Trip Start Jun 25, 2007
23Trip End Aug 17, 2007
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Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, and we began our stay here (as usual) with lectures about the city and its primary religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The city takes great pride in being a welcoming place for all beliefs. The downside is abject poverty - what we saw in New Delhi was bad, but this seems worse, although we are not being stared at like in New Delhi (a stare quickly turns into a smile and often a wave from the youngsters) - maybe because Varanasi's a pilgrimage site and locals are used to many kinds of people
The cacophony of horn blaring only subsided late last night when it was replaced with the drum beats and brass from a very high end Indian wedding here at the hotel. We saw about a half dozen weddings on the 7th! While this is a Taj Hotel, it is older and more tired than the Taj in New Delhi, and it has only 2 small elevators (although their lobby doors are patterned brass and quite beautiful). I say that because the size and number of elevators mattered yesterday when hundreds of wedding guests of all ages, the women in all their colorful sarees and jewelry, were competing with us for elevators. We returned home from the Ganges and were welcomed to the wedding - literally! We watched from afar as the groom on his horse slowly proceeded in from the street, accompanied by huge fireworks, the band, dancing and revelry. Men were in saffrom orange headdress. We woke this morning at 4 am and had to be on the bus at 4:30, and there were still dozens of wedding guests on the grounds.
Now, about getting to the Ganges. Our bus can't make it through the old town streets, so we were put in bike rickshaws and carted down almost through the river; about a 15 minute ride. On the way home, one of our group's rickshaw drivers ran into a car, and our friends Kevin and Anita were thrown, but not hurt
Now for the serious stuff. We attended the evening prayer on a ghat (a set of stairs to the Ganges River, one of 80 in Varanasi, and the biggest). Somehow (a monetary payoff?) we were seated on one of the platforms that are permanently placed before the small areas in which the Brahmin performs the ceremony
The hours-long prayers, music, incense, bells, drums and hundreds of people chanting all worked to set me and all of us at a blissful peace. It was transcendental, and I was moved to tears in the awareness that I was at a ghat on the Ganges River, Mother Ganga. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever put myself there, even in the planning of the trip. I knew the pictures and stories, but being there, a site with 5,000 years of history, was worth all the beggars and hawkers and annoyance. This morning we went back to the River and went on a boat ride at dawn. We saw hundreds of people bathing, praying, some washing clothes, several bodies being cremated, one wrapped body floating (sort of) and, of course the inevitable hawkers on boats who pulled up beside us to sell. Our walk through the old city was claustrophobic, dirty, invading privacy (I thought) and I couldn't get out soon enough. But I'm so glad we went! Everything here is completely juxtaposed - everyone takes great care with their own body and space, and cleanliness has a high value, in spite of the seeming impossibility of achieving it, but trash and garbage is scattered everywhere, too, along with animal droppings. Men urinate on walls (but we saw none of that near the Ganges, interestingly enough).
As a last note, I've seen these animals roaming freely among people here in Varanasi: chickens, pigs (huge!), macaques, cows and water buffalo, goats, donkeys and dogs. I may have left something out...
The power only went out once in the hour I've been writing, but this being the Taj, the generator took over and my work was not lost. Several friends have gone into town to use the internet cafes, only to lose everything when the lights go out.