For the last 2 days I haven't been able to write anything. It could have been because we have been very busy and it has been hard to squeak in some writing time. It could have been because I've taken literally hundreds of photos this week and it is challenging picking out just a few to write about. But the real reason is because what we have seen has left me dumbstruck!
This is surely the most culturally rich country I've ever visited, and also the most spiritually advanced. It is the cradle of some of the great religions of the world, and for the last couple of days we have been immersed in Hindu culture, since we've been at the Mecca of Hinduism, Varanasi on the Ganges River.
Before that we were in Khajuraho looking at the best preserved Hindu temples in India, all of which are covered in stunning erotic stone carvings. Muslim invaders over the centuries systematically destroyed most Hindu art, smashing up representations of human faces and bodies, but somehow these survived. We had a local guide at this place, and for a whole morning he spoke to us with great intimacy and erudition about the Hindu belief system and how sexuality was considered to be a gift and a holy expression of the soul. I recorded much of what he said because it was so profound and meaningful to us. He was a gift!
After that we took a short 35 minute flight to Varanasi, checked into our new hotel here. Each time we go to a new hotel there is a lovely ritual. A woman in a sari always greets us at the door by putting a dab of red color on our foreheads. Often there is also a lei of marigolds for each of us, and then someone comes with a tray of cold drinks for us while we wait for our room keys. The hospitality and friendliness at each place we've been is superb.
The big story of Varanasi is the Ganges. Pilgrims come here by the millions to bathe in the sacred waters, and about 300+ people per day are cremated on its banks' where the ashes are then dumped into the water. This has been happening for thousands of years.
On our first evening here we went down to the river in rickshaws, a wild and somewhat hair-raising trip through the thronging melee, squeezing between cars and trucks and tuk-tuks and bicycles, scooters, cows, dogs, and teeming pilgrims, past shops with their wares laid out on blankets along the sidewalks. Finally there is the river, huge and wide, banked all along by steps and terraces crowded with cremations in progress, fires blazing, smoky air, priests blowing on conch shells. People are engaged in shaving their heads as an act of mourning. There is a huge cast of holy men, fake holy men, beggars, trinket sellers, lepers, gypsies with begging babies. And yet despite this utter chaos, there is a great feeling of spiritual intensity here. We viewed it all from a wooden boat with two oarsmen and a young priest and our fabulous guide, Krish. We were assisted to make offerings of a lighted cup of oil and flowers in memory of our deceased loved ones, and these we floated in the water where they joined hundreds of other tiny drifting flames sparkling in the surface of the dark river.
We returned again yesterday morning, this time for the ritual bathing at sunrise. Again we went out in the boat. Again we made an offering on the water. We watched as people came down to the river and in a state of ecstasy dipped themselves into the water, poured it over their heads and faces, drank deeply of it, and prayed. We were told that many Hindus consider this to be the high point of their lives. They save for years to come here, and for many it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Again we were silenced by the sacredness of the experience we were sharing, the sense of awe to be watching this beauty and joy all around us.
Later we returned to the hotel, after stopping along the way at a sacred Buddhist site with a lovely temple, museum, and grandchild of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. We picked up a few fallen leaves to bring home as keepsakes. We also drove through streets where everyone is preparing for Diwali, a huge annual Festival of Lights celebrated this year on November 13. Custom is for lots of shopping beforehand. Yesterday people were supposed to buy at least one new kitchen utensil. Marigolds were also being sold in mass profusion, and buildings being decorated with long garlands of these golden flowers as well as strings of tiny colored lights. There will be fireworks, candles, and huge celebrations tomorrow, when people invite the goddess Laxmi onto their homes to bless them with prosperity.
Last night was our farewell dinner at the hotel. Today we fly to Delhi, and tomorrow most of us to Cochin in South India, but 5people are going home, so this was our last evening as a group of 15. For a surprise, Krish brought saris for all the women to wear to dinner, and a lovely young woman to dress us! That was fun!
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Location:The Mall Rd,Varanasi,India