Magic

A star falls from the sky and into your hands. Then it seeps through your veins and swims inside your blood and becomes every part of you. And then you have to put it back into the sky. And it’s the most painful thing you’ll ever have to do and that you’ve ever done. But what’s yours is yours. Whether it’s up in the sky or here in your hands. ~C. JoyBell C.

We boarded our boat shortly before dusk leaving the chaos of the ghat behind us. The quiet that accompanied our rowing boat was a perfect prelude to the sight that awaited us. The Manikarnika Ghat was visible long before our arrival.  Cremation pyres burned brightly. As we neared we put our cameras down, respectful of those participating in this somber ritual.  At one point we counted eleven pyres burning; scores of shrouded bodies lined the steps awaiting their time.

Before leaving the growing cluster of onlookers, a boy hopped aboard our boat.  Satisfied with a few more rupees in his pocket, he left behind his goods; palm-sized paper boats, diyas they’re called, each filled with a candle and a few marigolds.  We were to make a wish before setting our diyas afloat, with right hand only.  I went first; thinking of Peter, peace and letting go as I touched the Ganges for the first time.  When Peter’s brother Ken took his turn, I readied my iPad. What appeared on the screen did not match what I saw with the naked eye, and I kept looking over the screen to confirm what I saw. Every photo was the same, until Ken’s diya was in the water.

I can’t begin to explain it, and I won’t even try to understand. I’m content knowing that I was witness to something incredible.

We then returned to the Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening aarti, a ritual performed daily by Hindu priests.   Facing the river, the pandits circle lighted candelabras in a clockwise manner, accompanied by chanting in praise of Mother Ganga. The idea is that the lamps acquire the power of the deity. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess’s purification and blessing.  It was an intense spectacle; noisy and beautiful all at once.

Thursday morning we rose before dawn in order to experience sunrise on Mother Ganga.  Once again, our boat took us from the ghat onto the river.  We witnessed people taking a purification dip in the river, some after chanting at the top of the steps.  We rowed by the laundry ghat, seeing the Dalits slapping their wash on the rocks.

As we turned away, our tour director and now friend, Hemesh, indicated to me to get ready.  Earlier I had told him what I had planned.

You see, I had carried with me from New York to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Kolkata, up the Ganges and back to Calcutta and finally to our little boat back on the Ganges in Varanasi that morning, a small container with a portion of Peter’s ashes along with some of Kerry’s. As we headed into the rising sun, Hemesh gently touched my shoulder and told me it was time.  My dear Peter and sweet Kerry are now a part of this mighty river in this amazing country.



Our final stop before boarding our flight back to Delhi was Sarnath, the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon following his enlightenment. This very ancient place, nearly 2500 years old, was eventually partially destroyed by the Afghans centuries past and lost to man, buried until just over one hundred years ago.  It is one of four Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India.  Large groups of pilgrims were visiting from Sri Lanka at the time we were there.

Although Buddha was Indian, the number of Buddhists in India is very low.  Hemesh explained that many centuries ago, as the Buddhist faith was growing, Hindu priests wisely named the Buddha as an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods, thereby returning potential followers to Hinduism.  Clever.

We circled the remaining stupa clockwise.  My thoughts at this time were of Peter, peace and moving forward.

Namaste. 🙏🏻

Varanasi, Part One

You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them.”

― C. JoyBell C.

Our all too brief stay in Varanasi was chaotic, intense and multi-layered. I’m therefore splitting my post into two parts.  

We were up before dawn on Wednesday for disembarkation, sadly parting with the wonderful staff of the Ganges Voyager 2.  The flight from Kolkata was short and we were in Varanasi by mid-morning.  Varanasi is the holiest of Hindu cities, and one of seven holy cities which can provide moksha, meaning liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. All Hindus hope to visit Varanasi in their lifetime. 

Before our visits to the ghats on the bank of the Ganges, however, we stopped by to meet The King of Brocade.  With much fanfare, Mr. Mehta described his family’s centuries-old silk brocade business.  The weaving is so fine and intricate that an entire day’s work results in no more than three centimeters of cloth.  It doesn’t take a lover of fabric like me to appreciate the beauty of the finished work.

