Tag Archives: holy sites

Varanasi, part deux

21 Nov

good morning mother ganga

It has been a great couple of days in Varanasi.  My favorite parts (and pretty alI did) was walking along the ghats, people watching and going to the festival in the evening.  But, I did take a morning boat ride on the Ghanges.  Here are some pictures from that:

morning boat ride

morning boat ride

For those of you who have never been to India, it is hard to describe.  But I made a some observations that capture a little of what India, or Varanasi, is. Varanasi is…..

  • Straight razor shaves on the street
  • Boys flying kites
  • Dips in the ghanges
  • Shared fear (and laughter) of being trampled by a cow
  • Holiness everywhere
  • Marigold strands
  • Boys diving into the river
  • Women smiling back at me (after I catch them staring – and return the stare with a smile)
  • Cobras in baskets (oh hell no!  how do you know it won’t come towards me???)
  • Grinning sadhus in orange
  • The stench of piss and cow shit
  • Skinny little dogs everywhere
  • Shrines and little temples tucked into every street
  • People, strangers, who genuinely look out for me in crowds
  • Beautiful, bedazzling, colorful saris
  • Pollution and trash everywhere
  • People sleeping just about anywhere

The last night I was there was the big festival.  There were 24 Brahmins (priests) performing the puja on the water front – though every ghat had their own ceremony.  During the afternoon each ghat was preparing with laying out the oil lamps and mandelas on the pavement.

oil lamps for the festival

even though the river is polluted….

pouring oil in to prepare

I found a spot in front of the main stage but that was definitely one of the most crowded areas.  It was so busy and crazy!  Thousands of people started to fill the ghats two hours before anything even started.

The area I was started to fill up quickly, but fortunately the people around me were looking out for me- from the sassy teenage girl tapping people on the shoulder who stood in front of us and elbowed me in the side reminding me to pray to the group of twenty-something men who simultaneously made fun of me and offered for me to stand in front of them so I could see (and who immediately stopped their laughter and jokes once the puja started) to the policeman who wad basically hitting people with his baton to get them out of the walkway but exchanged smiles with me and made sure I could see!

and this is before it got crowded!

the masses

Following the ceremony, I attempted to walk down the ghats to see some of the oil lamps but the crowd was intense and I was immediately being knocked around by the crowd.  I heard a voice next to me saying ‘just stay with me, follow me’.  Not wanting to be trampled by the crowd, I put my trust in this guy and he safely pulled us to the side out of the crowd of thousands trying to go in either direction.

This guy introduced himself as babu, but that is the word for little boy [which cracks me up every time I hear someone shout ‘hey, babu!’] so I didn’t really believe him but he invited me to a small Shiva ceremony that he and some friends were going to have soon.

Though it sounded sketch, I thought I would check it out.  The shrine turned out to be right on the ghats but hidden away – I passed it a dozen times but never noticed it before.  When I got there three men were preparing for the ceremony – putting flower strands on all the ‘statues’ [my bad in advance for not knowing the correct terminology].  Babu had me help light oil lamps which lined the shrine and sprinkle marigold petals in the main area.  A family came in at one point and made an offering of rice and prayed.  But Babu and his buddies were waiting for the Brahmin to show up to perform the ceremony and since it was late I bide my farewells (it was about 10 at that point and I felt strange being in the shrine with a bunch of dudes, holy as it might be).  But I wish I had pictures of the shrine to show you as it was so beautiful.

