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.

Speechless

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” ― Albert Einstein


Today I am without words.
We left Delhi and traveled four hours by expressway to Agra. The city of Agra, the Agra Fort, our beautiful hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal from our rooms, and the Taj Mahal itself were incredible. Having always been at the top of my bucket list, the Taj Mahal far exceeded my already high expectations. No photo I had ever seen could ever capture the emotion I felt being in the presence of such magnificence. Our guide, Rishi, a native of Agra, knew all of the angles, and some cool photo tricks.


  
  
I can say no more.
We return for sunrise tomorrow. After that, Jaipur.