The trip began in a jarringly memorable way: as we were boarding our plane, two coffins were sitting on the tarmac, waiting to be loaded into the cargo hold. Devout Hindus on their way to be cremated at the place where Lord Shiva would ferry their souls across the river to the great beyond. I realized that their grieving relatives would most likely be on the same flight with us. Having come to India almost directly from my grandmother's memorial service, I was all the more attuned to death and grieving. My grandmother was with me on that trip to India, in the way that people keep telling me she is always with me, in spirit. I kept wanting to share with her my experiences and impressions, and then realizing I couldn't.
Varanasi is intense – old, dirty, with narrow winding streets thronged with market stalls; the crush of pilgrims and tourists making their way to and from the ghats; religious fervor and fervent hawkers; pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws and automobiles all competing for space; very loud music! All of one’s senses are assaulted, between the fragrant aroma of flowers and the odor of cow dung, the loud music, the visual cacophony of colors and textures, foods both tempting and repellant. The heat, the humidity, the mud, and – once you get to the Ganges – the water (I stepped in up to my ankles) – it all overwhelms. Varanasi is like India itself – intense, larger than life, sometimes too much to handle, but somehow captivating.
We were there during a special month devoted to Shiva; in the lunar calendar it occurs only once every three years (or once every 32.5 months, according to Wikipedia). Pilgrims -- almost all of them young men, dressed entirely in orange -- travel on foot to Varanasi to gather water from the Ganges in small pots, and then to travel on foot to other Shiva temples located throughout the country to pour the sacred water on the Shiva lingam. In these photos you can see the decorated poles used by pilgrims to carry the Ganges water:
According to Subhadra Sen Gupta, Kashi may have been a Dravidian center of worship before the arrival of the Aryans in the subcontinent. The cult of Shiva dates to before the Aryans’ arrival, and Kashi is believed to be Shiva’s sacred city. Remains of a city wall dating back to the 9th century B.C. have been found on the northern edge of the city.
1. Kashi (or Kashika, or Kashi Kshetra for the region of Kashi) is the name used in the oldest literary reference, the epic Mahabharata; it means “the Luminous,” or “the City of Light.” This is where Shiva’s jyotirlingam first appeared, a column of light that symbolized Shiva’s presence.2. Varanasi – the city lies between two streams, the Varana (to the north) and the Asi (to the south); together they make the name Varanasi.
3. Benares – a mis-hearing of the word Varanasi4. Anandavana – “Shiva’s forest of bliss”
5. Anandakanana – “Shiva’s garden of happiness”6. Rudravasa – the abode of Rudra (because one of the aspects of Shiva is as the Vedic god Rudra)
7. Mahashmashana – the Great Cremation Ground8. Avimukta: the Never-Forsaken, or the city never forsaken by Lord Shiva
The Ganga Aarti is performed at the Dasaswamedha Ghat every morning and every night; this is a worship ceremony (puja) in honor of the goddess Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges):
Our group got to watch the evening ceremony while seated in a boat on the Ganges. Several priests performed it in unison, circling fire, water vessels, incense, bells, and the other gifts made to the goddess. The ceremony signifies waking up the goddess in the morning, and putting her to bed at night. For the devout Hindu, the river IS the goddess, the living and energetic form of the divine; as we watched the puja being performed, we floated atop her divine presence, occupying the space between worshipers and worshiped.
Early on Sunday morning a small group of us went back to the ghat and in pursuit of the main Shiva temple in the city, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Not only are you not allowed to bring a camera into the temple, but you aren’t even allowed to bring a camera anywhere near the temple. There were two security checkpoints leading up to the temple, and I took a photo of this sign at the first security checkpoint saying that cameras are not allowed (plus I got yelled at for taking this photo as I walked past!):
I’m not sure why foreigners are not allowed, but a couple of explanations occur. According to one of the leaders of our group, the Brahmins (priests) do not want non-Hindus in the temple, and are very adamant about it. For them this is the holiest of the holies, so that attitude is not surprising. A second explanation offered by an historian in the group is that Kashi is witness to quite a lot of communal violence, so in order to preserve security they are quite strict about controlling who visits important sacred sites.
The photo of the cremation grounds was also not allowed, “for privacy,” but I couldn’t resist taking one picture:
I would have needed to sit for several hours in contemplation to absorb everything I had seen. The experience left me speechless, and I'm still trying to make sense of the emotional intensity I felt on that gray morning on the banks of the Ganges.
Diana L. Eck, Banaras City of Light (New York: Columbia U.P., 1999).
Subhadra Sen Gupta, Tirtha: Holy Pilgrim Centres of the Hindus (Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2001).