Sunday, December 9, 2007
Varanasi & Sarnath
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities on the planet. It is also one of the world's great religious and cultural centers Set upon the banks of the revered Ganga (Ganges) river, a holy place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It also has important ties to Buddhism and Jainism and is home to the largest residential university in Asia, Benares Hindu University.
Like Jerusalem, you can feel a certain energy in the air as you walk down by the ghats (stairways) that line the Ganga. But it's not just faith that resonates, it is the breath of life itself -the life-giving force flowing through the currents of the river. Along with those performing puja (prayers and offerings), you find people going about their daily activities - bathing, washing clothes, refreshing their cattle. There is no doubt that the people and culture of Varanasi are inextricably linked to the Ganga.
We were very lucky to be in Varanasi during a beautiful and moving Hindu holiday observed by married women. Wives fast for three days to pray for the long-lives of their husbands and children. One man we spoke to explained the importance of the festival to us in this way - "We have arranged marriages in India and for the first couple of years you do not know your wife and cannot really love her. But then she fasts for you, and slowly, you fall in love."
During the fast women come to the Ganga to make offerings of food and prayers. Typical of the Hindu religion, which encourages people to determine their own personal approach to worship, the ceremonies we observed varied from family to family. Some women painted the soles of their feet red and showed respect to their mothers and aunts by touching their feet and then their own hearts. Others crawled down the Ghats on their bellies, systematically pressing their foreheads to each step after being turned in a circle by their loved ones.
The fast is broken at dawn following the third day and women and their families wait patiently at the Ganga for the sun to rise over the opposite river bank. We took a boat ride to experience the ceremony up close and were amazed at the sea of colorful saris (traditional Indian dress) that filled each ghat. When the sun finally burned through the smog, it was greeted by whoops and hollers of praise. Women again presented a basket of fruits, vegetables and flowers and poured milk from a brass pitcher into the Ganga. They then returned to their homes with their families to eat!
Such displays of faith are not just evident during festival times. There is a nightly puja ceremony performed with much pomp, and more humble prayers are being offered nearly every second of the day. It is one of the most auspicious places a Hindu can die and so many people make the sojourn here at the end of their lives in the hopes of ending the cycle of birth and death. There are several ghats that are used exclusively for cremation and you can view the fires burning throughout day and night. It's not uncommon to see bodies draped with vibrant cloth being carried through the twisted streets of the old city, or to come across a husband or son who has shaved his head in mourning.
According to tradition, some people may not be cremated and so their bodies are simply placed in the Ganga to decay. We saw one of those bodies float past us on our boat trip. It was disturbing, but it was all part of the fascinating glimpse we were given into this culture's attitude toward death - one that is characterized by much less fear and a lot more acceptance than ours typically is.
We also took a trip to Sarnath, a town a few kilometers outside of the city. Sarnath is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, and so it is a holy pilgrimage site for Buddhists. There are some ancient Buddhist remains, a small museum and a green park, as well as several modern temples. It was particularly interesting to compare the different temple styles used by the Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhists.
We filled the rest of our time in Varanasi visiting temples, trying to find an ATM that would give us money and sending a package back to the States. India can be a frustrating place at times, but it's certainly never boring....