Day 3&4 - Veranasi, India
written by guest blogger Paula Oreskovich
Shot of the Day - Aarti Ceremony
Varanasi-arguably one of India's most spiritual, holy cities where the River Ganges rules. Its been a dream of mine to visit ever since I saw photographs of the ceremonies and rituals performed in National Geographic. I have travelled around the world quite a bit but nothing prepared me for the visceral experience of Varanasi. From the moment we stepped off our plane and headed to our hotel, it was an all out assault on each of my senses: Sheer chaos: horns honking, clogged streets teeming with unmoving traffic coupled with cows, goats and dogs in the middle of it who seemed unfazed by it all; poverty like I have never seen; filthy streets lined with shops offering food, clothing, shoes, souvenirs; beggars asking you for money with outstretched hands and imploring eyes; people hawking trinkets and those shopkeepers whose small stores and markets lined the busy streets. Yet, amongst all of this madness, there is an underlying calmness, love and deep respect in the city of Varanasi for life, death and its ruling Mother --the River Ganges. One understands it the more you spend time along its banks. The people of Varanasi, the majority of them Hindu, worship the lifeblood of this magnificent river which provides them with both a life force and a place to die. We witnessed it all. It seemed that all roads lead to the Ganges and when you follow that road where it meets the Ganges-your soul awakens.
From the evening aarti sessions which we observed from both the land and in a boat sitting on the river that were filled with ceremonial Hindu offerings. Each component of the ceremony stood for something: space, wind, fire, water, earth and involved light, flowers, music and dance performed by young men wearing bright, colourful fabrics while singing, praying, lighting candles and ringing bells. Thousands and thousands of people converge at the ceremonial meeting point to watch and pay homage to the Ganges. Its a place to pray, give thanks but its also a place to watch the community come alive. Make no mistake, the Ganges provides a bustling industry with people selling flowers, food, jewellery-you name it! An incredible spectacle to take in. Its a madhouse getting there and getting back to your hotel as the streets bulge with people, cars, motorcycles, animals and bicycles. Its a nightly occurrence so don't miss it.
We also went early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Ganges and observe the Hindu people bathing and performing their daily prayers in the river. It was freezing cold--roughly 5C--yet the devoted calmly unrobed and plunged into the river to wash themselves and drink from the waters that they deem restorative, holy and healing. It was a breathtaking sight to see as I shivered under my layered clothing. It was their calm and gentle embrace of the River Ganges that had me mesmerised as many took a sip first before disappearing under the murky water.
However, what took my breath away in Varanasi was the ceremony of cremation. We went to the main crematorium by the Ganges which was burning bodies non-stop, 24 hours a day. Being cremated by the River Ganges is considered the ultimate privilege as Hindus believe that it liberates the person from death to life. During the day we watched bodies arrive draped in flowers, wrapped in colourful clothes accompanied by the "Chief Mourner" (a male relative) dressed in white clothing like Gandhi to oversee the cremation of their loved one. It was a sacred place that took up a huge area surrounded by enormous piles of wood. It wasn't until night time, when we went back to the crematorium by boat on the water and looked up the River Ganges, that the scene took my breath away. Huge fires, 20 at a time were burning simultaneously, while bodies were being carried on bamboo stretchers to prepare them for their turn. Each body took 3-4 hours to burn and we watched as they were first washed in the Ganges before being "sandwiched" by the wood and lit on fire. We also saw small remaining body parts that were taking too long to burn thrown into the River for fish to eat as there were simply too many more cremations to execute. The visual of this was magnetic and I couldn't tear my eyes away from the fires as they were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people as well as cows and dogs that were right in the middle of it all. It was hauntingly beautiful yet so primitive--a scene like something out of a movie.
There is no doubt that Varanasi is not for everyone but for me and my husband Rick, we are so grateful to have experienced this holy city and for us, the River Ganges will forever hold a special place in our hearts for the images and experiences will never be forgotten. Namaste.