Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Varanasi--Last India Post

If you like India, you will love Varanasi, and you will certainly never forget it. Possibly the oldest city in the world, Varanasi occupies an especially holy place on the banks of the River Ganges. All Hindus should come here at least once in their lifetime to bathe in the river. Watching the religious rituals (best at sunrise and sunset) and everyday life of this chaotic, crowded, but most fascinating of Indian cities, is a unique and profound experience. The principal attraction of Varanasi is the long string of bathing ghats, which line the west bank of the Ganges. Ghats are the steps which lead down to the river from which pilgrims make their sin-cleansing dip in the holy river and on which bodies are cremated. A boat ride on the Ganges at dawn, when it is full of pilgrims, is an amazing experience.

Erik and I came to the conclusion that Varanasi was the last stop on the trip, because if you went there first, you'd be completely turned off. It is like India on steroids.

What the above description fails to mention is the Ganges is believed to be the most polluted river in the world. Much of the pollution is caused by the tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of bodies (cremated and not) dumped into the river each year. Along the river banks are many crematoriums where we saw bodies being burned, as well as, a funeral procession. There are huge mounds of trash on the banks of the Ganges, but people still bathe in and drink from the river. We took a boat ride at dawn through dense fog. I truly felt as if it was a ride on the River Styx. Old people often make pilgrimages to the Ganges to die in the river. Men like this one are everywhere in Varanasi. A homeless family with three small children living on the beach. Note the piles of trash and the cow eating it in the background. Buddhist pilgrims also flock to Varanasi to visit one of Buddhism’s most important sites 10km away at Sarnath. It was here that Gautama the Buddha preached his first sermon 2,500 years ago. The Archaeological Museum is worth a visit to view unique Buddha masterpieces.

Sarnath was very crowded with monks and nuns, because the Dalai Lama was speaking there the next day. I'll conclude with this short story: I overheard an American tourist striking up a conversation with someone while waiting in line. She said her tour guide told her India stands for, "I'll Never Do It Again!" It is easy to see why this phrase is popular. Erik and I do hope to do it again. It is a fascinating country of sharp contrasts--an amazing experience.


kelly said...

these posts have been great, thanks for taking the time. i think your mom and em are there now-enjoy-of course we'll look forward to those posts as well but please do a post with what you bought in india-all those fabrics and yarns in the beautiful colors had me drooling!

Elaine said...

Thanks for sharing your India experience, Amy. You've got some very nice pictures there. Inspired by the author of "Eat, Pray, Love" -Elizabeth Gilbert's extraodinary journey to India, I would like to also spend some time in an Ashram or in a Tibetan Buddhist retreat for a week.. ;)