Trip Start Mar 04, 2009
Trip End Mar 28, 2009

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We were in Varanasi (formerly known as Benares) from March 20th to 25th. Varanasi is said to be the oldest city in the world that has been continuously populated. It is one of the holiest Hindu cities in India because of the Ganges (Ganga) River. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will wash away their sins and that being cremated in Varanasi and having their ashes placed in the Ganges will free them from the cycle of reincarnation.

Varanasi is intense and full of life and death. The first day we saw several funeral processions. For cremation, a family brings their loved one down to the Ganges River on a bamboo stretcher, wrapped cloth and decorated with flowers. First they dip the body in the Ganges. Then they negotiate a price for wood and place the body on a pyre in full view. A loved one circles the body 5 times with burning straw, which represents the 5 elements (air, earth, fire, water, and sun?).. Only men are allowed at the burning ghats because the family is not supposed to cry during the cremation because it may cause the person to be reincarnated.

There are as many as 12 people burning at a single ghat at one time.  There are up to 300 people burned a day.  The result of all this is that the lower class folks who handle the bodies are desensitized and show it.  Some of the bodies that are not burned float up to the surface.  We saw people bathing in the river a mere 50 feet from a dead body that had floated up and had drifted up against a boat.

Beyond the dead bodies, there are many other interesting things to see.  Many yoga gurus and spiritual leaders wandering the streets and ghats. We also went to Sarnath, which is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.  There are a series of ruins and a sulpta marking the place where Buddha's speech was given.  Muslims demolished the sulptas and the Hindus found a casket in one of them, which they threw into the Ganges.  Buddha spoke in a deer park, so they maintain a deer park there even now.

We went to many temples in Varansi, but there are more than 100 million different gods in Hinduism.  Therefore, I have no chance of understanding Hinduism from this visit alone.  The gods we know are Brahma (creator), Shiva (creation and destruction), Krishna (many arms), Ganesh (elephant head), Vishnu (blue, womanizer, and prankster), and Hanuman (monkey god).  The Ramanyan story is very famous.  Rama was an ancient king who had his wife stolen by an evil god Ravana.  Rama, with help from Hanuman and a bird called Ranyan?, tracked down and killed Ravana.  I may have the names wrong because I have seen many names that seem to be for the same character.

We also went to Benares Hindu University.  The campus is nice and quiet (for India) and they have a museum with lots of interesting old sculptures and paintings.  We even went to the Golden Temple, which is supposed to be only for Hindus.  It was a little akward, but in the chaos of India there are no rules that are strictly adhered to.
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