A Travellerspoint blog

Varanasi 1-12-08 RPW

12 °C


There is no way for me to really describe what it is like in Varanasi. I will leave that to others who have a greater ability with the written word. People say that time in India has changed their lives in a deep and profound way. To this point, I have found India to be exotic, exciting and an intense experience for all my senses. Varanasi however, has been an experience that I feel has changed my perception of life, and death for that matter.

This mornng we took a boat ride along the Ganges at daybreak. It was visually exhilerating to see the activities along the ghats while the sun was rising. People doing their morning ritual baths, performing yoga, washing their clothes, and chanting. I was snapping away with my camera, my head dizzy with so many sights to take in at one time.


Our guide, Papuu, then told us that we were approaching the ghat where the "poor" people are cremated and that we should not take any photos. We approached very close to the shore and the first sight I saw were men raking the ashes of last nights cremations into baskets, bringing them down to the Ganges and dipping them into the river to sift for any jewelry or stones that have not melted or been destroyed during the cremation process. It took me a minute or so to realize that only fifteen feet or so behind this activity was a family preparing their mother and wife for cremation. The pyre was already prepared, the body was first wrapped in white cloth and then shrouded in a more decorated and colored fabric. I watched what appeared to be the husband of this women so carefully and gently unwrap the womens face and wash her with the waters from the Ganges. The way he so tenderly held her head and stroked her face showed the obvious love he had for her. The rest of the family stood by quietly and somber.

I felt like we were intruding in a very personal moment and did not want to watch the actual cremation process take place. Somehow it felt different last night watching four or five cremations taking place at one time with the fires lighting up the sky. From the boat last night it seemed like a spectacle with lots of viewers along the ghat taking it in. One body after another was marched down to the ghat and stacked on the steps awaiting their turn. It did not hit me as hard then as we somehow felt removed and distant from the process.


This morning however, I felt that I was an intruder at a very special moment in this family's lives. The closeness to the rite and the ability to see it so clearly during daylight made the sight personal and human.

I often think about the process by which I want to leave this earth when the time has come. More and more, I see cremation as being the better option for me. Coming to Varanasi and viewing the process and all the many rituals associated with it has given me a great deal to reflect upon. Varanasi is said to be the oldest living city in the world, over 6000 years old. I think of how many cremations have taken place through the ages here with husbands and fathers and brothers, washing, stroking and caressing the faces of their loved ones as they part with them.

I close this entry with a photo that has no relevance to the subject matter that i wrote about today. Just a womans portrait that I liked alot.



Posted by petalsong 08:36 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Evening on the Ganges 1 - 1.11.08 - CG

21 °C

Here is a photo from the first moments we approached the Ganges:


After settling in, we met our guide, Papuu for a brief evening tour by boat to the Cremation Ghat (Ghat means a pier, or landing on a bank of water) and to the eventing Aarti.

He explained how many bodies are either released into the ganges, or thrown in as ashes. The water containes particles from millions and millions of bodies. All who were brought to Varanasi because of the belief that, if their bodies are burned and released into the water, they will not have to go through another cycle of reincarnation. They will be liberated from life. The point at which the Ganges crosses through varanasi is believed to be a sacred spot filled with the power of the God, Shiva.

The boat slowly took us towards the burning pyres. There were about 4 cremations happening simultaneously. Apparently the Bramhin caste is burnt on the top pier. Does that mean their soul gets to reach liberation quicker? i don't think so...Papuu told us that women are not allowed to set foot close to the cremations. They can watch from a boat, in the distance (like me). But it is an ancient belief based on the idea that women are too sensitive to watch the bodies burning.

We then took the boat to the main ghat, where the evening prayers and singing are done (Aarti). Hundreds of people were gathered to watch 7 priests on podiums, leading the prayers, chanting and making offerings with candles and fire. Even though the ritual was beautiful to watch, I was not able to get into a spiritual state of mind. I was pondering how tightly the rules of caste and gender still live on here in Varanasi.


I remembered the conversation I had with Pami about religion, that it is important to allow religion to change in ways that make sense to people. Let go of traditions that are no longer valid, and create new ones to keep religion meaningful.

In the meantime, local kids were hopping from boat to boat, selling small candle offerings. Here is the silhouette of a girl who approached our boat:


A tea vendor also came to our boat, and served hot chai masala in clay cups - which are then tossed into the Ganges as a biodegradable product. I kept mine for memory's sake.

Varanasi is a place that exists in between dimensions. The energy here is intense, full and transformative. It is a blessing to be able to experience it...

