Vārānasi, India
25° 20' N 83° 0' E
Oct 01, 2009 02:03
Distance 241km

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Text written in: English

Wash away sins 4 eternal enlightenment at Varanasi

After meeting our tour guide Aapji, a lovely tall Indian man with a gorgeous curly moustache, bushy beard, kind eyes and highly professional manner, we set off on our 7 hour journey south to Varanasi - city of Lord Shiva, the destroyer and god of death. 

A bit about Varanasi: The holiest and most spiritual place in India, Varanasi is placed on the Holy River Ganges, India's longest river which runs from the North of India to the East Coast.  Interestingly, Varanasi is on the one spot that the river flows from south to north on the west bank - a place of special significance where Hindu's believe Lord Shiva arrived on this earth. Hindu pilgrims come to wash way a lifetime of sins in the Ganges or cremate their loved ones.  Varanasi, previously named Benares and Kashi (City of Life) has always been an auspicious place to die (there are many homes near the river where older people, feeling their time is near, come to end their days).  Dieing here offers 'Moksha' - liberation from the cycle of birth and death (or reincarnation) and eternal enlightenment.

Our tour guide was great and kept us entertained on our 7 hour drive by teaching us some indian Hindi phrases: 'Namaste' meaning hello was the same as Nepal, as was 'thank you' as Dhan ye bhad); we also learnt 'Chele' - shall we go; 'Chelo' - let's go,   'acha' - good, 'kharab' - bad' and the most imporant 'Gee na hi' - which supposedly meant 'no' but was very effective at getting rid of anyone trying to sell us something.  He pre-warned us about cow poo and recommended that in Varanasi we wore closed shoes, as many of his tourists had been unlucky enough to step in some serious shit in the streets (or perhaps this is auspicious?).  'WHY ARE COWS SACRED IN INDIA' we asked?  'Well', replied Aapji, 'did you know that the only animal to carry its young for 9 months, like a human being, is the cow.  All other animals carry them mainly for 6 months. So to kill a cow, is an extremely bad thing and will cause you bad luck well into your many future lives - potentially even if you bath EVERY DAY in the Ganges holy waters.'  'Aahhh' we said, mystified.  Aapji continued, 'Cows have always existed with man, providing them with milk and also working the land.  When a cow gives birth, it is a great celebration and all households send gifts in honour of the birth.  Indians have four mothers... their own mother, Mother Cow, Mother Ganges and Mother India'.  'What happens when the cows get old?' we enquired.  'Of course, we have old age homes for the cows' Aapji replied.  Well, of course it all makes sense now!

We were very excited to get to our hotel where we discovered that not only was there cheap internet available onsite, but also a spa and a SWIMMING POOL.  Kirsten rushed off to book a massage - which ended up being more of an oil bath with oil poured all over her (just after she had laboriously washed her hair with the 3 rivulets of water emerging from our shower) - while I couldn't wait to get into the swimming pool, in spite of the rain.

The day after we arrived we had to wake up BEFORE the crack of dawn - 4:30am or my body clock midnight (hence the very sleepy expression on all the early morning photos) - to get down to the Ganges river (or Ganga river as the Hindi's call it) and witness the locals all washing away their sins in the holy waters.   Even down at the river banks at 5am there were plenty of people selling their wares... mainly flowers and foods for offerings to the Ganges River.  Aapji organised some offerings for us and lotus garlands as we set off with the hoard of tourists for our early morning row along the Ghats (of which there are 95 in total).  There were many, many people of all ages bathing in the waters - from just dipping themselves in to full-on frothy soap suds!  Holy men starting their prayers, people enjoying some 'laughing therapy' or yoga, Hindis feeding the pigeons and fish (very auspicious to feed animals that are unable to speak), gorgeous crumbling old temples and palaces from the Maharaja days and of course the Crematoriums with their piles of wood and ashes.  Apparently the fires at these Crematoriums have been burning since time immemorial, as each new Cremation is started with the burning embers of the previous one.  Our guide told us that around 200 bodies are cremated each day and it takes 700-900kg of wood to burn one body.

