the omnipresent Hindu temples at e every turn. We glimpsed into the Golden Temple which sits on the central tip of Shiva’s temple as only Hindu’s are given access to pay respects inside. With the number of worshippers each person only gets s few minutes within the walls of the temple and a moment in front of the altar / shrine.
We returned to our room for lunch and relaxation. I watched a 45 minute movie on the spritual realm of Kashi. It provided solid insight into the legends of Kashi and were a good background and context for the rest of our walks around Goa.
We returned for a more extensive tour of the by lanes of Varanasi in he afternoon. I had not expected that due to the fact that pilgrims come from all corners of India small neighborhoods exist composed for each different language and region of India. The most notable change as you transitioned between the narrow lanes.
We boarded a boy’s large row boat for our second time on the Ganges River after the walk. This time we rowed further North waiting for sunset. Lots of teenagers were enjoying swimming and diving into the Ganges. Even though our Indian guides advised us not to enter the Ganges because it is not clean, I eventually realized they were concerned about industrial pollution. I figured that out rivers would be equally unclean by that measure, however maybe the U.S. Clean Water Act does more than I expect to keep our rivers clean.
The cherry on top of a brief trip to Varanasi will be the Aarthi evening prayer to Ganges. This is an elaborate 20 minute ritual conducted by 7 priests on the Ghats who chant and offer fire in a series of braziers. I had seen pictures of the crowds attending this ceremony, but I did not know that this happened every night!
Overall, I felt peace at Sarnath and enlivens on the Ganges. This feeling prompted a connection to spirituality.
If you want to consider a similar guided tour of Buddhist and Hindu sites of Sarnath and Varanasi consider reaching out to Varanasi Day Tours at this URL http://varanasidaytours.com/