Posted by petalsong 08:39 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

an indian train ride 1-11-08 RPW

When we arrived at the Delhi railway station, my senses came alive once again. The crowds, the din, the organized confusion. I had expectations of an Indian train station from the many movies that I have seen, and i was pleasently surprised that the reality matched perfectly.

Porters dressed in red smocks carrying luggage on their heads, the multitudes scurrying in every direction to catch their trains, vendors selling everything from food, drinks souvenirs to chains and padlocks to secure your suitcases in the train. We found our track, our car and our cabin without a hitch. We were met by an attendant who could not speak a word of english but continuously gave the greeting of Nameste. I gave him 100 rupees and the gesture continued for the total 14 hour trip to Varanasi.


Our cabin was sparse, but relatively clean. The Mahajan women were sure to see to it that Christine and I would have food for the trip before we left. Christine and I feel blessed that we have met this family. One that we feel such affection towards. There is a connection between us all that you rarely encounter. How fortunate we are.

Christine and I tried to sleep, we were somewhat successful, but it was broken sleep at best. I had gestured to our attendant to knock on the cabin door when we got to Varanasi ( by pure hand motions) and it worked. As we approached Varanasi, he was there to be sure we were awake and ready to go.

Although we have spent a few hours in Varanasi at this point, I will save my first impressions (which are incredible) until tomorrow. Hopefully, we will get our own computer up and running and will be able to post some of our photos. This is an umbeleivable place!!!!!!!!

Stayed tuned....

Posted by petalsong 03:21 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

From Delhi to Varanasi - 1.11.08 - CG

Yesterday was a packed day. We started with a lesson from Bela on how to make Pooris, an Idian fried, puffy bread, and a delicious Aloo (potato dish). I took careful notes (much to Ron's delight), so that I can make them myself back home. The breakfast was a feast, as usual. Then we packed up our things for the trip to Varanasi. On the way, Ron purchased a replacement suitcase for his broken one.

Bela, Mansi, Suhani, Ron and I went to Khan market. Shopping galore! Ayurvedic beauty products, indian magazines, food, necklaces, gorgeous clothes (naturaul, vegetable dyed). I was so happy to be enjoying the day with all the Mahajan ladies. As usual, Ron was cracking jokes, and making every one laugh.

They dropped us at the train station - a dim, packed place with a roar of noise. Suprisingly, I was not nervous. I think we are growing very accustomed to the streets here. The train was the Shiv Ganga Express to Varanasi. We had tickets for a 1st class sleeper cabin. A small, basically clean clean cabin with fold out beds. Freshly bleached were brought to us in paper bags, and the train butler laid them out nicely. Ron gave him 100 rupees, for which he kept thanking us with the Namaste greeting.

We did not sleep too much, due to the discomfort of the beds and reaching the ancient city of Varanasi.

Varanasi is the oldest living city - over 6000 years old! Any wow, is it incredible. Sadhus with painted forheads, in orange robes slowly walking though the jammed streets - cows, rickshaws, stores, vehicles. Paan stalls, monkeys...it is impossible to describe.

Our guesthouse is right on top of the ganges river, with a steady stream of pilgrims taking ritual baths in its dirty, sacred waters. It is a clean and comfortable place. We have the best room in the house, with a sunrise and sunset view from the windows. It is perfect. We can even watch a monkey family play and take naps on the adjoining roofs.

Right now I am typing from a public computer and am being pushed to get off. Hopefully I will be able to write and reflect more while being here.

Posted by petalsong 03:00 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Gandhi Musuem & Akshardham Temple - 1.09.08 - CG & RPW

We decided to write a joint blog on the experience today, since we both had such powerful reactions. But we are not reading each other's blogs prior to publishing. In this way, our point of views will not be influenced by the other. So please understand if there are overlaps and duplications of thoughts & observations. Here we go:


Since watching Attenborough's film on the life of Gandhi, a few months ago, I have become fascinated and reverant towards Mahatma's philosophy on non violence, his self discipline and his tremendous love of humanity. I have also read about his inner conflicts, his choices between responsibility to his family and to the "outer" world. As well as the intense relationships he developed with a number of women in circle (Mira Ben). One thing is clear: he was super human. But he was very human. And no one should be offended by this fact. His saintliness lies in the fact that he fought to transcend his weaknesses and boundaries - in order to teach us how to transcend ours. And by doing that, he won the hearts of many generations of people.

