Holy Varanasi

by AnnHunt on October 7, 2009

India is truly a place that can over whelm the senses. And Varanasi is no exception. Rather it is a place that turns up the volume times ten. The sights of daily life and ritual along the Ganga, the sound of temple bells, honking horns, the smell of the burning fires of the ghats, cows, goats and the masala chai. Varanasi is know as the city of lights and said to be the oldest living city in the world. It is the holiest of cities for the Hindus and is an important place of pilgrimage. A powerful spirtual element is felt everywhere from the numerous temples to the daily life along the ghats (steps) that line the Ganga.

The Ganga is reveared as the Mother and the Hindus deeply believe that the Ganga cares, nurtures, protects and provides for them. As well if one is cremated and ashes are put in the river then she will attain moksha or liberation of her soul from her body. In Varanasi, just as in Haridwar and Rishikesh there is a colorful aarti to the river drawing locals as well as tourists. Early morning is special time along the river.

My first morning I was up at 4:30 to take a boat ride down the river. It’s quite common to see numerous large wooden boats ferrying tourists past the 84 ghats, witnessing morning puja to the river. As well many people come to bathe believeing that a bath in the holy river is a blessing. And just in case you are wondering, no I did not bathe in the Ganges. The river, especially in Varanasi is extremely polluted. Most likely I would have gotten quite ill or a skin infection as I have heard happen to others not accustomed to the water.

Visiting the burning ghats was a very surreal experience. Standing on the periphery observing this completely natural ritual was amazing. I learned that the men of the family of the deceased person chant while carrying the body to the river for one last bath. The body is wrapped in white cloth and placed atop the wood. Depending on who has died determines who in the family lights the body from dried grass lit from the eternal flame. This person is dressed in white and must have their head shaved prior. The fires burn for 2 1/2 to 3 hours after which the remains are taken to the river.

My experience in Varanasi was full. I was taken to the temples and palaces, shops where essential oils and silk are made, visited Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first teachings, awakened by chanting and bells and hassled by peddlers and beggars. I walked and walked and walked, just taking it all in. It is a place that is hard to be alone and any sense of personal space is lost. That said it is remarkable. It is a place that words really do not give justice. I hope the pictures I will have to share help capture the feeling. So now I am in the busy city of Pune, 3 hours south of Mumbai, after 2 flights and a full day of travel. My time up north really immersed me into the spritual life and daily ritual of so many of the Hindus. I am here for the next week and will focus on studying yoga with a very special teacher named Dharmavir. More to follow. Namaste

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