Tuesday, October 18, 2011

India! Where the Pilgrims Bathe: Varanasi

Sunrise over the Ganges river in Varanasi
Blog Entry #35: India! Where the Pilgrims Bathe: Varanasi

Friday, October 15, 2011

Varanasi: the city of Lord Shiva, the goddess Ganga, and perhaps the most sacred site in all India.  I have taught about Varanasi (Banaras) for many years in my Introduction to Religion classes at Drake, but never did I expect to experience it as we did on this trip. 
Morning light reflects on the Ganges River at Varanasi
Following our time in Sarnath we immersed ourselves in Varanasi proper as we made our way to the Dasaswahmedh Ghat (ghat is the series of steps leading down to the Ganges for bathing and ritual immersion) for the evening aarti service.  And now words really fail me in trying to describe what we experienced.
Bicycle rickshaws waiting for our group in Varanasi
Muslim women in rickshaw
Vegetable Vendor in Varanasi
Because busses are (thankfully) not allowed close to the river, we road the last few kilometers on bicycle rickshaws, which immersed us into the vibrant chaos of sights, smells, sounds (constant horn beeps), movement, color, etc. of Varanasi – I really can’t remember when so many of my senses were so activated simultaneously and continuously.

Schoolgirls in rickshaw
With our rickshaw driver
It took us nearly 40 minutes to reach the river – and I feared that our particular driver might suffer a stroke trying to haul the combined weight of Pat, and me as he labored to get us through the congested streets. 

Entering the Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi
Finally we arrived, about 90 minutes before the ceremonies were to start, but as many were already gathering.  We had time to simply sit and absorb what was going on around us – though not easy as we were constantly approached by “hawkers” and beggars seeking our services.
At the Dasawamedh Ghat on the Ganges River

We were fortunate to secure chairs on a balcony overlooking the ghat from which to observe the aarti ceremony itself – though we were removed from the sea of humanity watching the seven young Brahman priests, the Hindu religious caste, as they moved through four cycles, each time lifting different element to the four directions.  The music, the candles floating on the river, the chanting, the hands clapping – all added to a powerful sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. 
Brahman priests perform the Aarti Service along the Ganges River
Our group watching the Aarti service
After about an hour it was time for us to make our way back up the ghat steps, past the rows of beggars with outstretched hands and cups (one of the most difficult aspects of India is knowing how to negotiate the many encounters with fellow human beings who obviously are in such need; it can be overwhelming, and difficult not to simply shut down or become rude and defensive).  Then we were back on our rickshaws, wending our way back through the narrow streets, now choked with the hundreds of people who had been at the Ganges.

Sunrise on the Ganges River
Gathering at the Ganges before dawn

Morning at the Ganges
The 4:00 am hotel wake-up call brought to an end another short night as we made our way back to the Ganges, this time to board a boat to watch the morning rituals from the water.  How moving to have the sun rising to our backs as pilgrims made their way to the river to bath and bless Mother ganga.  There was both a serenity and a pulsing energy that pervaded the scene, and the radiance of the faces of those bathing. 
Pilgrims bathe at dawn in the Ganges at Varanasi
Brushing teeth in the Ganges
Cremation ceremony at dawn on the Ganges
I felt such a conflict of worldviews: from a scientific, secular perspective, there are few rivers more polluted than the Ganges, and it was hard to watch pilgrims brushing their teeth in water that measures in the millions the fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml from the many sources of sewage flowing into the river.  Yet to the faithful, the purity of Mother Ganga cannot be compromised by human actions, and they come to purify their own selves by immersing into the waters.  Just north of us, at Marnikarnika ghat, a cremation was under way.  For the devout, dying at the Ganga and having one’s ashes released into her waters brings moksha – liberation from rebirth into the cycle of suffering.
Brahman priest performing Hindu rituals at dawn along the Ganges River

Boatmen & Boats at Varanasi
Sunrise on the Ganges
With reluctance we left the Ganges by 7:30, after watching the rising sun through the haze illuminating the ghats and the faithful bathing in them.  We re-entered the profane world of our hotel, had another lovely breakfast, and soon were off to the airport to return first to Delhi and then to Chennai, and finally back to our ship home and the mundane world of classes and grading exams.  But India has left her mark.
Boatmen for our group on the Ganges

Buddhist monks on the Ganges River at Varanasi

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