Varanasi – City of Enlightenment

December 21, 2010
In our first impressions, we noted that we were somewhat surprised at Delhi; other than our visit to Old Delhi, the city was "freshly scrubbed" and didn't represent the India we had been expecting.  We experienced that India, firsthand, in Varanasi on Monday and Tuesday.  On the way from the airport to the hotel, our local guide gave us some of the history of this city. Its first name is "Kashi" (yes, like the cereal) which means "enlightenment". The second name "Varanasi" comes from the names of the two rivers, Varuna and Assi, for it lies with the confluence of Varuna with the Ganges being to its north and that of Assi and the Ganges to its south. The third name is "Benaras", which is a Persian corruption of "Varanasi". It is also known as the city of learning and burning, as this also is the place of ritual cremations in the Ganges.  Most important, Varanasi is considered as holy a city to the Hindus (and Buddhists) as Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome.

After the obligatory tour group buffet lunch, we headed into the real India. This is the time of the annual pilgrimage, so there were many groups of pilgrims walking around. People had come from near and far. The streets were chock-a-block with vehicles (buses, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, walkers), people and animals (finally, cows!) and noise (chanting and the ubiquitous car horns), the smells (incense and who knows what), vendors (flowers, fruit, and postcard and bindi hawkers), an abattoir (with a line of cows-in-waiting), and beggars (amputees, small children, women with babies, and faux holy men).  One of the highlights of the day came when the bus entered a railroad underpass (with about 1 foot clearance on each side) and stopped suddenly, as we were grille-to-grille with a large truck going the opposite way!  Of course there were cars and buses behind us, and behind the truck as well. We sat there for about 10 minutes honking horns at each other as the faithful slipped through between the vehicles. Then our local guide got out and began imploring the people / vehicles behind the truck to back up. Inch by slow inch they did until at last (after about 30 minutes) we managed to squeeze by. As we waited for this massive traffic jam to clear up--we gawked at women in burkas, school children, and old men and they gawked at us--it was unclear who was more bizarre.

Next, we went to an archeological site (Sarnath) which is where Buddha gave his first sermon. Ironically, while Buddhism was founded in India, fewer than two percent of the population practices Buddhism today.

By this point, the sun had set and we needed to rush to our next stop--the evening service at the Ganges.  This next segment is straight out of The Amazing Race.  After a short bus ride back into Varanasi each couple got on a tricycle rickshaw and we raced to the riverfront--becoming part of the throngs!  As we traveled down the Grand Trunk Road, which runs from Calcutta across India, through Pakistan and into Afghanistan, it all looked like an intricate action movie set with thousands of extras. But, this indeed was reality. At one point, a jeep cut in front of us and temporarily blocked our path. With some terror, we realized that we were last in line for our group and the others were quickly being engulfed by the crowd as they continued on.  But our driver really began to pedal furiously and soon we caught up. Then, at a main square, we all disembarked and began walking. Our guide said to watch out for the cow pies: "If you step in them, it is good luck. If you don't step in them it is better luck"! We walked about half a mile and came down the stairs at the banks of the Ganges. There, the nightly (yes, they do this every night) ceremony thanking the river was already underway. Thousands of people faced the river and watched as a half dozen Hindhu priests went through a 45 minute highly synchronized set of moves including throwing of flower petals, ringing bells, and waving of fire pots. All during this time there was a continual droning of holy music and burning of very smoky incense. The entire service was awe-inspiring but particularly memorable was the blowing of the conch shells which (to the 3/4 of our group that is Jewish) sounded just like the blowing of the Shofar.  Indeed, several of us started chanting the prayers. With the service complete, we walked back to the square, found our rickshaw driver, rode back to the bus and then to our hotel. We got there about , had a quick dinner (guess what! Another buffet) and then right to bed as we all had mandatory wake-up calls.

Tuesday morning, we left at to see the sunrise over the Ganges. We took the bus into town (surprisingly little traffic at this hour) and walked about a mile back down to the river. This time we were put on two boats; each was a flat-bottomed craft about 8 feet abeam and 15 feet stem to stern. Our boat was rowed by one boy who looked to be about 15. We started out in total darkness (and it was also very cold - probably upper 40s), but there were still pilgrims walking on the shore and people bathing in the water. As we floated along, we were given small dishes with flower petals and a candle; our guide asked us to make our own personal prayers and then set the candles adrift in the river.  It was truly inspirational.  We saw the laundry women standing in the frigid water beating the clothes on the rocks. We passed a school for priests where they were chanting on the steps. At last we came to the "crematorium" on the bank of the river-- where there was a cremation in progress.  About this time the orange glow of the sun began to peak over the horizon. It was an awesome moment to see something that has been going on virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

To many in our group, the poverty, deplorable living conditions, begging, and lack of sanitation were disturbing.  Several voiced their thoughts:  "How can they live like this", and "Aren't they miserable?". But having seen the same types of cultures and living standards in other countries, we knew it's not that simple.  It is often we Westerners who are unhappy, chasing after material things, when these people may very well have everything they want or need. 

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