Varanasi – Reflecting on the River Ganges
Varanasi (or “Benares”) is a mysterious place for westerners to grasp. As one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it has the typical Indian lure of colours, clothing, food, turbans, sarees, incense, cows, marigolds, bindi dots and daily Indian “goings-ons” but there is another layer of fascination and that is, the religious and mystical. Not many cities can claim to be founded by a deity several thousand years ago (Hinduism’s Lord Shiva) and have living saints or holy men walking among the visitors or holding yogic poses long enough to make most people’s limbs fall asleep. Varanasi was described by Mark Twain, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Add to this a pilgrimage site for hundreds daily and a field of active power, not the political kind, the mystical kind.
For Hindus, Jains and Buddhists it is the holiest of cities and the holy water of the Ganges is at the core of that holiness. Of significance, is Sarnath, the site where Buddha gave his first sermon and a place of pilgrimage for Tibetans as well as other Buddhists. Add to the seasoning that it is Varanasi a peppering of a few hundred thousand Muslims and there is a lot going on every day beside and in those holy waters.
Then, there is all that bathing (in water that is highly polluted yet holy, it’s a balance, you see) which Hindus believe extinguishes sins and dying in the Ganges ensures release of the soul. This religion is just not familiar enough for most westerners.
Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, or steps leading to the banks of the Ganges, many built for bathing while others are for, yep, cremation. Early hours has a calm as we push off for a boat trip up the river, a small part of river life will soon be revealed to the western observer. Men slather soap in the holy water, bodies cremated, laundry beaten and laid to dry, the colors so bright they look like they are displayed for sale.
Place an offering of marigolds and fire in the holy water after blessing and meditating. After a early morning cruise on the Ganges visitors start to get the hang of this holy stuff, birthplace of Buddha, holy city of Hindus, pilgrimage site of the Jains (Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of an important deity).
Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, or steps leading to the banks of the Ganges, many built for bathing while others are for …, yep, cremation. Funeral pyres can be seen smouldering and, for some, that just may be a little too close to the afterlife. But place an offering of fresh marigolds and fire in the holy water after blessing and meditating. After a early morning cruise on the Ganges visitors start to get the hang of this holy stuff, birthplace of Buddha, holy city of Hindus, pilgrimage site of Jains (Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of an important deity). Reflections abound, physically and emotionally on the River Ganges.