Tuesday, June 18
We flew to Varanasi this mornings. There was some strong BO from a person near us on the flight, but thankfully it was short. As soon as Sapan, our Varanasi guide, picked us up, the pre-monsoon rains for the day began. Had it lasted more than 45 minutes, this poor little town (of only 3.1 million) would have flooded. However, by the time we got to our first destination, Sarnath, the rains had stopped.
Sarnath is an archeological site and very holy site to Buddhists. Apparently, this is a holy deer park where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Sapan gave us a crash course in the life of Buddha, and I learned he is the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu. Sapan described how Buddha’s ashes were distributed after his cremation, but he pronounced it “asses.” We did a fine job of keeping our poker faces till were out of his hearing.
Buddhism, I am discovering, is a very complicated religion and makes me all the more glad we worship Christ Jesus, the one true God whose requirements are simple: love Christ and love your neighbor. At Sarnath, we also had our first experience with hordes of beggars who flocked to us and our car after we bought an ice cream. Sapan reminded us to ignore them as many are scammers.
We then visited a silk factory which reminded me a lot of the one we visited in China. Old men worked looms by hand; the “modern” loom used punch cards for its designs. In the shop, we were shown gorgeous pieces of fabric and ended up purchasing four silk scarves and a pillow cover/wall hanging for less than $50. We always like to support the local economy when we travel. Purchasing gifts we know were authentically made by artisans we met is a great way to do this.
This evening we had our first boat ride on the Ganges, the holiest river of Hindus. In planning our trip, Varanasi/Ganges was one of the places I was most interested in visiting. I know almost nothing about Hinduism, but I simply wanted to learn about it. What better place to do so than at its epicenter?
We saw the centuries-old cremation ceremony. To die in Varanasi and then to be cremated here is the highest honor a Hindu can receive. First, the families embalm the body and wrap it in beautiful fabric. Next people dunk it in the river and then set it out to dry. Dunking in the Ganges is supposed to cleanse the people of their sins and guarantee salvation. Once dry, the pyre is built around it, lit, and set aflame. Fires burn 24/7, even during the monsoon season. During the burning, a family member crushes the skull to ensure that 1) the dead person will know his family has no attachment to him anymore and to head to nirvana, and 2) the aghories will not take the skull for their “black magic.” The family is given some ashes, and the rest are then dumped into the river and the family moves on. Sapan kept pronouncing ashes as “asses.” We thought of correcting him, but it was the one thing we could genuinely smile at.
Young children under 10 do not get cremated; a stone is tied around the wrapped body and then slid into the middle of the river. We witnessed this, and it made me wonder how many young bodies are in its depths?
We sat through a long Hindu prayer service to the Mother Ganga. They celebrate this each evening around 7:00, but tonight was a special Hindu annual festival celebrating the day when Mother Ganga came to earth. The celebration included lots of incense, fire, drums, bells, and noise, and took far too long.
I felt a deep sadness watching all of this. The spiritual darkness and deception these tens of thousands of people present live in, not to mention the hundreds of millions of other Hindus around the world, is mind blowing. I also just felt gross–not just from the humidity and bugs and sweat dripping down my body but also from the human ash in the air and sitting in a boat on a river filled with dead children and cremated remains of adults.
Sapan was very moved by everything, though, and kept commenting on how beautiful all of it was. He was enraptured. I prayed a lot during the ceremony for Christ’s light to break forth and lead these people to the one true God.
Random thoughts for the day:
•I like airport security at IGI; we can keep our water bottles and don’t have to remove our shoes. Also, everyone gets a personal hand/wand scan with ladies in a separate enclosed room. No one can argue discrimination.
•I’m really glad I decided to start growing my hair out a year and a half ago. I’d be even more out of place here with short hair.
•I’m really starting to miss American food.
Wednesday, June 19
We were up at 4:15 for our sunrise boat ride on the Ganges to see the people bathing and the morning prayers. The weather was nice, that’s about the only positive thing I can comment on. Sapan was embarrassed by all the people taking a dump along the banks. Both Matthew and I agree that this is the most disgusting place we’ve ever seen, and we’ve been to some very dirty, unsanitary area of the world during our travels.
After the boat ride we walked through the old area of Varanasi visiting several Hindu and Muslim temples. You are supposed to take your shoes off when entering the temples so I declined. At the main temple, there are over 1,000 in town, we had to leave our bags in lockers, and we were patted down before the entrance. They always separate men and women for the pat down, and the security woman in charge of me was not shy where she touched. We also visited a spice store and finally found some saffron, though it wasn’t as cheap as we hoped it would be.
The old town was even more disgusting than the river. The streets were narrow and stifling, cows were eating garbage, and their runny dung was everywhere. Matthew commented that all the cows had diarrhea due to their less than desirable diet. Thank God we finished this part of the tour before it started to rain again or the streets would have been awash with runny and slippery cow diarrhea. Add to that the smells and people walking barefoot throughout, and you have yourself one mind-churningly disgusting, vomit-inducing place.
More than any other area we’ve visited, Varanasi is a city of contrast. Walking the streets are women in beautiful saris, decked out with equally beautiful jewelry and flowers in their hair. These same women later bathe themselves and wash their garments in the Ganges. The river front is decorated with amazing and colorful shrines to their Hindu gods. Just a few feet below them is a muddy river bank polluted with trash and pile after pile of human and animal feces. Dead bodies occasionally wash up on shore.
Deceived is the word we both used to describe Varanasi. Whether or not you follow Christ, how can anyone claim that the water of the Ganges is holy, life-sustaining, and cleansing? It is polluted with human ash, cremated remains, dead children, human and animal waste, and who knows what else. Satan has done a fine job in deceiving these people and has such a stronghold here; I’m not sure I’ve been in a place this spiritually oppressive before.
I am ever more thankful for my faith in Christ. Regarding the Hindus in Varanasi in particular, I saw their struggle to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to this city so that they can wash in the river Ganges to cleanse them from their sins. I saw their idol worship. I saw their rituals. I heard their prayers and pleas for purification and salvation. And while we all desire forgiveness and cleansing and redemption, I saw the weight of the oppressor on them trying to achieve all this through human means. I have a freedom on earth and a sure eternal salvation that these people know nothing about, and that only from Christ.
Experiencing Varanasi has made me realize how important it is to support the work of Christians in India. While it truly was a fascinating place, I hope to never return.