The Gandhi museum was a tribute to his life and his work. A simple and clean museum, with no ornamentation or pretense. Very clear and direct exhibit of photographs, letters and personal belongings. The spinning wheel, a copper plate, an ayurvedic treatment for blood pressure, yellowed paper, worn blankets and cloth. A pair of wooden sandals and one pair of leather sandals. Photographs of him from the time he was a polished attorney arriving in South Africa - to after Kasturba passed and he was frail, shaken, wrapped in home spun cloth and still determined to change the suffering in his country, and the world.


Each quote of his on the wall pierced through me. The power of honesty, compassion and hope wrapped inside his words. As I absorbed each one, I felt simultaneously inspired and embarrased. Embarrased that I do not have the same level of dedication in making the world a better place. I am not willing to live with only a few plates, 2 home spun outfits and 2 pairs of sandals. I am not full of enough conviction to drive me to march hundreds of miles in order to protest an injustice. And this makes me terribly sad - because I know that what he was doing was correct and needed. Maybe this is a seed that will blossom in me. I don't know.


The last exhibit we saw was his blood stained clothes and the bullet that killed him. I was torn in my feelings about that. He was someone who focused so much on life, why display the objects of his death so prominently?

By the time we left I was touched to the core, and silently contemplating the life and spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. We bought a few books to study further.

And then we were on out way to Akshardham Temple. Which I thought would be the appropriate atmosphere to round off the day. A sacred atmosphere.

The first thing you notice about Akshardham is the security. Armed guards with big guns. 3 rounds of security checks to go through before entering the temple grounds. It instantly drives out any feeling of the peaceful and sacred. The second thing you notice is the majestic scale of the temple building and gates. It is absolutely the most impressive building I have ever seen. More beautiful architecturally than any Italian Cathedral or NYC skyscraper. The unimaginable numbers of carved deities, elephants, flowers, details. It was dizzying to stand in one spot and slowly scan the sculptural reliefs all the way up to the ceiling. It is indescribable. At every corner of the building men were sitting on stools with signs saying "Please Don't Touch. Please Keep Silence". But what moved me about the building was the intricacy and the quantity of the hand work. How many people, how many hours? Is this building a manifestation of the exploitation of workers, or is it a testament to the glory of India's stone carvers?

We were not able to take photos on the grounds, so here is a photo of a postcard!


After you leave the main building of the temple, you can purchase a ticket for 125 rupees ($2.50) and go on 3 "rides": 1 is an animated show, which we didn't see. The 2nd is an IMAX film on the life of Swami Narayan, to whom the temple is dedicated. And the 3rd is a boat ride through the civilizations that prospered in India. The boat ride was wild. If you have been on the Pirates of Penzance ride in one of the Disney locations, then you can get an idea. It's indoors - in a building that looks like a long, retangular temple. You get to choose to ride in an English or Hindi speaking boat. It takes you through a journey on the places and historical moments that India is recognized for: the first university, hospital, chess game...as well as brief descriptions of important figures and saints (Tulsidas, Meera Bai, the father of Ayurveda (?) ). I enjoyed it very much.

On the other hand, the IMAX film was fun but questionable. It seemed to be a campaign for people to put their faith in the leadership of the Temple - as a guide to Swami Narayan. The film itself was impressive, with great music, beautiful landscape but mediocre acting. It ends suspiciously, fictionalizing the life of the Swami in order to create a bridge to the temple. Quite a bit corrupt.

I was a little disturbed by this. But my over all feeling is this: Akshardham is not a spiritual temple. It is a place where Indians can visit and marvel at the beauty of their stone work, where they can enjoy the technology that they were instrumental in developing and maintaining, where they can take a virtual boat ride through the history of their achievements. I was thinking of how Gandhi would react to Akshardham. Would he think it was an excessive display of wealth and a waste of human/natural resources? Or would he enjoy how it displays the strength of Indian artistry? I felt that it could easily be interpreted in either direction. But I feel that it is generally a good thing - it gives the Indian people a place to enjoy a building and a place that reflects their tradition and history. On a very grand scale, through "modern" technologies. Now if the workers were forced into labor and were starving while building this, then my feelings will quickly go to disapproving of this place. But if it put hundreds of stone workers in a place where they could fulfill their skills, and provides a place where children can visit exhibits that excite and inspire them, then I feel it is fine.

