Varanasi: City of Light

Varanasi hums with an intensity of spirit and life.  It is fascinating, dusty, chaotic, overwhelming, stinky, overpopulated, thrilling, bustling, and incredibly wonderful ALL AT THE SAME TIME.  I don’t need to be reminded that I am IN India.  This is the real deal.  You could be mentally insane and fit in quite well here  The dead, the broken, the maniacal, the religious, and the enlightened come here to worship and experience the great flow of life.  This is THE spiritual center of India.  Pilgrims come from all over India to pay their respects to the great Mother Ganga.  I can’t help to feel a great powerful force that pulls, lulls, grips, grabs, mesmerizes, and cajoles me to dig my feet into the earth more deeply.

It is 5:30 a.m. and we are about to leave the hotel for another full day!  Not sure how many more blog entries I can get in…We are about to go on the sunrise Ganges boat tour.

Yesterday, we first went to the silk shop where we saw the silk weavers at their looms and then upstairs to see the gorgeous silk materials.  It is really hard NOT to buy anything.  The workmanship and artistry is exquisite.  However, surprisingly, I didn’t buy silk but spent a small fortune on a pashmina shawl.  Rick urged me to buy the most colorful one, so I sort of felt like a flashy peacock as I wrapped it around me and got onto the bicycle rickshaw headed for the heart of Varanasi.

We got off the rickshaws and Vivek told everyone to stay together. He looks very frazzled here in Varanasi.  His work has just become much more intense as he tries to keep our group together and safe from the onslaught of bulls and cows roaming the streets,  the wild bicycle rickshaw wallahs dashing by with their huge loads, and from the hoards of worshipers, pilgrims,  hawkers, and beggars.  He shouts more than a dozen times, “Stay CLOSE!”  He really didn’t want to lose us.  His job is not very attractive at the moment.  “IF you get lost, meet right here!”  Right here?  But where is here? Oh, by the sari shop? He’s got to be joking (though he is dead serious)! There are thousands of sari shops and they all look alike.  I vowed to stick really close to him.  I would never find my way out of this maze!  We shopped for a while and actually half the group lost each other and somehow, miraculously, we all found each other again…just in time to head to the main Aarti on the Ganges just down the road a bit on the Das Asmed Ghat (das=10 and Asmed=horses, this is the place where Brahma was said to sacrifice 10 horses for the well being of humankind).

The aarti is a nightly evening ceremony where everyone gathers on the ghats and says pays their respects to the great mother Ganga and says good night to her.  It happens 365 days a year.  Last night’s Aarti was led by young handsome Brahmin men and was beautiful.

We arrived, covered in dust, smelling of smoke from burning fires.  We also smelled of DEET because we slathered ourselves with it to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  During the monsoon season last year when I was here, I never saw a single mosquito, but last night they were thick by the water’s edge (right where we sat).  Vivek surmised that it was too hot for the mosquitoes to be out and about last June.  I never thought it could get too hot for mosquitoes!

We were given seats right next to where the dignitaries sit.  Arvind arranged for this from his mother’s bedside in Lucknow.  Our seats were the best in the house.  We actually got to sit on chairs and not on the steps. I sat back and observed the evening ritual of Aarti.  The ghat (steps and bank along the river side) was jam packed with worshipers.  In the middle of all this feverish devotion, there were small children selling flowers and candles and postcards, batteries,  henna, crayons used to decorate the elephants’ trunks, key chains, malas (prayer beads), books.  The kids don’t go to school though school is compulsory and completely free.  Instead, they have to work for their families.  One little girl, Sonia, was as bright as the full moon in the sky tonight and it pained me to see that she was not attending school.  She was a very pretty little girl about 8 years old. What sort of future would little Sonia have?  One can’t help but to fall in love with these children and wish a better life for them.

Bells clanging, huge lit candelabras, incense billowing from huge vessels, beautiful Brahmin boys, men, priests perform the ceremony.  They are dressed in beautiful rich silks.  They have red tikkas on their foreheads.  They stand on a platform which is a carpet of fresh orange marigolds..  The incense is getting stronger and fills the space.  The entire scene is intoxicating and soon we are all swaying to the sound of the music and the chanting and singing.  The Brahmins hold the lit candelabras and rock it, swaying in a lullaby, then making clockwise turns with the fire.  All elements are present in the ceremony:  earth, water, fire, air, and sky (space).  The full moon adds to the entire scene and I am wondering if this is real or it is a mirage?  Good night to the great mother, the river Ganga.  She flows sleepily as this is the dry period and it has not rained here in a while.  People are on boats by the hundreds watching the ceremony.  The hawkers do not let up.  I learn to tune them out.  The drumming, chanting, humming help me to be present, to focus.  Peacock feathers, milk, rice, saffron, turmeric, other spices and grains are used as symbols and offerings to the river in addition to the lit ghee candles sitting on a float made of roses and marigolds and lotus flowers. The Brahmin men now have marigold petals on their heads.  They offer the petals up to the sky.  It is raining orange petals.  We are experiencing this primeval ritual, this celebration of life in the soul of this very sacred city.  People come here to die.  To die in Varanasi is to reach liberation from the seemingly endless cycle of reincarnation.

Arvind arranged for our group to be have a singular experience.  The Brahmin priests  lead my group to the water’s edge where as a group we are blessed.  He lays a hand on our heads and asks us to hold a prayer in our hearts.  He prays in Sanskrit and prays that our prayers and hopes will be heard by the great mother, that she will bless us, hear us, protect us.

Together as a group, we hold a lit candelabra and together we turn it clockwise.  Together we hold a marigold mala (looks like a Hawaiian lei) and toss it into the water.  Together we hold tiny containers filled with herbs, milk, grains and offer them one by one  to the mother.  Then the priest lit our prasad (our holy offerings) which are our beautiful rose and marigold candle floats and and one by one, we gently place our lit floats into the water.  I feel myself giving Mother Ganges my prayer.  I pray for my sisters, Toni, who will have a mastectomy next Wednesday, and for Jeanie, who is in the hospital with Multiple Sclerosis complications.   One of my tears merges with the river, I know the Great Mother Ganga has heard my prayers.


One Response to “Varanasi: City of Light”

  1. Colleen Says:

    What a powerful image Fran. Your tear meeting with the holy Ganges! What better way to seal a prayer and its answer. I remember being there more than 20 years ago and it was a life changing experience for me.



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