Wednesday, January 07, 2009

From Agra to Varanasi and the Ganges, the holy city and holy river of India, a humbling experience

Cremating by the Ganges, my most prized photo of India
Hello again,

Today is Tuesday 7th January and day 12 of our fascinating journey in India. Yesterday we left Agra early in the morning to catch the 14.30 plane from Delhi to Varanasi. Our journey was not uneventful as we woke up to intense fog, the pea soup type that used to happen in London. It seems to be a very foggy time here, at least in the North of India and we are fearing it also in Nepal where it will be a real obstacle for seeing Mount Everest I imagine.

It took our driver over an hour to leave Agra, you just could not see further than your nose which is dangerous everywhere but even more so in India because of the traffic and variety of vehicles.

Agra to Delhi is about 300km and our driver said it would take 5 hours. It actually ended up taking nearly 7 as I think he had forgotten to warn us that crossing Delhi would take at least another hour, due, again to its chaotic traffic. Luckily our plane was delayed but had we known that we would have been a lot less worried during our stressful journey. In fact we didn’t leave Indira Ghandi airport until 17.30 and arrived in Varanasi one hour later. Add the hassle of getting your luggage, finding your new driver and getting to the hotel, this meant we didn’t check into the civilized Radisson until past 19h. All we did then yesterday was travel and wind down in our hotel room.

In general our hotels are like a haven from the heavy experience of the noisy and dirty streets where you take refuge to bask in civilisation until you are ready for the outside world again.

I must add here that the terminal we waited at was in a perfectly clean and orderly state, not like the one we flew into. Also I should mention that it was here that we said goodbye to our driver Rajesh who had been with us for 10 days. We were very happy with his services and I was most happy with all I learned from him. Needless to say we gave him a heavy tip.

So we were fresh and ready to visit Varanasi this morning. To help us there was Arthur from the travel agency, Santosh our young and delightful driver and Tariq our Muslim, dark haired and blue eyed guide who was to be my next teacher on things Indian after Rajesh. I learned a lot from Tariq but this knowledge will be the subject of a separate post later.

On our flight we were accompanied by many Buddhist monks and learned that the Dalai Lama was due to be in Varanasi on an official visit from 8th to 14th January. We also learned that Varanasi is not only a pilgrim city for Hindus but also for Buddhists but for another reason. The Buddhists come here to visit Sarnath where Buddha made his first preaching.

Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Mark Twain apparently wrote: "Benaras is older than history” which is now a favourite quote of its inhabitants. The name Varanasi, has its origin possibly from the names of two rivers of its rivers Varuna and Assi, although ironically it is most famous for the river Ganges, or Ganga as it is called in Hindu.

It is also the city of Shiva and has 2 million inhabitants made up of 40% Hindu, 30% Muslim, the rest being Jainists, Buddhists and other religions. It is considered to be the cultural capital of India and houses India’s most important University, some say the most important in Asia; the Banaras Hindu University founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1916. It is also famous for mango, silk fabric and classical music. We were told that the famous sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar was born here too.

Our guide first showed us the remains of the Buddhist town of Sarnath and here we saw the Dhamek Stupa where Buddha preached his first sermon to his five disciples. His tomb is here too and this is where many Buddhist pilgrims come. Today of course there were many more because of the Dalai Lama’s visit. Because of the separatism problem of Tibet he now lives in the north of India permanently and many Tibetans have moved there too. We saw quite a few of them today.
A very nice Indian couple from London we met - with Eladio by the Stupa.
From Sarnath our guide took us to see the Moghol (Muslim) part of the city where the artisans make the silk Varanasi is so famous for. This was not a very “nice” area to see but fascinating in its own way, with filthy dark streets and barefoot children begging.
A dark, narrow, dirty and sinister street of Varanasi
I hate to admit that we actually saw a small child defecate in the street. His Mother was 10 feet away preparing their food! Often the artisans were working in the dark as electricity often goes out suddenly here. It actually goes out everywhere in India. Afterwards our guide tried to take us to a few tourist trap selling places where we refused to take the bait.
A typical square or street in Varanassi, not very nice.
From here we went to visit the University which although famous was not particularly interesting. We did see the Shiva temple there but did not find it very different to the many we have already seen during this trip.

It seemed the time to visit the Ganges would never come. Varanasi is most famous, of course for the holy river Ganges for people coming to bathe here and for the cremations that take part here and this is what had attracted us in the first place. There was a boat trip planned for us at 17h but we insisted on going before. Our guide was reluctant but finally gave in and so we drove as near to one of the main ghats as was possible. The rest had to be on foot through filthy dark streets and sinister tunnels. But we made it.

