Scene opens…2:34 am and I am on the bottom bunk of a four-bed sleeper train compartment heading from Varanasi into the mountains of Darjeeling. It’s a strangely intimate situation listening to the snoring, scratching, and hacking of my fellow train-mates. With a 12 hour train trip, the benefit of an overnighter is that time flies and the passing scenes offer a snapshot of the India that I have yet to explore. As long as you disregard the rats enjoying an evening feast on the tracks while waiting for the train to arrive, the cold vinyl bed with too small sheets, crying babies, and sleeping strangers within your personal space, it’s a perfect way to move.
I have covered quite a few kilometers in the past five days. I left Agra and the Taj Mahal behind and took a nine-hour car trip to Varanasi-one of the holiest cities in the world. A car trip sounds like a simple way to travel…just sit back and relax…but with Indian transportation, this is never the case. The driver bobbed and weaved and honked his way around motorbikes carrying families of four with the infant in mom’s arms, mini trucks crammed with 20 passengers, and the normal variety of pedestrians, animals, bikes, and interesting motorized vehicles.
Arriving late night in Varanasi didn’t prepare me for the beautiful spiritual experience. As the driver searched for the hotel, all I could see was another place filled with people…people…and more people. You’ll hear that it’s hard to be alone in India and that the sheer number of people is a foundation for the culture shock….such an accurate portrayal of my experience so far. I feel very comfortable here, but also in a state of heightened awareness wondering what I will encounter next. There are way fewer Westerners than I imagined so people tend to outwardly stare as if they are watching a clown pass. The intensified Indian experiences have increased my empathy for people who struggle with sensory issues. There’s a feeling of not being able to take in all of the sights, sounds and feelings at the same time and a constant contrast of the unpredictable nature of what is happening around you. As I raise my head to take in the most beautiful scents from an offering of flowers or scented oils, I look down and have to literally jump to avoid the large piles of endless cow dung and various other animals excrement.
Speaking of cows, as a revered animal of the Hindu faith, they show up wandering independently in the most unexpected places with the casual swagger that a place of honor brings. On my first day, I took pictures of cows everywhere, but waiting to board this train, I barely looked up as a cow strolled down the platform…why wouldn’t she? I’ve bumped into lazing cattle on sidewalks, in streets, in storefronts, and yesterday in the family room of the aromatherapy guru.
The Holy Ganges river lines the city of Varanasi in a crescent shape. Along the river, there are many sets of staircases called ghats that take pilgrims, locals, and tourists to the river. People visit from all over the world to bath in the holy waters – but it is also a place used regularly by locals. I took a boat trip along the Ganges and watched spiritual experiences and a religious ceremony that is held each night. There was something beautiful about the mix of people tossed together on the boat that made the trip especially sweet…maybe I am just feeling a bit mushy about India, or maybe being away from the shore provided a few QUIET seconds to reflect, but they seemed to have especially kind and generous hearts. There’s something mind-boggling to me about the way shared experiences bring people together…even for a short time.
The boat guide took me off the boat to enjoy the ceremony perched on a light pole. People filled the ghat and boats on the water to watch a beautiful display of fire, chanting, and music performed by a group of festively dressed young men. I’ll have to research the ceremony more, but it was an impressive spiritual display.
In the morning, I headed back to a boat for a sunrise Ganges view and to take in the old city by foot. The morning is a peaceful time with people bathing and meditating along the river. The Ganges serves another important purpose in Varanasi with two ceremonial cremation fires…one burning without pause for the past 300 years. When someone dies, their son or other male family member takes responsibility for preparing and burning the body along the river bank. Forgive my errors in this description because I am writing from memory, but the son begins the process by having his head shaved and putting on a ceremonially pure white gown. The body is wrapped in a shroud and placed upon a pile of wood that has been treated with sandalwood oil. After additional logs are placed over the body, the son lights a stick from the ceremonial fire, walks around the body five times, says a few quiet words and begins the burning process. The guide said women are excluded from this process because their crying will interfere with the peaceful and happy passage of the soul to Nirvana. The final remains are then put in the river and the process begins again for another family with the cremation fires being used 24 hours a day to cremate 200-300 bodies in this public place.
I walked away from the cremation area smelling of fire that won’t seem to dissipate from my hair. In a way, it’s strangely helpful in reminding me that I am still unsure how I feel about the cremation ceremonies. While it is so different from our own passage procedures, there was a sense of total commitment to a peaceful passage that I greatly respected.
Varanasi has a good vibe…that’s what I would write on a bumper sticker if I worked for the tourism board. Expressions of collective faith and adoration are inspiring and spiritual- especially from distant places. I will never forget my days spent in Varanasi.
Heading to Darjeeling…familiar to most for Darjeeling Tea. I expect I’ll enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity to enjoy unique tea flavors within sight of the Himalayas.