Once we'd had our first hand experience of Ganges bathing, our tour guide set off in the little back alleys of Varanasi, dating to 3rd and 4th centuries, where we judiciously attempted to avoid the many cow poo pats, cows, monkeys and rubbish while admiring the statues and temples.  We learnt that having a statue of Ganesh above your entrance or in your hallway is very auspicious and a sign of welcoming hospitality... of course, I have now invested in my own Ganesh.  Many of the statues had a type of orange paint on them, so when you ask for a blessing from the statue, you can take some of the orange paint and create a tika on your forehead.  Our tour guide also organised a cup of Chai from one of the local sellers - Masala Chai is the brew that all locals indulge in in the mornings, as the Indians say 'A lot can happen over a cup of Chai'.  Made in a hideously convoluted fashion, the milk is initially boiled to kill the germs, then tea is added to the brewing process, then various spices and sugars (including cinnamon, cardamon, ginger depending on the area) - not my 'cup of tea' so to speak, but Kirsten enjoyed hers!

After a lovely breakfast with a magnificent view of the Ganges, it seemed the monsoon weather was about to arrive... nice and cool, but not suitable for countinued strolling.  We set off to a silk weaving factory where we saw some gorgeous silks emerging from manually driven silk looms.  All the silks are generated in houses in a certain area, where families own a loom and sell their silks to the retailer.  We went on a tour, and the guide kept apologising for the 'quietness' as apparently it was Mahatma Ghandi's birthday and a holiday.  Judging by the loud 'clackity clack' noise emanating from the houses, I was seriously thinking that earplugs would be needed on a 'normal' day if this was quiet.  We tried to take some pics of the looms, but some houses weren't happy with us taking pics and some were very dark, making photos difficult (another health and safety issue). Of course, the credit card was smoking a little when we left at midday. 

That evening all three of us (me, Kirsten & Aapji) squeezed onto a tuk tuk ride to the Evening prayers (AARTI) and Lamp Ceremony on the Ganges ghats near the temple.  The tuk tuk ride in itself was extremely memorable, shooting in and out of every imaginable traffic scenario - bikes, buses, cars, motor bikes, tuk tuk's, three wheeled bicycles and of course the cows and dogs.   The funniest sight though was a protest by a whole bunch of school kids holding placards of Mother Cow. They were protesting to save Mother Cow and to look after all the cows in India.  (Yes that's right, I"m not lying).  We arrived at the river Ganges, which remember is the Mother Ganges to everyone in India - they say that as it is like the blood inside their veins as it runs right throughout India. 

 Anyway when we arrived it was like attending a rock concert, with hundreds of people and a stage area with seven prayer stands and a heap of people in boats on the river all around the preaching area, with large lights and sound to boot.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Aapji got us really good seats high above the 'stage' and we watched as 7 priests in waiting conducted the rituals with incense, fire and chanting (including Yak Hair - very pure as it comes from the Himalayas where Lord Shiva lived - and Peacock fans), and the whole crowd got into it by clapping and singing back.  Actually in reality it was really like a church sermon with lots of happy clapping - incidentally Kirsten and I had been doing lots of our laughing therapy and clapping exercises like they do in the river Ganges (good for body and soul!) - so of course we got into the spirit of things too, even petting a cow on our way back to the tuk tuk for 'Mother Cow's blessing'.

