On the surface, my mind says, the ways of this country are not for the faint of heart, yet there is a deeper truth and a depth of FAITH that pervades life in India. It is in this truth that my spirit surrenders and all experiences are opened to, through this innate trust that all is well.
I am moved to preserve my impressions of this mystical place known as Varanasi, an ancient midevil city; in fact, one of the oldest cities in the world with a population of over 3 million. The description of this holy city, also referred to as Benares, made by Mark Twain in 1897 could not have said it better: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Reminiscent of times past, wandering side streets where shrines appear in unexpected places; anointed with flowers, incense and offerings made to the great one. Temples at every turn indicate just how much spirituality is woven into the threads of daily life. Ritual offerings of pindas (rice and doughy sweets made from flour and milk) blessed by priests are fed to my mouth. One cannot help but be changed, molded by the ways of this divine space.
Life in Varanasi is active 24 hours a day. The air, thick with smoke, incense, woody scent of sandalwood, the sweet bouquet of jasmine; and heavy, tainted with the singe of burnt flesh… but an ashen memory from the cremation sites along the Ghats. Everywhere there is sound, layers of sound the dull roar of foreign voices, -enticing, selling, sharing, chanting the endless beeping of horns (some horns yodel the continual vocal melodic trill of never ending chords) then deeper sounds of this sacred city. Chants of mantras fill my ears, sung with intention to evoke ancestral beings, the beating rhythm of drums, haunting melodies of flutes and the high pitched tinkling of Tibetan prayer bells.
Salesmen beckon, through endless touch, forever persistent -an intense in-your-face hard sell attempting to close a sale of small statues, ivory, perfumes, or glass bangles. Others present their wares draped on their bodies, colorful prayer beads in layers round the neck, tulsi beads layering an arm.
Small shops line the narrow dusty streets. A unique doorway catches my eye -a miniature door, 3 feet tall! The door is ajar. I peer in. Electrical stuff from floor to ceiling, the salesman, hand on my arm, tells me“A mechanical shop!”
Do I look up or down?? Crowds everywhere. Weaving through cow dung Watch Your Step! And I am still holding my breath! Yet draped above me, textiles, fine silk, muslin, pashmina, and woolen scarves, the colours of silk, all hues of the rainbow, their softness entice and draw me in, an esthetic experience, senses overload.
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Life occurs along the river. Bathing ghats, religious ghats, cremation ghats, separated for Brahmans, sadhus, the poor. Here burns a fire, its flame faithfully tended too, kept burning for thousands of years. The same fire burning for centuries! The fire of Shiva at the burning Ghats. The energy of this place is ancient, sacred secrets in every wall, each turn, every sound. Varanasi, known as the City of Shiva, the cosmic lord, the pure one, the creator and sustainer of life and death, lord of ash. It is believed that Shiva is a deity who purifies through hearing the simple utterance of His name. His spirit wanders in the cremation sites along the ghats. He exists in every happiness, each pure thought, every sorrow, each breath of life and the last breath before death. After every fire, only ash will remain. So is posed the question, where is the need for pain, sorrow, anger and greed, if all things eventually return to dust?
It is the obligation here, for the wealthy to pay respect too and financially cover the cremation expenses of the poor. From far and wide, the poor travel with intent to die in Varanasi, as the ganga is considered the ultimate place to be purified, the soul instantly liberated, and released to heaven. At death, it is a great wish and honor be cremated in Varanasi and have ones ashes and body thrown into the Ganga River.
To read other blogs and view some photos of Vanarasi click here.