Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Finding spirituality in Varanasi...?

     There is a unique, chaotic beauty in Varanasi that is hidden under the ashes and seedy alley-ways. I had hoped to find this beauty and spirituality in India's most "holy city," but finding peace here was a challenge.  Instead, one is forced to jump head-first into the hectic streets and get lost for hours in the labyrinth of alleys decorated with tea shops, cloth sellers, and India's oddities;  dodge your way past cows, monkeys and goats; and be asked a thousand times if you want a 'super, very good deal' for something you surely never wanted, or would never buy.  
     However, I found the Ghats (steps leading to the Ganges) to be the best way to soak up Varanasi's true beauty.  For it was easy to get lost in a world of people-watching while on the ghats, because many vibrant characters come to the water to bathe and pray.
     One evening I attended the nightly ceremony held at the Dasawamdh Ghat, which was a true spectacle, and a must see if you visit Varanasi. We viewed the celebrations from wooden boats, which were stationed on the river in front of the ceremony, and all the boats were jam-packed with devotees.  The women around us wore colorful saris that glowed in in the dusty pink sunset-- a sight I will always cherish, and as the sun continued downward, the moon rose and the river Ganges turned dark, only to be lit by the golden glares of floating candles, which were placed in water by spectators, including myself, as offerings to the Gods.  The candle was inside a woven banana leaf basket filled with fresh flowers, and the basket ensured that the candle would float once it was dropped in the water. As the candle lights danced on the water, a rush of love for India filled my soul. There truly is no other place in the world like India.
    With my soul dancing from the night's celebrations I slept peacefully. The following day I awoke and I was eager to venture again to another ghat to find the same beauty I found the night before, but I was in for a surprise.  I decided to visit the Manikarnika ghat, the city's most famous burning ghat, to see if I could find peace within the ceremony's realm. Hindus believe that those who are cremated in Varanasi can achieve moksha, a state of liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and a union with Braham (God). 
    After reading about the burning ceremony I had imagined that the ghat would be heavenly: fresh flowers in vivid colours, men wearing bright turbans chanting hymns, and women in bright saris celebrating the passing of a loved one. Instead, the Manikarnika ghat looked like man's impression of hell: large dusty logs were piled 12 feet high all around us; derelict buildings stood within the dead-wood graveyard, covered in smut; skinny cows eating rubbish; touts demanding money and swindling tourists for cash; path covered in ashes leading through the hell. As I continued to walk, I met with the burning ghat where six bodies were burning to dust.  As soon I saw the burning, I felt that I shouldn't be there, that it was wrong for me to be watching the cremation. While I wanted to be able to think peacefully about the sight taking place before my eyes, it was impossible. Death was also staring me straight in the face, and I didn't know how to process the images before me.

Boat trip at dusk

     The burning ghat was too much for me, with the pestering for money and the cremation setting. So Johnny and I opted for a less invasive view and watched the burning from a boat on the Ganges. The view of the burning ghat from the water was much calmer in the glow of the setting sun, and gave me time to reflect on what I had witnessed. Perhaps the reason I found the ghats so overwhelming was due to my own insecurities regarding death and the afterlife. 
     Varanasi might not have given me the spiritual awakening I was searching for, but it did make me think a lot about my own life. As I watched the bodies of the burning ghats turn to dust, I thought about what I wanted to achieve before I, too, met the same fate. Life is a very short journey and I plan to make mine a true adventure.

Ganges offering

Burning Ghats


1 comment:

Kelly-Marie said...

Oh Hannah this is so beautifully written, you have made me feel like I was there with you ( i really wish I was).
The Dasawamdh Ghat sounds so incredibly magical and don't worry about the burning ghat. Like you said it's experiences like that which make you reflect and however shocking at the time it has already made you think positivley about your own life and will have only made you stronger and closer to a personal understanding of things. xxxx