Friday, 17 August 2012

Varanasi: Where Life and Death Coexist

Few weeks into teaching, the other ELT’s and I agreed that is was much needed to take a break. Thus, we decided to book a trip to Varanasi , aka the 'holiest' city in India.

Varanasi  was AH-MAZING!!! We visited several 'ghats,' they are steps that lead to the Ganges. The Ganges, known to Hindus as the 'Great Mother,' is regarded as a river of salvation. People come to her 'ghats' to pay respect, offer prayer, and cleanse themselves of sin. We got the chance to visit the Manikarnika ghat, aka the burning ghat. That's where people from all over India come to burn/put their loved ones to rest. From the looks of it, that water did not look too pleasing to the eye (in my opinion). Interestingly enough, they have the burning ceremony every single morning (4-6AM). After choosing some wood to carry the deceased, the family wraps the deceased in a cloth/pay their final respects, the priests does his rituals (varies for each caste) and they burn the body. After that (for the rest of the day), people literally bathe in the same water as a way to relinquish their sins.

Mother bathing her child

Unfortunately/fortunately (varies per person), I was not allowed to take any pictures of the funeral process. 
Varanasi  is a holy place for several religions; many of them have temples there. We visited the Tibetan temple for the Dali Lama, the Jainism temple, etc. We also visited the stupa where Buddha has his first sermon and we hiked up the place where Buddha met his first disciples. This place was super-hot but not as humid as Kolkata.

I definitely broke that rule...
Buddha's Stupa--we climbed it!!

The view from the top
In Varanasi, I re-realized that getting lost is part of the experience. The three of us visited several ghats. From the steep flights of steps to the actual town area, you will notice several narrow alleys too narrow for traffic but perfectly sized for a human being and a cow to roam or just stay put. At random we walked through several alleys. Each turn you take through these alleys leads you a live corner filled with people, chai (tea) wallahs (sellers), shop keepers, various smells, and one or two cows. We never felt unsafe because we knew with the help of a few friendly strangers we would be lead back safely.

On our last night, we participated in a beautiful ceremony called Aarti. Every night the people of the city meet at this one place. People sit in canoes or on the steps along the water watching these 7 priests performing religious rituals. This ritual is about preserving life and always keeping God at the center of all that you do. Our activities and daily life revolves around God. Everyone usually buys a candle in a cup with flowers. During the ceremony we're supposed to pray for longevity for our loved ones/friends and then release the candle in the water to flow on the holy water. It's a beautiful sight when you see all the burning candles flowing on the water. It’s is very interesting to see how these people value the circle of life by celebrating death early in the morning, cleansing of sins, then life throughout the day until night. 

My AMAZING dinner that night :) SO GOOD!!!

Great time with the girls! Carolina (left) and Kara (right)

Putting a candle down to bless my family and friends 
Several thousands of people were out in the water for this ceremony
Before I forget---I DROVE a rickshaw!!! One of the great pros to living here in India is the skill of bargaining. Unlike any typical tourist who would take up any price taxi drivers throw at them, my friends and I don’t play. Especially when we know how much cheaper it is for a local to get a ride to and from the same place. Rather than take a taxi (super expensive) we decided to take a rickshaw to the airport (1hr+ drive). Our driver did not know any English at all but during the ride to the airport he stopped to the side and said to each of us, "1 km for you, 1 km for you, and 1 km for you," lol, I seriously thought he was joking. We realized he was serious when he drove to the side and scooted over for us to drive. Never in my life did I plan for this to happen but for a minute I thought YOLO—you only live once— and I decide to go first. This man really taught me how to drive the rickshaw. When I got the hang of it he took his hands off mine and let me drive. It was CRAZY but SO MUCH FUN!!

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