Saturday, April 30, 2011

A little bit of Everything

Day 3, 4, and 5.

We departed Banaras Beads late in the afternoon heading for the city center of old Varanasi. I watched from the front this round, through my camera lens. I took pictures of things that caught my eye: the wooden cart passing stacked high with veggies, another with mixed fruit. There were also the sand castle stacks of various building materials-- loads of dry cement, cinder block, and brick. Once we got deeper, food vendors appeared, making fresh juice for  lime soda which can be sweetened if you like (super tempting, but no, we didn't try), and other vendors, hundreds of them selling a little bit of everything, from fabrics to bangles, to a vast assortment of miniature goods, gods and temples and things.

I had absolutely no idea where we were going, none, and it appeared our taxi driver didn't either.  He finally stopped rather randomly, almost in the middle of the invisible lane on the roadway now swarmed with people. He asked Lori a few questions that only confirmed our growing doubt, and within a few seconds a boy appeared claiming to work for the hotel whose name we had just mentioned aloud to the driver himself. Hmm... just a coincidence? We got out of the car and after some reservation we decided to follow the boy, though we opted to carry our own bags, just in case.

We ventured through the swarms of people continuing as only was possible, in single file. It was hot, and body heat factored in quickly making it more so. We walked for at least twenty minutes, in and out of alleyways (the Galis), past that enormous bull, and those vendors, I was trying to keep track for a while and finally gave up. Just when I did,  sure enough! This young chap led us right to the Alka Hotel. What an Experience! I still have no idea what route he took to get us there, winding in and out, up and down but as it goes in Varanasi, a little faith can take you a long way.

I love it here, immediately.  In all the craziness you go through to arrive, rich with chaos and doubt, everything leads up to this-- your first meeting with the cool, calm water of the Ganges, and it does! Everyone comes to Varanasi to honor the River. The Alka Hotel is located on the river front, so we were privy to witness, with box seats if you will, thousands of believers come from all over the world to wash themselves free in the water. There are a thousand stories in Hinduism, one for each of the 330 million gods that govern and guide its followers. (that would mean millllions of stories!) And as it goes, the goddess Ganga loved Varanasi so much that she changed her course completely, literally making a U turn to head north again just to flow through this beloved place.

Our travel guide wrote, that you may wonder what magic power can draw together business man, scholar, and bureaucrat in India, which is a really reasonable question. Well, it said: it's Varanasi, the sacred place, its the tirthas, and lingas or shrines dedicated to Shiva that bring their hands together fists full of flowers! Of course, visiting Varanasi, the most holy of tirthas, is sacred. They say the Ganga will wash away all your negative karma if you bath in her waters here. They also say if you are lucky enough to die here, or be cremated here (which thousands of people are everyday), or even offered to the Ganga as ash you will be divinely blessed with moksha, instant enlightenment.  

Varanasi is seeped in sacred, though you wouldn't know it by smell-- because that's a strange mix of cow manure, stagnant water, and incense-- you can feel it in your bones, in vibration, it's in the pauses that are taken thousands of times every second. Everywhere you turn it seems there are linga shrines dedicated to Shiva, the god of this city. The story goes that after searching all the lands of India, his heart was taken by the beauty of Varanasi alone so after Shiva married Parvati (a beloved goddess of Hinduism) they settled here. I later learned that each of the millions of lingas spread throughout the city serve to remind passerby that Shiva's presence has never left this place, nor will it ever. The pilgrims here are forever pausing to remember, bowing in loving dedication, for Shiva is the most loved of all.

Along the banks of the Ganges, there are some thirty Gnats (temples) each serving a unique purpose that you could spend lifetimes discovering. I read about a traditional five day pilgrimage called a Yatra involving a 80km trek through the dusty Galis, villages, and fields of the city that takes in no less than 108 major temple shrines! The sacred is as dense here as the humidity in Delhi is in May!

Perhaps now you can understand why there are throngs of people who come, why the crematoriums here never rest. Perhaps you can feel it when I say walking the Galis of Varanasi is like walking a giant labyrinth... or like seeing in the face of a single city the full life story of thousands. We took a boat ride at dawn guided by a young man named Ani who knew all the stories by heart. He told and retold stories to us, practicing his English, while we listened and re listened to practice our translation. We enjoyed the daily Aarti ceremony at dusk at the Vishwantath Temple, above the steps that lead into the water. We sent bowls of marigold flowers made out of dried leaves as offerings into the River, praying for everyone we've ever known. In between we wandered the Galis, discovering one temple after another. There were SO many highlights, but the most golden, was the Golden Temple, only recently opened to the eyes of tourists.

We'll get some more pictures up soon.
until then,


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