There are many pilgrimage cities in the world, Mecca, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Rome, and today’s topic Varanasi, India. The faithful travel over miles and miles to reach their holy shires and for a blessing of being closer to god. “The Way” is a 2010 film about the pilgrimage roads in France and Spain leading to Santiago de Compostella and the church where Catholics believe the holy relic of the head of St. James lies. As pilgrimages have not played a part of my personal faith journey, this look at the faithful who do, was very touching and revealing. The universal themes of loss, purpose in life and personal faith as well as community of the faithful are questions we all experience and struggle to understand. Tom, played by Martin Sheen, has a profound quote: “There is a difference between the life we live and the life we choose.” This is a powerful and inspiring film to help us close that gap. I have been struggling to somehow put Varanasi into my blog since we returned from our North trip. So much has been written about this city, much as I felt with the Taj Mahl. How can I possibly say meaningful words to describe my time in Varanasi? I have only my experience and some simple research to share with you, but that is all I set out to do when I started this blog.
In Hindu mythology, Varanasi is 5000 years old, the oldest city on earth, the home of Shiva, one of their major gods, the place where the world began, and the crossing place from this world to the next. This is the holiest of the 7 holy cities for Hinduism and Jainism. And it is a holy site for Buddhism which started in India, moved to Far East and is making resurgence now in India. Buddha came to Sarnath, near Varanasi to give his first sermon after becoming enlightened. When we visited the site, there was a large pilgrimage group from China. Now can you see the reason for my reticence to begin this post? When I finally thought of “The Way” connection, I at least had a place to start.
Archeologists date Varanasi back only 3000 years ago using the evidence unearthed on the site. This still includes Varanasi on the list of oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth! The Temple of Shiva is a most important place and we saw miles of people waiting four to five hours to visit during the celebration. Indians seem never to stand in line but move up inch by inch to the farthest they can go in line. But we saw with our own eyes, a straight, orderly line winding through traffic, carts, rickshaws, cattle, and donkeys carrying their offerings of flowers or grain. Although, Varanasi is known as the City of Temples as well as the City of Light, the holiest place of worship is the Ganga or Ganges, and not a temple, but a river.
The ghats are steps that lead down to the river. One section of ghat would be impressive, but Varanasi has no less than four miles of ghats. Two are for nightly worship and chanting and two are for cremation where the funeral pyres burn for twenty-four hours a day on giant piles of wood. People are walking down the ghats to enter the holy water to pray, wash away their sins, both animals and humans drink the water, and to wash their laundry. The hotel sheets are washed in the Ganges and laid to dry on the ghats. There are ordinary people as well as holy men dressed either in orange cloth or naked and covered in ashes. The own nothing in the world and must beg to live. Hindus are expected to share with these men. They are often talking to groups of people who ask them questions. As we walked the sidewalk connecting the ghats, and were charged by an unholy cow chased by his handler, stepped over feral dogs and children, goats, listening to the continual chanting, David commented, “We are walking on a metaphysical boardwalk!”
Bathing in the river is truly an act of faith. The smell hits you about halfway down the ghats and all sorts of garbage and filth is floating by. It is hard to understand how the river is holy water, yet so full of pollution. Some categories of dead bodies are thrown into the river for burial, young children, and pregnant women. Hindus believe the water will wash away their sins and the last act before the funeral pyre for the bodies of the faithful is a sort of reverse baptism or dunk in the Ganga. The belief is that if you are cremated here or die in the city, you are released from the next life of reincarnation and will go straight to heaven. There are hospices near the cremation ghats where people come to be cared for during their last days, in order to die in Varanasi, and finally be cremated and have their ashes scattered in the water of the Ganga.
There is an amazing long video on YouTube called Varanasi, India: Beyond.
Hinduism is obviously one or the first or the first religion on earth. Though today it seems rather primitive, it must be because of its ancient origins. Student Alert: I also am remembering that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile River because of the gift of the inundation each spring. What I can say is that Hindus are continually searching for God with all their hearts as instructed in the Bible, and I pray they will find Him. I have met some of the kindest, most generous, patient, friendly people during my travels through India.
One question, I have in finishing my musings is, “ Where do the people who live in Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem, Varanasi or other pilgrimage cities go to make their pilgrimages?”