    

We made a quick turnaround at the hotel, then headed out for our first visit to Varanasi’s famous ghats.  Ghats are a series of stone steps leading to a river.  Varanasi has 87 of them, used for mundane purposes such as laundry and bathing, as well as Hindu puja ceremonies and cremation.  

We had a wild twenty minute pedicab ride through the streets.  Photography was not possible; I was hanging on for dear life.  We shared the streets with buses, cars, and motorbikes with horns blaring, as well as cows, goats and dogs and oxen.  People would dodge vehicles as they cross the road.  Road travel in India is not for the faint of heart.

The last fifteen minutes were by foot.  I had expected beggars in Calcutta.  We didn’t find them there, though they may exist where we hadn’t visited.  Varanasi streets were full of them.  The most disturbing were the mothers carrying unnaturally sleepy babies. We’re told they’re professionals and we shouldn’t support them. 

  
  

  

  

    
 
We then met our boat, beautifully decorated in orange marigolds for the first of two very special trips out on the Ganges in Varanasi.  What follows was entirely unexpected and incredible.

Namaste. 🙏🏻

Hare Krishna

  “If there’s one thing I have learned it’s that if you carry on as though nothing strange is happening, it usually stops being strange” ― Sarah-Kate Lynch, On Top of Everything

 So, you’ve heard the term “Hare Krishna”.  Right?  If you came of age in the late 60s and 70s,  you must have. More on that later.

Because of delays, we couldn’t make our destination in the daylight Monday, therefore postponing until Tuesday morning.  The day then became a relaxing one on the river.  Sights included people bathing, doing laundry, brushing their teeth in the river, sampans heavily laden with their cargo going by, funeral pyres, water buffalo, music occasionally blaring from shore; all the while greetings from shore by the local people.

I went to a cooking demonstration from Chef Zaved, and even got to try my hand at making Samosas.    

After dinner we were invited to the upper deck for a special surprise.  Our lovely stewards, Manish and Mahendra were in a sampan upstream, releasing candles into the water, creating a magical trail of light along the river. When their vessel neared our ship, they sent lanterns up into the sky. Awesome.  

 
 

Our morning make-up excursion was to the town of Mayapur.  Mayapur is the international headquarter for ISKCON; The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, aka “The Hare Krishna Movement.”  In the Hindu faith, Krishna is the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu.  Totally legit.  Our guide, purely from an intellectual standpoint, told us that the negative association we have with The Hare Krishna Movement thirty-some years ago (opium, brainwashing, child abuse) has disappeared.  Their new temple under construction (which will rival St. Peter’s in Rome, funded by Alfred Ford); their “buy a brick”-style donation offerings for up to $250,000; the scores of western followers who have migrated and live there, including numerous children; overhearing the sales pitch by one such western Hare Krishna monk, with an American accent, to other monks-in-training (for lack of a better term); the signs offering ISKCON lifetime membership; their fancy off-limits headquarter offices; or condo offerings, sounding similar to buying in a Florida golf course community (www.pancatattvavillage.com):  all of these and so many other subtle red flags made the whole place feel eerily cult-like.  I could not wait to get out of there.  I don’t think this is what Hinduism is all about.    

  

  

Happily back on board, we had an opportunity to have henna drawings.  Manish did my hand, Mahendra my foot.  I’m pretty much loving it, and wishing it would be sandal season when I get back to NY.

  

  

 

Leaving Mayapur our boat got stuck on a sandbar for two and a half hours.  Mother Ganga didn’t want to let us go.  Before being freed with the help of another boat, we wondered, at one point, if we’d need to leave the ship temporarily.  And seconds before we were again moving downstream, a butterfly fluttered around the deck.  Hmmm….

Sadly, we’re soon back to Calcutta.   Next stop, much anticipated Varanasi.

Namaste.

Unpredictable

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

If ever in the past I had pondered (which I did not) what I would be doing on Valentine’s Day 2016, it would not have been this:

–  Participate in morning yoga on the Ganges River.

–  Ride on a rickshaw through Murshidabad, India, watching buildings from the British colonial era along the way, and passing numerous Saras Wati altars, complete with Indian music blasting at each site.

