When I left off on my last post, I was boarding my flight from New Delhi to Varanasi. Clique Holidays driver was standing just outside the doors of the airport with the sign bearing my name and off we traveled to my hotel for the night. It was 10:30 pm when I checked into the hotel and the driver told me that my guide would collect me at 5:30 the following morning.
Since I only had 1 day in Varanasi and it was THE PLACE that I was most excited to see when I began planning the trip, I knew the day was going to be full. If you are contemplating a trip to India, please allow more than one day in this spiritual mecca, but don’t miss it! It was an extraordinary experience, and I can only hope that my deep appreciation for this encounter comes through in writing.
Varanasi is a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh. I read in several places that it is one of the oldest cities in the world dating back to the 11th century BC. Largely considered the spiritual center of India, Shiva, one of the 3 principal deities in Hindu mythology, founded it. It is the greatest desire for all Hindus to come here on pilgrimage during the final of the four stages of their life. In fact, dying in Varanasi or being cremated in one of the 84 ghats, is considered the greatest blessing of all, since doing so, would result in a release from the cycle of birth-death-birth, or reincarnation. The Ghats are a series of wide steps leading down to the Ganges River. Many sacred rituals are performed on these ghats and 2 of them are used exclusively for cremation.
In Hinduism, the body must be cremated before sundown on the day of death, as a result, many Hindus live out their final years in Varanasi, hoping to die here and thus, be released from the cycle of re-birth. In India there are 121 separate languages, 22 of which are official. Each area, or state, built their own temple with their own Pandit or Pujari (priest) so that pilgrims from the state could understand the priest and have rituals performed when they arrive in Varanasi. As a result, there are more than 23,000 temples and shrines (according to NNVNS.org) dotting the landscape both along the Ganges and up and down the streets. Each of these temples hold the records of death for each area dating back centuries.
Walking down the road in the pre-dawn hours as my guide led me to the Ganges River, we walked in the wake of several pilgrims carrying all their worldly possessions on their heads. Venders on the sides of the road sold those things which a pilgrim may need, including what appear to be sticks, used as natural teeth brushes.
We enjoyed the ritualistic bathing along various ghats in the pre-dawn hours and watched as the river and the temples came to life. Pyres were prepared for the day’s cremations and priests and faithful bathed and performed rituals in the precious Ganges River. We returned to the same place at night to watch the Ganges Artii. For me, this was one of the most surreal experiences. A nightly celebration, 8 Hindu pandits perform several sacred rituals to put “Mother Ganges” to sleep, including feeding her, reading, and singing to her, and fanning her with peacock feathers and giving her flowers. The ceremony culminates in fire whereby the faithful scoop the heat from the flames and bathe themselves in it. There were several thousand people participating in this daily ritual and for me, mercifully tucked into a small balcony overlooking the event, I was able to witness the final fires of cremation happening further in the distance. This was the culmination of an extraordinary day of witnessing people mourning and giving to their loved ones the greatest gift they could. The simple sacredness of birth and death and everything played out in between on this river of life.
When looking at the photos above, note that the body is carried, by the male family members only, to the river and bathed. The body is then placed on the pyre to burn. The eldest male family member lights the fire and performs some ritual. Female family members are “discouraged” since any display of grief or emotion can make it more difficult for the soul to leave the body. It takes about 3 hours for the body to cremate entirely, and when the head “explodes” is believed to be the moment that the soul leaves the body. The ashes are then taken by the family and put in the river.
I have written before about how journeys are really 3 different trips. The one you imagine before you leave home, the one you experience while you are there, and the one you remember the rest of your life. What amazed me about how I envisioned this day, is that while I was really looking forward to “having” the experience of this place, I was not at all looking forward to going. The night before I arrived in Varanasi, I was stressed about what it might smell like with all these burning bodies, I worried about the sanitation, I worried about the Ganges being dirty, I worried about silly nonsense to be honest. And what I discovered was one of the most sacred and memorable places I have ever been. I was calm and utterly enthralled with what was happening around me. I felt separate from, but in communion with, the faithful throughout the world. I felt joyful sharing the celebration of those who were giving their loved ones such a profound and meaningful “sendoff”, and I felt humbled to have been able to witness such an awe-inspiring and mystifying event.
Choosing which photos to include was the most difficult task yet! There is so much happening in each of them, try to notice the individual expressions on the faces in these photos for a real sense of what is being experienced.
Closely related to Hinduism but different, Buddhism is also an important religion, if not way of life here in Varanasi. It is said that Buddha was the last incarnation of Vishnu, (one of the 3 phases of existence of the Brahman). Buddha gave his first sermon in nearby Sarnath after he achieved enlightenment in the 5th century BC. Since Hinduism is more mythology than the life of an individual teacher as in the Abrahamic faiths, when Buddhism began, Hinduism in many ways melded with Buddhism and Hindu priests incorporated parts of Buddhism into Hinduism.
