Oh Varanasi. The holiest city in all of Hinduism. Varanasi is an amazing place full of devout worshippers who have made pilgrimages to dip into the sacred Ganges River. This is arguably the holiest river in the world and is also the most poluted river in the world. Hundreds of sewage lines drain directly into the river, not to mention the ashes from hundreds of thousands of cremated bodies. Don't worry though, there are uncremated bodies in there too. Hinduism says that if a person dies in Varanasi they automatically attain moksha, or release from the rounds of rebirth into nirvana. This is why so many bodies are burned on the banks with their ashes ending up in the river. For hundreds of years there has been a body constantly burning near the Ganges River. Incredible. The Ganges is used for more than salvation alone. It is used for bathing, washing cattle, washing clothes, drinking, and cooking. When we arrived in Varanasi, we took a sunset boat ride on the river past all the colorful ghats(entryways and stairs leading down to the river from the city)and people dipping in the water. The cultural sights are breathtaking. We watched a ceremony performed by the Brahmins to the river using fire and incense, and set afloat candles resting on lotus flowers into the river. The next morning, we woke up before the sun and went out onto the boat again to see the morning life. We floated past the cremation ghats and saw multiple bodies burning and various body parts sticking out of the flames. The streets of Varanasi are crowded, narrow, and full of cows, goats, people, motorcycles, bicycles, children, trash, autorickshaws, potholes, and ferocious monkeys. Monkeys are cute til they threaten to rip your hair out. We have found more backpackers here than anywhere else we have been. Hippies who think they are Indian and are really roughing it, when in reality, they are living a life of luxury compared to most of India. Varanasi caters to backpackers with yoga courses, organic bakeries, boat rides, and rooftop restaurants. Don't worry, we took part in our share of these amenities. We got bridal henna done and took a yoga class from a energetic instructor hopped up on beetleroot. As we were lifting our arms and legs in the "beginners" lesson, two more advanced students were folding their bodies in half backwards and standing on their faces.
Monday, March 15, 2010
after all those adventures in delhi and agra, we headed off for a enchanting little place called amristar in the state of punjab near the border of pakistan. amritsar is the most holy place for sikhs and is absolutely magical. this is how we got there:
on a sweet overnight train with three tiers of "beds" and a lot of rattling. a rickshaw driver met us at the train station in the early morning and took us though the bustling streets to our new home for the next three days. the best way we could think of to describe it was a jane austen manor, but indian style - it was a private farmhouse where our friend mr. singh keeps the bridal stallions he raises.
we found mr. singh through some friends and couch surfing and it was such a cool experience to stay at his place, especially because it was free! as soon as we settled in, we walked through the village to the main road (dani was real excited)
to catch a rickshaw into the city. here's what our ride looked like:
most of the population of amristar are devout sikhs. sikhism is a religion founded in the 15th century by the legendary guru nanak, a high-caste hindu who went into the river one day and emerged three days later claiming that he went into the presence of god and was told to promote the message that there is one god and all are equal in his eyes. dani and i were blessed to learn about sikhism in our world religion class, and as far as we can tell, nanak was indeed greatly inspired by god and the tenets of the religion are right on. during our stay in the holy city we were constantly amazed by the kindness of the people and the ring of truth that accompanied the sites and literature. part of the faith is to keep hair uncut, so most of the men wear turbans and we loved spotting all different colors of turbans all around.
the golden temple is the most holy gurdwara (sikh temple) in the world because it houses the original copy of the scriptures. it is one of the most unique and beautiful places on earth, and the minute we stepped inside the grounds (after washing our feet and covering our heads), we were enchanted and dazzled. i could write a lot about this spot, which quickly became one of my favourites in india and in the world, but there are a lot of pictures to do the talking:
that last one was totally an illegal picture i took inside - a "hip shot." i couldn't help myself. the photos really pale in comparison to the grandeur of the reality.
we found some other interesting things in amristar, like:
*really really tasty punjabi food
*awesome bazars and markets in twisty narrow streets
*modern kitchy hindu temples with interesting idols to be worshiped
and neat street food vendors in the magic of the night (mr. singh took us out to try all his favourites. the other girls are travelers from scotland and lithuania also staying at the farmhouse)
our second day in amristar was really rainy and chilly so we spent some time at the manor and around the little village. we met some friends and got to play them a song and climbed the water tower for a spectacular, dewy view of our surroundings.
the farmhouse was a great place to spent a rainy day. check out the mermaid tiled on the bottom of the pool and the view from the roof:
that night we went up to the pakistani border for the daily border show, which is quite the party. thousands of people come in their colorful clothes to watch the fiercely serious and dramatic soldiers close the border for the night. it was quite an experience, including getting there and back in one rickshaw full of three americans, two canadians, one scotswoman and one lithuanian (all new friends of mr. singh's).
okay i admit, i didn't take that picture of them shaking hands. i took a picture of a postcard we bought from a little boy along the road. i know, you can hardly tell! but the others are legit - the show is really interesting and i even got to go dance with the colorful locals in the street when "jai ho" came on the loudspeaker. the crowd is very boisterous and the soldiers march and do these ceremonial kicks where they literally almost give themselves bloody noses. they must stretch every morning...
on the way back to the farmhouse we stopped at the golden temple to see it at night and to enjoy langar meal, which is an incredible sikh tradition. the concept is that everyone is equal in the eyes of god (no castes!) and thousands of people come, sit cross-legged on the floor and enjoy a delicious meal for free. it was incredible to be a part of.
at the golden temple, they feed 70,000 people a day non-stop everyday. isn't that so amazing?? they have it all down to a science with assembly lines and hundreds of volunteers. here they all are doing the dishes:
after another mystically magical morning at the farmhouse with our new friend the guard (who did not speak any english but talked to us constantly in tamil and giggled as if we understood),
we went with rashma (the lady of the manor, again, no english) to her village to meet some of her friends and explore the countryside. rashma, we realized, is sort of like the village gossip who brings in white people for a little entertainment on both sides. we met her lovely friend bevi, who spoke wonderful english and gave us great discounts on the cute merchandise in her little home-run store.
then we got to accompany rashma and the horse man on a little chariot ride into another village to run errands (we had no idea what was happening, seriously they don't speak any english), and then each got a little turn riding the beautiful white bridal horses.
then we went for one last visit at the golden temple, sat on the perimeter of the pool of immortality and watched the sun set behind the beautiful buildings. it was a peaceful, gorgeous slice of time.
we stayed for another awesome langar meal and then to see the nightly ceremony where the sikhs take their holy scriptures from the golden temple to another nearby room to "put the book to sleep." they revere the adi granth (their holy book) very, very much. it was excited to get swept up in the religious fervor of this ritual.
we slept under this awesome floral mosquito net that fit over our bed in a perfect box.
we had such a unique, amazing time in amristar. thank you, mr. singh!
what a magical place!