And that my friends was my adventures in Varanasi!

family that befriended me


8 Nov

Stepping out of my guesthouse and into the narrow alley ways was …. well, it was a bit of a shock.  Glad I had been to India before!  It took me a few minutes to get my bearings and to remember to ignore or just say no to so many of the requests coming my way (music lessons?  tea?  silk?  hashish?  boat ride?  see the cremations?  see my store, no you don’t need to buy?  where you from, madame?  how are you today?  need a male companion?)

alley leading down to the ganges

I got directions from my guesthouse to head down to the Ganges – and there I headed.  I got turned around in the many alley ways and ended up on the main road – full of stores. It was a pretty insane re-introduction to India, though it got me on my feet pretty quickly.  I was followed for a short distance – though as soon as I stood next to the police (which seem to be at a lot of the intersections) he disappeared.  I guess it pays to not be super friendly sometimes!  🙂

I tried to make my way down to the Ganges – but got stymied by a procession of people (which I later discovered — when I saw the beginning of the procession — was a typical procession of people headed down to the Ganges with a body to be cremated).  But eventually I made it down there — and then spent my time wandering the ghats –there is a total of 80 of these bathing steps that go into the Ganges.   Here is where a lot of the propositioning came about while I walked along the river.

boats for hire

not sure what this is… but one of the many religious icons on the ghats

clothes drying

bathing in the Ganga

mural along one of the ghats

boat ride for pilgrams — they loved waving up to me!

My best moment though was when two young girls called me over to talk — we talked about school (their favorite class is english… and science.. and math…. and all of them!  when asked which class they did not like?  none of them!  um…. something tells me they weren’t telling me the truth! 🙂 and we took some pictures.  they were very cute.  And I thought that they were going to be my first interaction that did not have an ulterior motive — but no, one of them called over their dad to see if I wanted a boat ride.  But – none-the-less,  they were pretty great!  I told them I would share their picture and their names with my students!

my new friends!

peace, yo

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India for Hindus.  They pilgrimmage here to wash away their sins or cremate their loved ones.  I saw lots of people washing in the water (who knew Indian men liked tiny tighty-whiteys so much?!), doing their laundry and of course – cremations.  Also, you can take a boat ride out on the Ganges – which I hope to do during morning time.

Turns out that I am here during a big festival, the Ganga Mahotsav.  Last night was a large event – a musical concert and then a large puja on the river front.  I was sitting alone on these stairs trying to figure out what was happening – and a family came and sat next to me.  Mom offered me a cookie (though Lonely Planet has me all paranoid about accepting food from people b/c of some folks were drugged on trains and all their stuff was stolen) and the son told me about the festival.  They had traveled 3 days to get here with the goal of bathing once in the Ghanges.  They were perplexed why I would be traveling alone – but were happy enough to sit with me and tell me about the puja that would begin.

The actual ceremony was pretty amazing — full of lights and chanting and bells and incense.  I would say there were thousands of people there — out in boats or up on the stairs.  I found a seat right below where the puja was happening (that was after I was totally ripped off by some lady to put a diya (earthen lamp – candle with marigold in a banana leaf – i think….) in the water. She then proceeded to do the same with every tourist in the area…. but the upside was she lead us to a river front seat).  in a few nights, there is the culminating event – which will have thousands of diyas floating down the river and chants and incense — the program says that it will ‘make you believe that you are in heaven, witnessing a celestial happening’ – definitely something to look forward to.

preparing for the puja

Today was spent taking care of business — found an ATM that worked (well with the help of my new buddy, a security guy at the bank who laughed at me ‘reading’ hindi (which is what happens when you see the same screen in english and in hindi OVER and OVER again!), got a new SIM card for my phone and spent 4 frustrating hours trying to figure out trains and the rest of my trip (so much for doing with the flow!  who knew, in a country of a billion people, you should make your train reservations WELL in advance!  like 3 months in advance…. not quite sure what will happen since i am waitlisted for every possible train I wanted to take….)

I picked up a great book today that i cannot wait to sit on the steps of one of the ghats and read tomorrow – called The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  I can already tell it is one of those books I want to read slowly so that it will not end.  But — I will leave you with this image about the Mother Ganga (ghanges):

“No – I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.”

Oh, India – where else would that be one of the holiest sites?