– Visit the Katra Mosque, the oldest mosque still utilized for prayer in India.  Then have an impromptu photo shoot with a group of beautifully clad Indian teenagers visiting the mosque.  (After we photographed them, they asked if they could have a picture taken with them.)


– Enjoy seeing scores of Indian children run along the riverbank, excited at the sight of our boat.

– Walk through the small Indian village of Baranagar and being spontaneously invited into the home of a proud farmer, happy to introduce us to his family.

– Marvel at the beautiful detail of several Shiva temples, considered to be among the best examples of Bengal terra cotta art.


– Swing a bat in a cricket match, on a field shared with goats and cows. Thanks to much practice at bat with my dad while growing up, I actually hit the ball (not impressively, but a hit nonetheless.)

– Dance with young Indian children during their Saras Wati festival at dusk.

– Start to cry when our waiter, Rahul, brought glasses of rosé to our table at the end of the Valentine’s dinner.  😕  Good grief.  It’s still there, just below the surface. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by love.

Namaste.

Saras Wati and Saris

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

  
We had an early start this morning, visiting the village of Matiari.  This town of 20,000 inhabitants is more prosperous than many, due to the local brass industry.  Skilled workers pressed hot brass into flat sheets, which would later be made into plates.  Artists chiseled intricate designs of peacocks, elephants, tigers and even butterflies into the nearly finished products.  By the way, these skilled workers are also farmers.  The reason for our early visit was that they had to return to their crops after their brass work.


  
As we walked through the village, our entourage of curious children grew.  Many were decked out in their finest for the Festival of Saras Wati later in the day.  While in India I’ve been using my iPad for photography.  Although somewhat awkward, it keeps my photos ready for quick upload when possible.  It’s been fun watching the faces of the local kids when eyes see their images on the larger screen.

This afternoon we had a demonstration on the wrapping of a sari. It’s much more complex than the longyis of Myanmar we wore last year. A sari is full of folds and moves quite beautifully.  We each had a matching bindi placed on our forehead.  I’ve learned that the bindi is ornamental.  Married women identify themselves with bright red coloring in the part of their hair.

Another stop later in the afternoon.  In the meantime, the sights from the boat are amazing.

Namaste.

Om Nama Shivay

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” 

― Mahatma Gandhi

  
This morning we visited the town of Kalna in the Burdwan District.  There was nowhere to dock our boat, so we were transported to shore by sampan. We visited an amazing Hindu temple and walked through the market.  Because tomorrow is the festival of Saras Wati, the town market was particularly active.  Saras Wati (goddess of wisdom, education and learning) statues were for sale everywhere.  The people have been so warm and welcoming.  I’ve had many requests to have my photo taken with people; once again I think it’s the tall thing.  The Burdwan District is one of the largest rice producing areas in India.  We’ve seen women working in the rice fields while their children wave to us from the shore.

   
    

    
 
I’m trying hard to understand the many gods and their incarnations in the Hindu faith.  Our guide, Sachi is most patient with our many questions.  He’s a very intelligent and equally enthusiastic guy, and a Brahmin.  It’s fascinating!  I have to go and listen now, or I’ll miss too much. 

Namaste.

 

Humbled

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

― Ernest Hemingway

Lack of time and a good Internet connection have prevented any updates the past few days.  Following my last post, we made a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal.  It was even more spectacular in the morning light.  The marble changed color as the sun rose higher in the sky, and the semi-precious stones glistened as they reflected it’s light.  I hated to leave.


 We then boarded our bus for the ride to Jaipur.  Four and a half hours on the road have never been so fascinating.   As we entered the state of Rajahstan, the saris worn by women along the roadside changed to hues of yellow, red and saffron.  We passed overcrowded busses, horse carts, red sandstone quarries, camel and markets. Jaipur was (mostly) awesome.  We visited a Maharajah palace and saw elephants on the street



Very early the following day we flew to Kolkata (Calcutta); a city with a population of over 20 million.  They have 80,000 taxis!!  New York has only 13,000, I believe. We visited Mother Therese’s home and orphanage. Miracles happening there.  We boarded our boat and are headed for the Ganges

I have so many awesome photos, which I’m unable to upload. Suffice it to say that I’m overwhelmed (as is the Internet connection I have here on the Ganges.) I’m posting now what I’m able, and will catch up when I can.

Namaste.