Sunday, February 20, 2005


Varanasi you later finally

Before I go on to tell you all about the lovely week I’m finishing up in Rajasthan, I did want to go into further detail about Varanasi, since it is such a significant place and it did leave a strong impression on me, for better and for worse.

One of the main attractions of the city, particularly for religious travelers, is the Ganges River on which the town is situated. I feel that this body of water is a kind of analogy for the city of Varanasi. In Hindu belief, the river springs from the head of the god Shiva and is basically unendingly pure and holy. Many Hindus refer to the river as Mother Ganga and it is truly a lifeline in Indian culture. It is a focal point of religious rituals, a receptacle for the ashes of many dead bodies, and also a center point for daily activities like clothes washing. It is very common for people to place offerings into the river the bring luck and blessings, and there are a serious of religious ceremonies where people chant and twirl oil lamps towards the water held on the banks every night. If this were all that the river was used for, it would be a nice place to visit. Unfortunately, people also throw their trash and plastic bags into the water. The wreaths and candles that look lovely floating as offerings wash up in ugly piles on the shore just a few hours later. People also go to the bathroom right on the banks and raw sewage has flowed into the water for years now. I tried to look at the Ganges and escape my ingrained cultural impressions of it, tried to see the holiness and purity, but all I could see was the tainted, horrendously dirty water.

In the same way, the city has many beautiful, unique and very holy Hindu temples. There are small shrines tucked into the winding, labyrinthine streets of the old city, many of them occupied by a phallic shaped representation of Shiva called a lingam, which looks like this. There are many holy men roaming the city along with the normal people who come to bathe in the river, then hang out and chat on the banks. Varanasi is also famous for are its silk sarees, which are hand-woven in the peoples’ homes using looms and punch cards that create the fabulous, intricate designs. If a weaver is lucky, s/he will make 6 or 7 inches of the 6.5-meter long garment in one day. The other salient but difficult aspect to witness of the city were the many cremations happening on certain areas of the riverbank. While these were stomach churning to watch and smell, I tried to see them in the positive light that Hinduism casts on them. People who die within the city limits of Varanasi are liberated from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Their years of wandering the Earth are over and they have achieved the highest spiritual point. Thus, death in the city is still solemn but not necessarily a sad or negative event. I think that having death out in the open and trying to break people from their attachment to their bodies because, hey, you may have a million more lives in a million more bodies, can remove some of the stigmas, taboos and fears that surround it. Again, if these were the only things happening in the city, along with the everyday life of the market shopping, and for us tourists, the hotels and restaurants, it would have been a lovely city, filled with light and spirituality. But like the Ganges that it sits on, it too was tainted. There were salespeople from shops who are constantly shouting at you, talking at you to try to get you to come in. There were a constant stream of kids trying to capitalize on the religious nature of the place by selling the little offerings; if you refused to buy one, they whined at you and would hang off of you for far too long. There were many, many sketchy young men who get a kick out of trying to hit on Western women, who are generally perceived as promiscuous. There were many, many cycle and auto rickshaw drivers who constantly try to get you into their vehicles as you walk down the street, try to up the price that was agreed upon for the ride, play off of your ignorance to make you pay double and triple what you should, and generally fight like dogs to get your business. I saw some of the drivers jump into another’s rickshaw to try to physically put the brakes on it so that I would ride with them instead. They also try to drop you off far from your destination then try to get more money from you to get there. All of this is combined with more garbage, more cows, water buffalos and stray dogs, more tourists, more motorcycles and bicycles all crammed into some very narrow streets. As I write this, I feel like it doesn’t sound too bad, but ultimately it just becomes overwhelming and exhausting. Indeed, in the end I did not see some of the more famous temples in the city because I did not want all of the hassle in trying to get there. So it’s not been my favorite destination of this trip and it was rather disappointing to have to stay there for those 3 extra days while I was recouping from my illness. But many people I spoke to enjoyed themselves there very much.

In an attempt to not be totally negative, I will say that I did have some nice moments there. The first was probably my general amazement that the people who got near the river didn’t drop dead instantly. While in an Internet café, I spoke to a man who’s working on a project to help clean up the river. He said that it’s filled with every communicable disease know to humans – hepatitis, cholera, typhoid. But you still see people on the banks at sunrise brushing their teeth with the water! They have just developed an amazing immunity. I also went to see an at least third generation astrologer, who had kind of a grandfatherly air despite his mostly missing teeth. I should note that people here take astrology very seriously and consult with astrologers before scheduling a wedding, purchasing property, or making an important step. Indeed, the timing of India’s independence in 1947 was changed because all of the most prominent astrologers said that the previous date was very inauspicious. On a smaller scale, no couple here can get married without first making sure that their horoscopes match. So the astrologer and I had a nice chat generally, and about my future, and was generally a very warm fellow who said I would always be welcomed back into his home for chai anytime.

In many ways, however, my experience here in Rajasthan has been so great that it’s washed away many of the bad parts of Varanasi, including my illness. I’ll go into detail about that in my next update. Take care and namaste until then!

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