Varnassi is the holy city on the Ganges River. The Ganges, or Ganga in Hindi, is a river that begins in the himalayas in the north and the flows down spreading across the north of India. The river is said to be the holiest of all rivers. People in India use this river for all that they do. They pray in the water, they brush their teeth, they bathe, they wash their clothes. Water from the Ganges is used to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the river is believed to wash away one's sins. To bathe in the Ganga is a lifelong ambition for Hindus and they congregate in incredible numbers for the Sangam, Sagar Mela and Kumbh Mela festivals. It is believed that any water that mixes with even the smallest amount of Ganges water becomes holy with healing powers. Hindus also cast the ashes of their dead in the river in the belief that this will guide the souls of the deceased straight to paradise.
Varnassi is the city of liberation. It is a place that many Hindu's come to die for it is said that if one dies in Varnassi they will recieve ultimate liberation from returning to earth to play out one's Karma. If they die in Varnassi they go straight to heaven and move on to higher cosmic purposes. Varnassi is also a center for education and religion. It boasts many higher education campuses. Varnassi is called the city of learning and burning, for many people die here and are cremated each day at the same time as many others are learning and studying. There are literally hudreds of temples and schools in this town.
It is a place with intense energy flying around! We took the overnight train here and arrive early in the afternoon already missing our Sonu. We had hesitantly parted ways with him in Agra. At this point in my journey I was supposed to be heading south to Goa to begin my training in Ayurveda. But, the universe has steered me in a different direction. All that I have heard about Goa since coming to India is that this is NOT the time of year to be down there. People have told me that the monsoons are unbearable, that there are too many mosquito's, that there are mud slides, and that the water is bad. I decided that it is not the time for me to be trapped in the worst part of the country when there is so much amazing stuff to do else where. I have made plans to travel on with Sarah and Cecile to a couple more places and then part ways for a while. They will head on to their meditation ashrams and I will fly down to Goa for just a weekend to retrieve my refund on my deposit. Then I plan to continue in my traveling in the north. I have found out about a city called Rishi Kesh, which is the center for yoga and ayurveda this time of year! I have had many people tell me I will love it there!
So, here we are in Varnassi, the holy city. We have planned out a couple of full days of touring and exploring. We start our exploration of Varnassi by taking a boat ride on the river to see the evening prayer rituals. We are dropped off close to the river and are told to follow a young boy with a black heart patch sewn on to the back of his white button up shirt. Many sadhu's, or holy men swarm the streets all over. Following the black heart I am dodging cow poo left and right in the small walled in city blocks we are menouvering. Varnassi is a very dirty city! Finally we reach the waters edge. The milky, flowing Ganges river is a beautiful sight. The water flows in swirling patterns of chocolate brown. By the waters edge on rocks and platforms, one can see many people bathing in the waters and praying. On rocks by the edge brightly colored orange, red, and yellow colorful towels are strewn. We are given little paper trays full of flowers with a candle in the middle and told to make a wish or prayer and drop it in the waters to float away.
The boy rowing the boat cant be older than 14 with a small frame bulked up on the top half like a body builder from his hard work rowing in the Ganges. I think of my brothers at this boys age, playing ice hockey, exploring budwieser, going to junior high. Wow life is different for the youth of this nation than it is for those of mine.
We find ourselves being rowed up to a very special ritual and dark scene. We are not sure what is going on here but we are silent and frozen in the moment. There are two bon fires burning. Many people are gathered around. It is a dark scene with a somber feel. I am caught up in the dance of the fire, and as I stare my mind wanders trying to figure out what kind of sacred ritual I am imposing upon. I have the feeling that I am not supposed to be here. Suddenly my intellect kicks in as my eyes focus on a familiar shape in the fire. That was wierd! Wierd! I think I saw a foot. That couldn't be a foot. But then the story of Varnassi, the city of learning and burning, pops into my head. The city of burning. That could have been a foot. My stomache turns. The man attending the fire stokes it and my fears are proven true. The leg bends and ankle points in ballerina pose, as the man pokes the fire, and I know it is a human burning in there. Flesh burns slow still moist from life and last dip in the holy ganges. I cant believe I am witnessing this. Weren't people just bathing over there, so close to where this human body is being creamated at the waters edge. I look over at Sarah out of instinct to tell her what I just saw, and I quickly become aware that she has seen it too. The guide and the rowing boy realize that they have not warned us of where we are, and understanding smiles reassure us that they are sorry they had not done so. They begin to tell us of how this is their ritual for cremation as well as all about Varnassi's purpose as the city of liberation. All this we already know and their voices are drawn out by the intensity in my head. I really cant believe I am watching this ritual go on.
Just then I see another family aproaching to perform the ritual on their deceased family member. The body is wrapped in gold cloth and being carried on a gurney. The family takes the body down to the ganges and washes it one last time in the holy waters. The body is then brought over and placed on the fire. I am amazed at how life and death go on right next to each other here. I am amazed at how people can bathe in the water so close to where they bathe the dead in the water. I am simply amazed that I am experiencing this ancient cultural ritual and ceremony.
It is said that scientists have tested the Ganges and found that it is horribly polluted. And yet the natives to this land drink the water and seem to be fine. There is something to be said of the power of belief, for these people really believe in the healing properties of this polluted river. But, I am NOT about to jump on in for a bath or join in for some Ganges Chai! I believe that their faith is beautiful, and their rituals ancienct and unique!
We are rowed away from the dark scene with stunned senses and curiosity of what we shall see next. We are taken over to another area on the Gages banks where the evening prayer is about to begin. We park the boat and buckle down for the ceremonies. There are four monks dressed in robes performing some sort of a dance synchronised with the mantras being chanted over a loudspeaker. The color of prayer is orange, and so many pilgrims and sadhu's in orange robes are crowded by the water praying and bathing. The evening prayer lasts for about an hour or so. There is chanting, bells, and the monks continue on with their dance. The scene is beautiful and amazing. At some point we join in the mantra chanting, for the fun of it. Our guide tells us we are praying to Siva, the destroyer. Siva is the god of change, wiping clean old slate making room for new. Siva also is connected to fertility and sexuality and sensuality. I am so happy to have experienced this evening prayer.
We go home quietly. A silence in me is growing. I am in need of some processing. I have experienced and absorbed so much in the last few days. It is amazing, intense, and a bit overwhelming, but still good! I am deeply affected by what I have witnessed. I will never forget what I saw today. It is difficult for my western mind to comprehend some of it. I know it will take time for me to understand and sort it out.
I wonder what tomorrow will bring!