While I join many in lauding the beauty and magnificence of the Taj Mahal I personally was most taken with the Holy City of Varanasi, emotionally and spiritually. The effect of the city on me was visceral, but before I talk about that let me provide some background.
Varanasi, a city in the southeastern state of Uttar Pradesh, is one of India’s oldest cities. Hindus consider Varanasi very sacred as it lies alongside the Ganges River which begins in the Himalayas and then flows east 1550 miles into the Bay of Bengal.
To Hindus the Ganges is the embodiment of the Goddess Ganga and by bathing in its waters Hindus believe they can wash away their sins and reach “Moksha” (total spiritual liberation – I will be touching on this in another post). Varanasi has been a center of religion and philosophy since the 2nd millennium BCE.
Today Varanasi has miles of ghats, or steps, for religious bathing as well as many temples, and shrines.
The combination of the sun rising amidst the intense haze gave some of my pictures a most painterly quality – or perhaps it was the pure spirituality of Varanasi shining through:
Along the banks and steps there are holy men who provide blessings – the first is the one who blessed me:
I was taken by the serenity that pervaded the air – from the minute we arrived at sunrise – it was though we were given a very special welcome:
Despite the very cool December temperature, many devout locals and pilgrims made their way down the ghats into the waters of the Ganges. For those of you who may be wondering about the cleanliness of the water – while the Hindu believe the water to be very pure in the holy sense – it is actually quite polluted – despite continued efforts to reduce the flow of effluvia and the amount of cleansing products used by the bathers. Still, the believers not only bathe in the Ganges but drink its waters and few if any get sick.
What is most striking is the peace and serenity that emanates from these pilgrims – it is quite powerful:
I had a wonderful feeling of tranquility during my visit and I will share other impacts in a later post.
There had also been another visit to Varanasi the night before but I had not attended. While an Aarti ceremony of rhythmic prayers and drumming would have been lovely to behold, the evening also had many cremations taking place. The Hindus believe that the Ganges will transport the ashes of their deceased to heaven and reach total spiritual liberation or Moksha – at this stage the soul is freed from the cycle of birth and death – more on this in another post.
The crematoriums on the ghats actually can be in use 24 hours a day, but at nighttime it is obviously more intense to see. Here is what it looked like, courtesy of fellow India traveler Wes:
Given the recent escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan may the Goddess Ganga of the Ganges River flow through the land and give her people peace..