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Friday, January 27, 2012

Varanasi: Part One

As with so much else, it's difficult to put Varanasi into words. It's the spiritual pulse on the banks of the Ganges. It's the home to Benares Hindu University (BHU), jewel in India's diadem of education. It's a center for the arts and has been home to painters and writers and musicians since time immemorial. It also houses wonderful restaurants and twisting alleyways.

Varanasi is ancient and is not the original name of the city. It's home to about a half million people, but you don't feel it until you're out in the streets. On every corner is a shrine. Krishna, Vishnu, Hanuman and especially Shiva are ever-present. Shiva with his trident (and lingam) rests side by side with his wife Ganga Ma and she is beautiful. As I write this, I well up with a huge sense of love for her, too. It might be, as some have said (Krishnamurti and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) that a place imbued with centuries (millenia, in this case) of love and reverence cannot help but evoke that feeling in others.

Traveling up the river on one side, you see history before your eyes - the ghats, built by royal devotees from all around India to ensure their acceptance into heaven; some by Moghuls, a couple by the British. Many have temples incorporated to their schemes. Then there are the cremation ghats; these I do not photograph for the same reasons that certain temples I don't record: they are sacred and private in ways that we perhaps have forgotten with our automatic reflex to upload, post and share.

Varansi and Sarnath close by have captured my heart in a way different than Dharamsala or Bodhgaya; each place has its distinct allure and sense of home, sense of welcome.

What follows are a handful of photos. Not many because I'm finding limitations on beach shots, on river compositions, on scenic twists and turns of said alleyways. The actual experience is a treasure; the photo, a cliche. But I share them with you because I want to share something of the visceral experience of where I've been, what I've seen.

The Ghats
The seated fellow is a snake-charmer. I was in a hurry brought about  by hunger and  so didn't avail myself of the pleasure (I believe there's one of his colleagues here in Bodhgaya, so I can still hang out with a man and his cobra) but I wanted some reminder that this tradition still lives.

The ghats are well labelled. Once you get oriented, you can find your way around pretty well. Walking back to the alleys from the ghats and finding my way was much easier than coming in from the street.

The main ghat is replete with festivals, a bazaar and temples. 

In the background is a shrine to Lord Shiva that is in a state of collapse. My boatman remarked that no one is allowed inside for more than a minute, otherwise they go mad. And non-Hindus are not allowed at all.

Normally, I try to avoid snapping pictures of people in the middle of doing something private, but this struck me as a quintessential part of Ganges life. People bathe in the Ganges, drink the water and don't die from it. It's pretty wonderful to see elderly folks come down these steep stairs, lather up and dip into what by all accounts is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and then hike back up the stairs on their way. Early in the morning, it's quite peaceful and the banks come alive slowly. Early in the morning, you can hear the devotional singing of prayers and the bells at puja. It's a beautiful way to wake up.

This is in front of Gay (Hindi: "Cow" - Sanskrit "go") Ghat. For all that people unwittingly and unwittily make fun of what they call "cow worship" in India, they might think twice if they consider that to the Hindus, the cow is identified with Aditi, the mother of the gods. As my boatman Papu said, "she holds the gods in her belly, so you do not cut her or open her up". Other associations are with the earth, the giver that takes so little.
The Alleys

Facades and random finds:

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