Varanasi is the oldest continuous living city in the world. It is 5000 years old.
For 5000 years, people in Varanasi have been
performing the same rituals
chanting the same mantras
speaking the same language
reciting the same prayers
Varanasi is Jerusalem and Mecca for Hindus.
Varanasi is the biggest center of pilgrimage on earth. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism are the three major religions of Varanasi.
This city never sleeps. As Arvind says, “It is a city of learning and burning.” Varanasi’s universities attract thousands of people and the two ghats along the Ganges River burn with cremation fires continuously. Here, in Varanasi, the drama of life never stops from womb to tomb.
Varanasi is a city of devotion, a city where 62,000 people walk to the Ganges River daily to honor the river. Once every 144 years, there is the grand Maha Kumbh Mela, where millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage to nearby Allahabad to dip in the holy water of the Ganga-ji, the Hindu name of the Ganges. The Maha Kumbh Mela is happening right now over a period of 2 months, so the city is more packed than ever.
Last night we attended the Aarti, the evening ceremony that takes place every evening at sunset, to say goodnight to Ganga-ji. The British took the name Ganga-ji, the honorable name given to the river that is The Great Mother of India, and renamed her The Ganges. Ganga-ji is more than a river for Hindus. She gives life, cleanses impurities, takes away sin. She is a maternal figure. She is mother, and she is celebrated and honored every morning and every evening with devotional ceremonies.
Arivind told us that Ganga-ji is Liquified Wisdom. How I love those words: Liquified Wisdom.
We were among a crowd of some 75,000 people. This morning, in my head, I can still hear the drum beat and loud devotional music set to Bollywood tunes ringing in my ears as thousands of Saraswati devotees paraded the streets celebrating the festival of the goddess of Wisdom. We linked arms and did our best not to lose anyone in our group. Miraculously, we all stayed together. I think our guide, Arvind, was a shepherd in another life, as he is very good at keeping us together.
Varanasi is also known by her spiritual name, Kashi, the City of Light. Yesterday, Peggy gave me a beautiful hand written prayer that she carries around, a Muslim prayer that reads more like a poem. I read this poem and carried it around in my pocket all day yesterday. The prayer/poem is a universal prayer and you don’t have to be a Muslim, or any religion at all, to feel the words. I felt it calmed and grounded me as we explored the inner sanctum of Varanasi. In fact, amid all the chaos yesterday, I felt completely present in a way I have never felt before on my three previous trips to Varanasi.
The Duaa of Light (to Fran from Peggy)
Oh Allah, Place light in my heart
Light in my tongue
Light in my hearing
Light in my sight
Light behind me, light in front of me
Light on my right, light on my left
Light above me, light below me
Place light in my sinew,
In my hair and in my skin.
Place light in my soul
And make light abundant for me.
Make me light and grant me light.
Bob taught me a new word yesterday: phantasmagoria. India is Phantasmagoria! Events, images, information, sound, sensory overload keeps coming at us faster than we can process them. India offers up a visual representation of events that are OVERWHELMING. Phantasmagoria isn’t necessarily a negative phenomenon. In fact, yesterday, I dug my feet deeper in the earth, cleared my mind, shut off my internal dialog, tuned in to my breathing, centered my being, took it all in, and became one with everything and everyone around me in Varanasi!