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Destination: India {part 2}

May 9, 2011

Hubby and I always follow a very simple trip planning rule: start  off with a bang. I thought all of India counted as the bang so I didn’t pay much attention to what came in which order on our itinerary but, in retrospect, our bang came at the end: Varanasi.

We loved the Taj Mahal and all of the cities Rakesh carefully led us through; we reveled in all the craziness and clamour of Jaipur, Agra, Orchha, and Jhansi equally – from 1000 year old tantric temples to naked Jain monks traveling on foot while their Tour de France style support car followed behind. Not everyone would have loved these things, but we judge the merits of a particular travel destination based on a pretty broad set of criteria.  Preferably our time in a locale is equal parts vacation in the traditional sense of the word and equal parts anthropological and sociological exploration.  Up until Rakesh left us at the Jhansi train station for our overnight to Varanasi I wasn’t sure if I was going to get more than a much needed vacation during our travels. But from Jhansi on it was as if we got to see behind the curtain – tourist, modern India under our proverbial belts, we would be moving ahead into the much larger and difficult (sur)real India where old and new are duking it out furiously everyday. Our first clue was the complete normalcy of a giant bull strolling down our train tracks, our second the slow realization that the train platform was silently self-organized by caste. We slept fitfully through the night and awoke to watch the vast Indian landscape roll by, ox plows laboring next to Cup-o-Noodle Factories and all, before emerging into the early heat of a Varanasi day.

Varanasi is the holiest city of Hinduism. Kind of like  Vatican City or Jerusalem, except that its even older (supposedly the oldest continuously occupied city in the world.) Hindus send their dead to be cremated on the banks of the great wide Ganges river and the funeral pyres burn 24 hours a day in some spots. Ancient temples and modern universities crowd the city and the millions of people who perfunctorily or ritualistically bathe in the Ganges each day crowd it even more. Strung out over more than 8 miles of river, the city literally steps down to receive its greatest asset at high water or low. Goats and Water Buffalo share the banks with Sadhus, boatmen and children selling candled flower bowls. For a magical day or two we shared it with them, too.

The Ganges River is the spiritual heart of this most spiritual city and every night – every night – a fantastic ritual that has nothing to with commerce, collection plates or anything other than devotional prayer plays out on its banks: the Aarti Ceremony.

We threaded our way through a sea of local shoppers enjoying a pedestrian street at dusk to the particular ghat where the Aarti is held each day. We ran into a new friend who had shown us much of the city that day, for karma he said, no tip, no money and he meant it. He led us to a platform perch where many well-dressed faithful where already seated, brought Brian a tiny cup of masala chai and the bells began to ring. The ritual is simple and repetitive: the priests face the divine – the Ganges – and turn clockwise while meditating with various items – fire, incense, marigolds, oils and more. Bells clang and live singing plays over loudspeakers, the crowd claps in unison. The young priests seem to go into a sort of lovely trance, mouthing the words to the songs and gliding through the movements. An impossibly long note is blown on a conch shell by the central priests and we all file down the steps to light our flowered candle bowls and set them adrift on the Ganges current: a thousand floating wishes flickering down stream.

We followed the post-Aarti rush back into the streets and encountered more fantastic rituals. Numerous wedding parties paraded through the streets (it was a lucky Tuesday for marriage according to the zodiac we were told.) Each horse, wagon or elephant mounted groom was announced by drum corps and preceded by columns of people balancing light sculptures on their heads. All of this is in turn was tethered to bicycles or wagons carrying generators to support the light show.

Practically inflated by the experiences of the day we allowed ourselves a few hours of sleep. We rose before the sun and headed back to the same ghat for a morning boat ride that would glide us past the treasures of the city and its people.

 Overwhelmed, fascinated, practically in love and hungry for more we had to leave Varanasi for points west. Our last stop in India and our true big bang, Varanasi ensured that we got more than a vacation. Prior to Varanasi we understood that faith was a big part of life in India but in Varanasi we got a sense of its pull, its attraction, its magic, if you will. Cab drivers tapped the brakes and bowed their heads at each street-side shrine. Graduating college students visited temples en masse still dressed in their caps and gowns. Our friend shared his day with us for a little good karma. Hubby and I aren’t Hindu, but we hope karma is real and that all those who seek to cultivate the good stuff get it back in heaping helpings.

Next time: Morocco (I know you are thinking India to Morocco? Huh? But yes, we ended our India trip…in Morocco.)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane Cook permalink
    May 9, 2011 9:49 am

    Heather, these pictures are wonderful. I think you could write for a travel magazine!!!!! I esp. love the pictures of the children on the horses…the one little girl is beautiful. Are those your hands painted with henna? If so. how long did it take to wear off?

    • May 9, 2011 9:52 am

      Not my hands 😦 They were the hands of a woman next to me at the Aarti ceremony. She shyly agreed to let me photograph them. Thanks for the comment and compliments 🙂

  2. Paul permalink
    May 10, 2011 8:04 am

    Dear Heather,

    Even my brother is a good photographer from India ,but the pics you took are very fascinating,specially pics at the Aarti ceremony at the River Ganges are mind blowing.

    🙂

    Next time you can try to take a walk around Old Delhi heritage area there is Asia’s biggest spice market,still traditional,Nai Sarak is famous for Paper work there are 300 to 400 year old houses .

  3. Tracy Nursey permalink
    May 13, 2011 9:51 pm

    LOVE the one with the hands and those goats are sooooo cuuuute!

  4. Kalpana Mohanraj permalink
    May 14, 2011 10:32 am

    I’ve never been to Varanasi, Heather, and this inspires! The photos take you there.. I am amazed how much you absorb in such a short while. Always enjoy reading your blog, is there anything you are not good at?! 🙂
    I esp. love the goat in air hopping up the stair – pure, innocent & beautiful!

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