Holy Sites

14 Oct

It’s been a few days since I have posted.  Katherine left yesterday and I moved over to my friend Lisa’s place.  She is a good friend of mine since my freshman year at Vassar and has lived in Nepal for over 15 years.  In other words, I am in a great place!  It is so relaxing being at her house, sitting at her kitchen table now, working on her computer and listening to the birds in the garden around her house (and an occasional unknown animal sound since she lives right near the only zoo in Kathmandu).  But that is not the purpose of my post….The other day we visited Pashupatinath, which is a Hindu holy site with a temple on the Bagmati River where cremations happen (on the level of Varanasi for India).  We made an adventue out of it and took the public bus there.  We studied the map and then figured we could take one of the buses on the ring road – because worst case scenario – we would go in a BIG circle!  but people here are so nice, we knew they would help us out!

When we got there, all the non-Hindi are directed to the shores of the Bagmati – since we are not allowed in the temple.  It was quite a scene….

you cross a bridge to get to the other side, which is essentially the viewing side.  When we got there, there were several bodies burning on one side – though at that point they were in the final stages of burning – so it was mostly just wood.  But on the other side, in front of the temple, there was a large group preparing a body for cremation.  It was difficult to see what was happening exactly, but the body was being shrouded in orange coverings/scarfs, there were marigolds being placed in the water and on the body and other steps of the ritual.  Then, they carried the body to the other side (to the cremation ‘stands’ – ghats) – as only the royal family can be cremated in the front of the temple.

in front of the temple, where the body was prepared for cremation

Once the body was brought to the other side, they started to prepare it for cremation — it was set on the wood and straw was placed over the shrouded body.  The family has a specific role within this ritual and we could see different men doing different jobs.  Then, the fire is started – near the head.  Soon, the air was filled with smoke from the burning body.

you can see the raised areas, that is where the cremation happens.

It was a really interesting experience….  both because this tends to be such a private experience in the US and because of everything else that was going on!  There were people in the water looking for money/things, there were people down the way doing laundry, there were people hawking jewelery and musical instruments to the tourists, there were tourists filiming and talking pictures of the cremations (really?!), there were  sadhus wandering around.  All the while, people are going through their rituals and practices of grief and mourning and saying goodbye.  Fascinating.

From there, we walked to a holy Buddhist site – the Bodhnath – a very large stupa set in a larget courtyard with a monastery, shops, restaurants and guesthouses all around it.  This was an amazing stupa – you could walk around it spinning all the prayer wheels (I did) and you could climb the steps and walk around the first level (we did).

spinning all the prayer wheels

When we were there, we realized that they were preparing the stupa for the full moon – putting up lights and putting something on the upper part of the stupa (some sort of colored paint/dye) – and that we needed to be there when the sun set.  So – we had lunch, consulted the guide book and decided to walk to Gokarna Mahadev temple which has a wide variety of statues of Hindi deities.

Just  getting there was quite an adventure because we decided to walk there.  Following a number of directions from people, we made it there — but it involved walking on a very dusty road with taxis, motos, trucks and buses passing us and kicking up dust (I am still battling a sore throat!).  It was a long walk — and the temple was pretty small – but the statues were pretty cool.  Here are a few of them:

I wish i knew which deity this was….

After spending some time at the Hindi holy site, we decided to head back to Buddhism – so we made the long walk back to the stupa.  We got there about an hour before twilight – as people had started to walk around the stupa (as they do every evening and morning).  We found a rooftop cafe with a beautiful view and had some snakes and a beer and were rewarded with these views:

sunset on the Bodhnath

Full moon rising (very faint)


In the moonlight, we came down to a full courtyard of people walking around the stupa (always clockwise).  When we reached the monastery, there were monks chanting with drums and conch shells and horns (not sure if they are actually called horns) and there were huge piles of offerings — crackers, popcorn, bisquits, cookies that the monks were putting into plastic bags for other monks.  It was a pretty amazing scene.

Not sure where I will be headed next — some possibilities include volunteering at a farm near Pokhara, trekking in the Annapurna area again (different trek), traveling to Chitwan on my way to India, hanging here in Kathmandu and/or some combination of all of those things.  I am sure I will have it figured out soon enough.

Hope everyone is well — keep commenting and sending me emails — i love hearing from you!

Take care – love – aurora