And there ended our spiritual journey at the Holiest City of Varanasi

Photos / videos of "Wash away sins 4 eternal enlightenment at Varanasi":

Me with lady selling flower garlands as offerings to the River Ganges prior to dawn Dawn peaks above the boats moored on the Ghats of River Ganges MOVIE Dawn Bathers washing away their sins in the River Ganges An old Maharaja Palace on the Ghats A very sleepy Fi and Kirsten as we row down the Ganges at dawn ... note our lotus garlands we later gave as an offering to Mother Ganges A view of the many Ghats of Varanasi City stretching along the west banks of the Ganges Some more sleepy expressions ... Cheese Guys!  A Holy Man makes a blessing to Shiva on the Ganges Ghats before immersing himself in the waters Cows wander along the Ghats as older men continue with their bathing rituals A Hindu temple with bathers in the River Ganges People of all ages and genders gather to bath in the holy waters A Holy Man gathers holy water from the Ganges Ok... I'm a little more awake now... note the other tourist boat in the background  One of the crematoriums along the Ghats  Women doing washing in the holy river for a living Definitely more awake now... smiles all round.. nothing like a romantic row at dawn to make a girl feel special A man with his young son on his shoulders bathes in the Holy Waters Laying out sheets to dry having been washed in Holy Waters - can't imagine what the markup must be on that! Returning to the main temple area, the crowds have definitely begun MOVIE Morning bathers crowd the Ghats of the Ganges at dawn while bells ring from the temples and holy men The young Indian Boy who rowed us along the Ghats The largest crematorium on the Ghats of the Ganges- if you look closely you can see the piles of wood stacked up high Our lotus garland offering to the Ganges... make a wish! Behind the Crematorium we can see the stacks of wood piled high for cremations The small alleyways of Varanasi Old City (3rd & 4th Century) A Ganesh Statue outside a home with orange 'paint dye' to allow you to place a tika on your forehead when asking for a blessing Example of an entryway to a house complete with lady of the house and house resident cow Local police indulge in a cup of 'Masala Chai' Kirsten enjoying her cup of Masala Chai Masala Chai clay cups... why you ask. Well, its an ecologically & biologically friendly means of recycling, better to throw away a clay cup than a polystyrene one! One of the classic shots the tourists love... and pay for! Dollars only please... A classic sign in English that made me smile The monsoon weather gathers over the River Ganges Me in front of the River Ganges... Varanasi sprawls to the right of the image These threads are tied to the tree as a sign of prayers by the Holy Men - tree near the Ghats 'Save Mother Cow' protest by school children Example of two silk weaving looms with our guide Example of a simple pattern of silver design manually woven into blue silk which I was to treat myself to later!  This design would take up to 2-3 weeks to complete. a More complex silk pattern with up to six colours - this could take 6 to 8 weeks to complete A man ensures all the silk threads are set correctly for the looms MOVIE weavers working on a blue silk cloth with silver design - even the old can still earn a living! Example of weavers at their loom - it takes two people to manually weave a silk pattern  Young man holds up a freshly dyed roll of silk thread The back of an intricately hand-woven silk that costs over £100! The beauty of the design and the colours are revealed of the handwoven design Detail of the hand woven design in silk thread - very much in the style of some pictures were were to see later on in Amber fort, Jaipur Our sales man with his array of colourful silk scarfs lined up in front Visiting a glass bead jewellery factory I was taken by this beaded wall hanging of Ganesh  Example of Indian musical instruments The Prayer stands facing the River Ganges ready for the Evening Aarti by priests in training. Note the number of boats and the crowds of people. The seven priests in training arrive to give praise to Lord Shiva and the Ganges The young priest in training takes position at his Prayer stand  MOVIE  Priests begin with ringing bells to awaken our senses MOVIE Incense is used to cleanse away evil spirits The Lamp Ceremony where the priests hold a flaming lamp high for Lord Shiva MOVIE of the Lamp Ceremony  MOVIE The lamp ceremony continues and the clapping starts... MOVIE Pure Yak Hair is used... to purify the air Priests with their Yak Hair Priests with their pyramid of 8 lamps... as it was too windy the night we attended, they unfortuantly didn't use these. MOVIE Young priests in training get some Holy Water from the Ganga and give thanks to Lord Shiva The main temple on the Ganga - the prayers are made on the ghat in front of the temple MOVIE The GANGA AARTI ceremony wraps up with much Victory cries and clapping Me with a Mother Cow on the Ganga Ghats after the Aarti Fancy a blessing from Mother Cow... they love their necks to be stratched