I think that born from the Hindu believe in rebirth, there is a shocking lack of stress or urgency. I believe that on a cellular level there is just a “knowing” that “I can do it in my next life, so no hurry”. I noticed it first while in line on arrival in Immigration. The official examining the papers of each visitor did so at a very leisurely pace, and the people around waiting were equally non – rushed. There was a good-natured laughing and a “we are all in this together” kind of feel and nobody was worked up over it. The drivers are the same, everyone just kind of flows in and out, passing and allowing others to overtake as well. On the other side of the coin, there is a complete lack of personal space. While standing in line, though people aren’t stressed, they also won’t let more than an inch or two separate them from the person in front or behind. I’m an American and crave personal space so wherever I went, I put one bag down in front of me, and another behind me to cordon off an area of space. While standing in line at the Lotus temple, I had no bags and people pushed up against me, literally. I had to step out of line to find some relief. Mercifully my guide held our spot in line.
Far too soon, I had to bid farewell to Varanasi and return to the airport for my flight to Cochin.
Also known as Kochi, it is a port city in the state of Kerala since 1341 and has been used as a trading center with Arabs, Chinese and Europeans ever since. For this reason, we saw more churches, synagogues, and mosques than I have seen since my arrival in India.
If you read my first post, you will remember that the idea for the trip began to reunite with my friend Janie from the US, and her husband’s aunt and cousin from Dallas and Bombay respectively. Well, Janie was denied a visa so she couldn’t come, but I came as her proxy and had the pleasure of meeting up in Cochin with Khala (means Aunt) and Iffat.
We had never met each other but you would never know that we weren’t long lost relatives ourselves (except to look at us). We enjoyed getting to know one other and sharing stories about our mutual friend (Janie) and cooking, growing herbs and plants, and families.
Day one in Cochin we went to Jew Town (I’m not making it up, it’s what the town is called) and enjoyed the colonial buildings and streets but my favorite was the perfume shop where essential oils were customized for your preference. I wish I had purchased more than I did. I loved it. We had a 4-hour drive to our first hill station, Munnar.
If there are two cities more different from each other, I haven’t found them. The hill station of Munnar is deep in the mountain forest with tea plantations all around. There was a gentle mist hanging in the air and the temperature was several degrees cooler than down at the beach. Even though we didn’t see wild elephants, looking out over the dense trees I felt as though one was just beyond the site line.
From Munnar we traveled to Thekaddy where we learned about the ancient practice of using plants for medicine (Ayurvedic medicine) and we even purchased some to take home. Unlike Western medication, the potions are all natural and thus have no side effects. But the downside is that they must be taken sometimes for months for any benefit. Ill report back in a few months as to whether these work for me.
The backwater Delta was very lovely though and I loved the Periyar Lake in Thekkady. Brimming with wildlife, it is called a Tiger Preserve. We saw no tigers, but we did see a wild elephant roaming around and countless birds and water buffalo. Wild monkeys of several varieties call this area home, which was also a treat for this Florida girl.
The tea co-ops and spice plantations were beautiful, and we filled our bags with both to bring home.
Since I’m from Florida, it is difficult to entice me with a beach, but show me a mountain stream, and I’m duly impressed. For this reason, I didn’t love the final stop on our tour, Alleppey beach. I know many people travel to India for the sea and beach in the South and I don’t doubt that it’s a wonderful vacation for many, but for my taste, I’d prefer more time in the mountains.
In a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, pollution and litter are real problems, and the beach showed some of the evidence of this struggle. There are some real efforts underway to improve the situation which surprised me. I was not given plastic disposable bags for any of my purchases in any of the places I visited. There are no plastic straws, and I was given biodegradable utensils with which to eat. In Varanasi I was given Chai in a disposable clay cup – and the guide tossed it to the curb when finished and said – back to the earth as the clay was. There are emissions tests required for vehicles, and inspection points along the way. We were stopped to check our papers while enroute. There are many electric cars and tuk-tuks as well. We can only pray that we are all not too late to fix some of these environmental problems that plague us all.
I have been home for a few weeks now and I would like to add that few places have infused me with more wonder than India. I had nightly dreams of India for the first 2 weeks since my return and it will always be high on the list in the “highlight reel” of my travels. I found it utterly enchanting and memorable and special beyond belief.
I think there are several reasons why my experience was so positive, after hearing the first-hand accounts of experienced travelers who never wish to return. I went with a completely open mind, looking forward to whatever experience came my way. I went having done tons of research on how to avoid the infamous “Delhi Belly” and I was careful. I drank only bottled water; I skipped all raw fruits and veggies (my favorite) unless they were cooked to steaming or I peeled them myself. I tried to see the human and humanity in every experience I had, and I fully embraced the amazing culture that surrounded me. I didn’t try to save a dollar here or there. I went expecting to pay for creature comfort, and even then, it was shockingly inexpensive. I expected that people would charge me more as a tourist and I accepted this in advance and came ready to pay it. Put simply, I let go…. And this trip truly was the adventure of a lifetime. Add it to the bucket list for sure!!!
So, this wraps up my trip to India. I returned to Kas, Turkiye where we are spending the next 6 weeks preparing ourselves and Gratitude for her trip to Southampton, England.