India’s Spiritual Mecca: Varanasi

After spending time touring the ancient Hindu temples in the Khajuraho, the Panna National Park, and the countryside around the Khajuraho area, we boarded an Air India flight to Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism where every Hindu is supposed to make a pilgrimage to join in holy services, pray, and dip in the Ganges River once in his or her life and where every Hindu wishes to be cremated. This city was formerly known as Benares, and we had read so much about it, this was to be the highlight of our India tour. Our SmarTours guide and director of our tour Arvind had told us a great deal about this holy city. We arrived at the Varanasi Airport, which was brand new and had just opened two weeks before.

Since our plane arrived on time, we were able to make the optional tour to see the holy services on the river that took place after sundown. We went by bus to the center of Varanasi directly from the airport. Our bus took us as close to the Ganges River as was possible, but because of the crowded narrow streets that led down to the river, we had to ride by bicycle rickshaw taxis, which were not quite as scary as the noon rush hour ride in Jaipur. The twilight streets were very busy with traffic, tourists, religious pilgrims and people shopping for necessities before going home to prepare evening meals.
Our bicycle rickshaws brought is to within about a half mile from the river, and we had to walk down a lane through huge crowds and hundreds of hawkers and little shops, overhead twinkling Christmas-type lights were hung for the pilgrims coming to the services along the river. At the end of the lane we were confronted with a long, wide set of stairs that proceeded down to the river. Beggars, many being deformed and crippled, sat along each side of the stairs with outstretched palms, and numerous hawkers besieged us, attempting to sell us souvenirs. We hurried past them with our eyes averted and feeling terribly guilty as we reached our large, white, wooden boat to go out onto the Ganges, beyond the crowds to watch the ceremony.
A high cement platform ran along the edge of the Ganges. On the platform seven umbrellas were set for the priests’ altars with incense burning and overhead were strings of bells. We carefully boarded our boat, one of many for tourists, and our two oarsmen rowed us out away from the many moored by shore. We could see that in each direction up and down the river about a quarter mile was completely filled with pilgrims on the Ghat steps. The priests in white performed rituals of bells, incense, smoky lamps, chanting, prayers, fire, in unison for about a half hour with pilgrims joining in singing. Farther down were other priests and other services going on simultaneously at a large Ashram, with priests in orange robes. We were given little cardboard bowls containing orange mums and a candle to make a prayer and float on the Ganges in the dark. It was meaningful and pretty, but the image in our minds was marred by the river being so polluted.
After the priests stopped performing, the men rowing our boat took us down river just a little way to one of the cremation sites. Although the cremations continue 24/7, they are best seen at night. As we watched the activities immediately in front of us,* we saw four bodies lying on the steps, each covered in an elaborate shiny colored cloth with gold trim. The mourning family lay the body down and then left, except for the oldest male who was dressed in white and helped the priest dip the covered body three times into the Ganges and then unwrap the colored cloth, leaving the body wrapped in a thin white cloth. The body is placed onto the pile of wood, and the priest covered the body with more wood and sticks, after which the male mourner lit the funeral pyre and the cremation attendant tended the fire until it had consumed the body. There were four pyres burning and several more being prepared as we watched, and this was only one of many such scenes going on continuously up and down the Ganges, especially at Varanasi. The smoke was thick with an unfamiliar smell but not repulsive as we anticipated. As each cremation was finished, the ashes were raked to the edge of the Ganges to be washed down stream. We could not help but believe this even added to the already overly polluted state of the river.
Having gotten up early in the morning to visit the Panna National Park and a farm village outside the town of Khajuraho, flown from Khajuraho to Varanasi, and gone to the Holy Ceremonies by the Ganges, once we arrived at our hotel, a four star Radisson, and checked in and ate the nice meal provided by SmarTours, we turned in for the night, ready to arise early the next morning to experience sunrise on the Ganges.

In Varanasi the greeting is Om or Hari-om instead of Namaste, as they say everywhere else. We returned before dawn by bus to the Ganges setting of the night before, but it is very different and quiet now. Many pilgrims and many locals come for their morning’s spiritual activities in predawn, which is best for meditation and prayer. The fresh energy current helps you to concentrate the mind for meditation or prayer. The locals who come to dip in the river change their clothes afterwards and carry holy water to a temple for prayer. Again we got into the wooden boat and drifted along the shore to see the morning activities.
Many people, even businessmen who changed out of suits, bathe in this very polluted river, men in underwear or swim trunks and the women wrapped in a simple sari. Some wash their hair, and even brush their teeth. Unbelievable, because it is filled with filth from animals, people, trash, ashes, absolutely a cesspool. This oldest of rituals completely ignores modern hygiene!!! As part of the required pilgrimage, they go to the Temple of Shiva for prayer. If a person can’t pay for the trip, the government and airline stipends help.

Various temples are dedicated to various gods, and that deity’s statue is in the middle made of stone, wood, or metal. Brahmin priests originally made ceremonies in the temple and invited the Spirit of the Supreme god to come into the inert statue. Since this must be repeated each day, one Brahmin family stays near the temple and brings breakfast to the statue. Then others can knock and then come in to worship. The people bring offerings of food, flowers, money, but it is okay to come with none because the god has no connection with these offerings. The priest keeps half, and half is given back to devotees to eat or keep with prishad, (the blessing of the teaching.) Priests are married and it is a family job to keep the tradition going.
We had to walk about a mile through town, which was just waking up and we experienced only a few hawkers and beggars along the way. Even though the traffic was light at that time of day, at one point I realized I was walking in a street beginning to fill with bikes, tuk-tuks, cows, cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, hawkers, and businesses on the border of the street opening. Drains on each side were clogged with trash, and I was aware of the Indian advice I received: “Ignore the traffic and trust they will miss you, or if they HAVE to they will stop the car right before they hit you.” It was blissfully peaceful for a moment when I realized I was not horrified and in terror, but I quickly lost that bliss when a car bumper almost made contact with me and honked as a motorcycle flew past. Wow, I have been here too long! Today is Thanksgiving 2010, and I am so thankful for all the conveniences that surround me back at home in the US.
We all wish we could help all the pitiful beggars along the way at any time of day or night. One man in our group went along last night handing out 10 rupee notes (5cents) as we went along, and quickly beggars surrounded him in a frightening way. We would like to buy some trinkets to help them and for souvenirs, but if we even look at them once, the hawkers follow and hound us, polite but incessant. To our surprise, though, in India we did not encounter any pick-pocketing. We always feel safe but just followed and overwhelmed, and if you buy one item, the hawkers persist with more and others join them because you are now officially a customer.

Varanasi was the final city on our India part of the SmarTours tour, as we flew to Nepal from Varanasi before returning to the US. Experiencing the scenes along the Ganges from the night prayer rituals to the cremations to the sunrise activities gave us an even deeper knowledge of the Indian culture.