Yesterday and today we have explored two of the most sacred places I have ever been; the Ganges river and Deer Park.
Before sunset we went by boat to the burning ghats where they cremate the dead. It is considered insensitive to photograph the cremations so our pictures are from a distance. We saw people bring their loved ones to the river and dowsing their shrouded bodies before the cremation begins. We saw bodies in the process of being cremated under the piles of wood. We saw the end of the ceremony when the chief mourner, dressed in white with his shaven head, dispose of the skull by throwing it into the water. And finally the pouring of water onto the remaining ash and walking away from the banks of the Ganges without looking back. No, there is no overwhelming smell. It is a chaotic yet peaceful environment. Truly something that can only be fully experienced first hand. After the boat we went on shore to watch the evening ceremony of the Hindu priests. And then when the fire ceremony ended we braved the crowded streets to get back to our car and back to our hotel. The entire evening was an experience I will never forget.
In the morning it only got better!
This morning we left our hotel at 5am to head down to the ghats again for sunrise. Our guide Shahshank secured a boat with the same oarsman as the night before. We went south to the Raja Ghat where we pulled up to the steps and stripped down so we could bathe in the sacred river. According to Hindu beliefs bathing in the Ganges removes all sins and bad Karma. We went in to the water and watched the sun rise.
After heading back down toward the burning ghats again we disembarked and walked through the narrow lanes of Varanasi to see the many Hindu shrines and temples. The main temple is under heavy security and cameras and non-Hindus are not allowed inside. We enjoyed some chai and purchased some incense and then headed back to our hotel for breakfast... All before 7:30am!
Our next destination of the day was Sarnath where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, preached his first sermon to the first 5 members of the Sangha, or community. Around 250bc the emperor of India Ashoka built the stupa that still stands today. Much of the complex is in ruins and is now undergoing archeological study after being destroyed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Next to Deer Park was an Archeological Museum, but again no cameras allowed. They had many early carvings of the Buddha and also the capital of Ashoka's pillar that is now the symbol of the country and appears on every denomination of Rupee note. Additionally, there are pieces of land around Deer Park that have been given to Buddhist communities from other countries to commemorate this place. Thailand just finished erecting a giant statute of the Buddha 2 years ago that is very impressive.
On the way back home to our hotel we stopped at a silk weaving co-op and had more chai and Lassi. The Lassi was amazing! When we got back to the hotel we enjoyed the pool and 99° degree heat. After dinner when we returned to our hotel we got to get a glimpse of a Hindu wedding ceremony being held on the grounds of our hotel. What a day!