All Indians we learned have 4 mothers; their birth mother, the mother cow, mother India and the Ganges. If you are cremated by the Ganges you go directly to Nibbana or paradise and it seems it is all Hindus’ dream to die or be cremated in Varanasi. In fact many old people in the 90's and 100's come to live by the Ganges to await their death. Soon we were to find out how the cremation takes place.

For me there are a handful of rivers that hold a special attraction and they are the Yangzte in China, the Nile in Egypt, the Mississippi in the United States and the Ganges in India. For me it is a mythological river but for most Indians it is holy and means the eternity of life. Some Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in one's lifetime.

We walked down the steep and long steps of one of the ghats towards the river and took in the picture, a picture that will remain in our heads for a long time. It is difficult to describe. Yes it is dirty, yes it is chaotic with cows, goats and dogs wondering around, the water is filthy, there is no green whatsoever, just a soil shore but yet it touches you. We watched some people bathe in that water and then we walked towards the fires, knowing we were walking towards people being cremated on wood fires.
People bathing in the river Ganges. They must have a lot of faith because I wouldn't bathe there for all the tea in China!
We got closer and closer and became mesmerized. Again, like the visit to the Taj Mahal, I was deeply moved. I shed some tears and watched and watched. Someone gently asked us to move to another spot as apparently we were with the family of one of the deceased. So we moved to a spot where other people were watching. I realised I was the only woman within a very big radius. The Hindu men made way for us to watch the many cremations taking place and we were lucky enough to be able to talk to the man next to us who was there to see his father-in-law cremated. We were not supposed to take photos but this man said that it was alright to do so. So I took the most amazing photo (the one illustrating this post)the most important of our trip to India.

From what we watched and what we were told we found out that the very poor people burn their deceased through burning by electricity and the rest do so with wood at one of the ghats. The wood is expensive, some 200 rupees for 1 kg and 300 kgs are needed. Each fire burns for some 3 hours (poor people take 45 minutes with electricity). The wood is expensive because it comes from some special tree and there is no smell of flesh burning. We, at least, did not smell it.
The cremations - the building with the 2 chimneys (where the electric cremation takes place) houses some of the old people who come here to await their death.
The bodies are prepared and covered with a shroud on a bamboo bed and carried by the family men to the river to be bathed first. Women are not allowed. Our friend told us this was because women were too “soft”! He also told us that when people die the close male members of the family shave their hair and the close female members of the family cut their nails from both their toes and their fingers. Also the funeral proceedings take some 13 days.

After bathing the bodies on the bamboo beds, they are returned to the shore by the ghat and the fire is prepared just like a bonfire. The body placed on it and then it is lit. Then the closest male member of the deceased leads the rest of the mourners round the body 5 times to free the 5 elements from the body so that the soul can go free to Nibbana. The elements are the ones we know; fire, water, air and earth as well as ether (soul?). This closest male member wears a special white cloth. Once the body has burned, he takes water from the Ganges to put out the fire. What does not burn, it seems, is the man’s chest and the woman’s pelvis (the strongest part of their bodies) and these bones are thrown into the river together with the ashes. I think the mourners touch the ashes first.

The only people who cannot be cremated are holy men who are considered already purified in life, children under 12 and pregnant women because of children’s innocence and lepers and people who have been bitten by a cobra snake. The explanation for the latter is too long to go into here. These people, except the ones bitten by the cobra, are sunk in the river with a stone.

As we watched this extraordinary ritual that has been taking place through history, I felt humbled. It is Dantesque but it is not barbaric. It is perfectly understandable and carried out with deep belief and great love.

Later we took our boat ride just before sunset. A young boy sold us flowers with a candle for us to make a wish and leave floating in the river. My wish was to come back to India.
The boy who sold us the flowers to throw in the Ganges
Eladio and I on the boat on the Ganges with our flowers
On our boat ride we saw more ghats and a bigger cremating area. We also witnessed the Ganga Aarti ceremony that takes place every day at 18h to make flower boat offerings and wash away ones’ sins. We learned that cremations take place 24 hours a day and that the fire never goes out in Varanasi.
The Ganga Aarti ceremony
How could the fire go out of such an amazing city and place? It has certainly left a mark on us and we will never forget our experience here.

And tomorrow we leave this amazing city for Kathmandu, another fascinating destination.

Until tomorrow.


1 comment:

Samsaung said...

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