Thursday, 8 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Circle of Life

Varanasi. It's going to hit you like a bullet right between the eyes, when you make it here having survived an uneventful overnight train journey. You will witness prayer, death and every day life here. Most of which is centred around the sewage-laden River Ganges. Apparently a dip in these holy waters washes away your sins and help you escape the life & death cycle. All I could envision it doing is giving you amoebic dysentery... At least. It's absolute chaos (worse right now due to the Indian election) and absolutely worth a visit. It's apparently the oldest city in the world and looks like it too.

Regarded as one of Hinduism's seven holy cities, people come to the ghats lining the River Ganges to either wash away their sins or to cremate a loved one. If neither of those then they are swimming, washing, doing laundry, bathing their livestock or going to the bathroom in the sacred waters. Basically everything is done here. It is an auspicious place to die as it offers moksha (liberation from the life & death cycle).

Famed for its textiles, Varanasi supplies quality fabrics to India and around the world. There is some absolutely amazing workmanship in silk, pashmina and cotton not to mention various blends. You will be dazzled by real gold and silver thread. You can see not only finished products in one of several fair trade shops but, as you walk around the labyrinth of streets (galis), you can watch the looms actually working, weavers weaving, men creating design sheets, threads being spooled. It was a fantastic thing to experience. Banarasi saris are made in Varanasi and they are famed for being amongst the finest saris in the whole of India. Depending upon the intricacy of the design and pattern, a sari can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to make. Good news is they're trying to use natural dyes from plants, fruits and flowers rather than chemicals. One less thing polluting the Ganges! Did I really need a silk scarf and an absolutely stunning silk/cotton blend patchwork bed set? Probably not. But it went on my visa anyway, for less than $100! I can't get a cotton set from The Bay for that price. A sari would have been a bit harder to convince myself it was an investment.

Ghats are long stretches of steps leading down to the western bank go the Ganges. There are around 80 ghats bordering the river with the main group between Assi Ghat and Raj Ghat. Here you will find a fascinating mix of life... And death. People are taking ritual baths, washing clothes, doing yoga, offering blessings, selling goods, washing their buffaloes. The sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming in both the best and worst of ways. Everything takes place in public here. Tonight I had the incredibly thought-provoking experience of a boat trip along the river for the quintessential Varanasi experience.

There are several "burning ghats" where bodies are cremated in public, the main one being Manikarnika. Nothing can prepare you for what you will see. This incredibly intimate insight isn't for the faint hearted. Upon reaching Manikarnika there were 8 burning corpses and I know I saw a hand and possibly a head. Out of respect I had put my camera away whilst still some distance away. The heat is pretty intense from the burning funeral pyres and a man known as the "untouchable" walks around with a massive bamboo cane "stoking" each individual fire, basically repositioning any limbs back over the flames. Thankfully the only smell came from the normal smell of burning wood.

Many Hindus will trek to Varanasi as they approach death in order to be cremated and cast into the Ganges for holy cleansing before they meet their god. Whilst watching from the water 4 more bodies arrived wrapped in silk and flowers. There is no crying, no praying, no singing, absolutely nothing. The "transfer" must be pure not sad or painful. Women are not allowed for fear that their crying or sobbing would affect the passage of the soul to nirvana.

One of the bodies was dunked into the water whilst another had water poured onto the head by a member of the funeral procession who then also drank some of the water. For the first little while you sit there shocked but after that you kind of accept it as being "normal". To these people it is sacred and a part of their life. If a person dies of certain causes they are apparently cast straight into the water as they are considered already pure thus simply set adrift. Otherwise after cremation, whatever remains goes into the water. It was still a little disconcerting to see people swimming near by and drinking the water that they believe heals and cleanses.

As the sun set, the river worship ceremony (Ganga aarti) started and in amongst the bats flying above, the bell ringing and chanting, I set my lotus flower tea light floating down the river to bring to a close a boat ride that will live long in the memory. 

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