Thursday, November 3, 2011

Train travel and the Holy City of Varanasi

                                             Early morning baths on the ghats of the River Ganges

After an overnight trip on the train from New Jailapuri to Varanasi we are are now in the holiest of Indian cities, both for Hindus and Buddhists. The trip to get here was not the cozy cabin ride we had imagined, but rather a two tiered berth (Pierre on top bunk and me on the bottom). We shared the berth with two other men who occupied the opposite berths, no curtain in between. This is called 2 tiered AC car and is the recommended way to travel overnight in India. The berths are relatively comfortable and bedding is provided. Miraculously we both slept pretty well, despite the loud snoring and burping of one of our berth-mates, and the rather dirty toilet that we used and shared with all. We are feeling truly acclimatized to this country and have learned that humour is a great help. Train travel is also a good way to meet locals and learn from them.

Varanasi is believed to be one of the oldest LIVING cities in the world. there are over 1000 temples to Lord Shiva. At Sarnath, nearby there is also a very famous buddhist temple that is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists world-wide. It is believed that Buddha preached his most famous sermon and  achieved  enlightenment  at that site.

To take a rowboat ride along the Ganges is a very moving experience. In the evening after sundown there is a Hindu ceremony of chants, gongs and bells while young priests light candles and sing praises the river Ganges. Little candles float on the river, placed by the people who say as prayer to Lord Shiva as they row down the river.

Our boat took us to the site of the funeral pyres where we saw bodies being cremated in the Hindu tradition. Their relationship with death seems much more open than in our culture. They worship the natural cycle of birth  and death. It was inspiring to watch the families prepare the bodies and place them on the burning wood fires one after the other, a ceremony that can last several hours until the bodies are burned to ashes and then spread on the river. The belief is that if you die in Varanasi and are burned and returned to the river Ganges, you escape the cycle of reincarnation and reach Moksha (Nirvana)

This morning we again were rowed down the river to see the ghats (there are 80 in all). On the ghats(steps to the river) we saw men and women bathing in the river before going to temple. There were  also priests chanting, processions  singing and playing instruments, as well as others practicing yoga and meditating on the ghats. We have felt that the spiritual here permeates every part of life. There is no escaping its presence when visiting India.

                                       Darjeeling view from hotel room.....Mount Kangjungjonga

                                         Teesta River Valley view...separates West Bengal from Sikkim
                             Young monks studying and playing at monastery near Gangtok...boys will be boys

                                                    Lall market scene, Gangtok, Sikkim

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