Holy Smokes - we are in Varanasi!

Trip Start Jun 07, 2008
Trip End Jun 28, 2009

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, November 16, 2008

We are in Varanasi - the Holy City in India. It is famous for the river Ganges, where millions of Hindus come to bathe in the river and throw ashes of their family members who die. According to the legend, the demons and gods were all fighting to get the Elixer of Life (which gives you eternal life). The gods got the Elixer, but when they grabbed it eight drops fell down to the Earth. One of the drops fell in the Ganges River near Varanasi. Hindus believe that you have to bathe in the river at least once in your life and if you do, you are forgiven of all your sins, even things like murder.

We are staying right next to the Ganges River - from our room I can see lots of water buffalo, lounging in the river and roaming around. I can also see lots of people doing all sorts of things, like two men cutting other men's hair, some women and children bathing at a public water pump, some women collecting cow manure and putting it into bowls on their heads, some girls my age picking through a huge pile of garbage (mom says these are rag pickers) and some people sitting outside watching a TV. There is also loud music playing - it is a woman singing in Hindu.

This afternoon, we are going on a boat ride down the river, to see the ghats (stairs) where people come to wash.

Okay, tonight was C-R-A-Z-Y!!!!! We took rickshaws through the dirt streets of Varanasi to the market area next to the ghats and the Ganges. It was a wild rickshaw ride because there were so many people, rickshaws, mopeds, cows, dogs, cars, and people going all directions. And the streets were very narrow and in terrible condition. When we got to the market, it was already dark and the market was very crowded. There were all kinds of shops. Indrajit took us down to the ghats, where they setting up for the aarti ceremony (more on this later) and there were some protestors with signs protesting that the river, which is now the national river of India, should be cleaner.

We got on a big wooden rowboat and a guy rowed us out onto the river. We rowed down the river towards another ghat. Along the way, we saw little candles floating in the river. These are what people put in the river to pray for someone. I saw a fire burning on the shore further down the river like a huge bonfire. I asked Indrajit what it was and he told me it was the cremation site for people who have died. When we got closer, I could see there were about 8 or 9 fires going at the same time. This is the place where Hindus come to burn the bodies of their relatives who have died, which is sad but is true. I could see men carrying a body down to the river - these would have to be male relatives of the person who died. Women are not allowed to go to the fire sites. I watched the men washthe body in the holy river before putting it on top of the fire. I could not believe I was watching them do this. You have to buy firewood to burn the body. Then the body started burning. A few minutes later, we saw a guy all dressed in white, which would be the family member who set the fire to burn their relative (it is usually the oldest or youngest son), walking towards the river holding something in his hand. Indrajit said it was the hip bone, probably, of his relative. The hip bones and rib cages often don't get burned so they throw them in the river - just one reason it is very polluted. The man threw the bones in the river, then he collected river water in a small pot. He carried the water back to the fire and threw it on the fire, then he turned backwards away from the fire and threw the pot over his head into the fire and broke it. Then he walked away and did not look back because you are not allowed to look back. This means that you are letting your relative move on to his next life.

When Hindus die, they don't call it dying, they call it being reborn. They believe that if you are cremated next to the Ganges river, you will go straight to heaven. And if the wood for the fire is sandelwood, then you have extra special luck in heaven. About 200 people a day are burned in Varanasi, but you can also be burned in any other place near a river or water, because you have to give the physical part of the body back to the earth.

After the body is burned, guys take the ashes and throw them in the river. This seems like a very bad job and also very sad. People from the lowest caste have to do this job. (They usually search the ashes before they throw them in the river because sometimes people leave rings or valuables on the body.) But you are not supposed to be sad or cry when someone you know dies if you are Hindu, because you have to let them go and crying will keep them here. After the person dies, he may come back as another person, or he can go directly to heaven. For ten days after the person dies, his family members can not eat or drink and no one can accept any food from their house. They have to also sleep on the floor and not do anything nice. On the 13th day, they have a memorial for the person who died. Then they can eat again.

It was sort of sad to watch all of this, especially at night sitting on the river. It was like nothing I have EVER seen before.

After we watched the cremations, we rowed back to the Aarti Ceremony, where they had about six priests dressed in orange (the holy color) sitting in front of tables with all sorts of things. Someone began singing or chanting, and they all did things like light giant candles and wave them around, hold up peacock feathers, and blow conch shells (like in the book I just read). They also rang bells and the noise was very loud. At one point everyone, including us, started clapping. The aarti ceremony is kind of like church for Hindus. In Varanasi, they have an aarti ceremony every morning and night. But in other places, like Pushkar, they only have it on special occasions. You always have to have it next to a holy water, like a lake or river.

We took rickshaws back to the hotel - it was WILD riding very fast down the bumpy, potholed streets in the pitch dark. Before we left the ghats, we saw lots of people begging and sleeping - lots of people come here to die or to get money because they are so poor. Lots of the buildings in Varanasi are old and falling apart and it is very run down and dirty. But it is the holiest place for Hindus and they must come here at least once in their life. I am still freaked out that people throw the bones in the river - it is definitely not good for the water! Tomorrow morning we are going to watch people bathe in the river - after tonight I can't imagine doing that EVER!
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