The experience of visiting the Gandhi Museum and the Akshardham Temple was one of the most extreme contrasts on this trip. And they were back to back. In my mind, the museum was more powerful spiritually and held more sincerity in it. But the Temple holds a level of human innovation and grandiosity which is also very real. Similar to how we can take one person and look into the various aspects that make them whole: a divine spirit, an egotistical will, a sensual nature and an instinctual need to continue developing forward. To me, both places provided much to think about and appreciate. And I feel both had tremendous validity...and inconsistencies. Just like a human.

To see images of Akshardham, please click this link:


This morning, Christine and I decided to go to the Gandhi Museum and Akshardam Temple. Was this a coincidence or not? Some people say there are no coincidences, and that everything happens for a reason. This is something I will ponder for a while.

Our ride to the museum was uneventful. It's interesting that when we first arrived in Delhi, we thought the traffic and noise was so "over the top'. Having now been here for a week and a half, the noise is now just background sound and the traffic more like a bunch of "crazies" on the Long Island Expressway during rush hour.

We arrived at the museum which only has a small plaque indicating its existence. Once through the gate there is a small dirt parking area to the side which only had two or three cars parked in it. The area was relatively small, with two statues and a replica of Gandhi's Ashram. There were two grounds keepers watering shrubery and washing various signposts and plaques. The building both inside and out is unassuming, unadorned, and very simple, just like the man. There was no fee for admission or even a sign suggesting a donation. I would have been surprised if money was suggested, given what the man stood for. The building is not in disrepair but shows the signs of wear. The last paint job was several decades ago. There were no security guards or protocol to deal with. The museum consists of a book stand and five rooms on two levels dedicated to various times in Gandhi's life.


On the first floor, the room consists of photos of Gandhi's life from childhood on. No fancy frames or plaques describing the photos, just typed descriptions and dates explaining the photos significance. Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the various cotton spinning devices used by Gandhi and for that matter, every Indian who engaged in that activity. From the most primitive to the most modern, but still man produced, not mass produced. this was a strong point of Gandi's, that people who were not idle and were productive should be encouraged and suported in their efforts.

There is another room that has many of his personal articles on display. The simplicity in how the man lived. No personal possesions, material trappings or adornment of any kind. I wondered if I had the ability and discipline to lead his life for even a single day?

The next room, and the most intense dealt with his assisination and cremation. Throughout this room were printed wall hangings with many of his most profound qoutes. The room had on display the loincloth he wore when assasinated, showing the blood stains and bullet holes, as well as the bullet slugs themselves. there was also the display case in which his ashes were carried to their final resting place.


The last room was an art gallery depicting Gandhi both in life form as well as an immortal figure. One painting had Christ, Buddha, and Gandhi walking a path to a blinding light while surrounded by man in every form of corruption, lust and cruelty. Something to reflect upon. On my way out of the building, I purchased a book of quotes by Gandhi. I think there will be lessons to be learned by reading his writings.

From The museum we headed to the Akshardham Temple. When we arrived, the first interesting sight were the armed guards with automatic weapons behind sand bags, the mirrors rolled underneath the cars and the search of the vehicles interior. Well, that was only the beginning. Two metal detectors and two physical pat downs later, we were then told that all of our possessions (except our money, hmm) had to be placed in a security area. You enter the temple with no physical possessions. Interestingly, just like Gandhi would have entered , without the need of having checked anything into storage.


The temple is a vast complex of buildings, arches, landscaping, and adorments. There were hundreds of maintanence people working on every aspect of the grounds. The main temple is an architectural wonder. It is more grand than the Taj mahal, the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, Saint Peters Basilica,Saint Patricks cathedral or the Duomo of Milan or florence. I don't think any man made structure rivals it, both its exterior or interior detail or grandueur. At each shrine there is a donation box, where most vistors made a deposit.

After leaving the temple, we strolled the grounds to see the other buildings which we assumed were also temple buildings. To my surprise, the other three large buildings housed an IMAX theatre, a boat right through an animatronics display and an exhibition hall. I felt I was at DisneyWorld. We chose to watch the IMAX and go on the boat ride and bought tickets for these activities. Yes, we bought tickets!!

After seeing the Gandi Museum which clearly represented the man in how he led his life with simplicity, generosity and grace, it was difficult to transcend into the world of the Akshardam Temple. These "shrines" represent the opposite ends of a spectrum. Christine and I both felt confused and drained by partaking in these two activities in the same day. Again, I ask, was this a coincidence or not?

I close this section of our blog with a quote from the book I purchased at the Gandi Musuem.

"We do not need to proselytise either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study"

Gandhi 1948


Posted by petalsong 08:25 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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