Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting)

11 07 2013

Previous posts on our trip to India:
An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities
Speaking to India’s Future Leaders

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.

a Stupa at Sarnath - ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries

a Stupa at Sarnath – ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries

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.

statue of Buddha - all those depictions of a very fat, happy Buddha are completely of the artist's rendition

statue of Buddha – all those depictions of a very fat, happy Buddha are completely of the artist’s rendition

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.

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

"modern" silk loom - note the punch cards

“modern” silk loom – note the punch cards

silk fabric - this piece took over one year to create by hand

silk fabric – this piece took over one year to create by hand

close up of the silk fabric - this piece took over one year to create by hand

close up of the silk fabric – this piece took over one year to create by hand

everyone needs a silk wall hanging of Ganesh

everyone needs a silk wall hanging of Ganesh

instead, I purchased this silk wall hanging

instead, I purchased this silk wall hanging

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

view from our Varanasi hotel

view from our Varanasi hotel

the streets of Varanasi - note the electrical wires

the streets of Varanasi – note the electrical wires

the streets of Varanasi - much like everywhere else in India, the cows always have the right-of-way

the streets of Varanasi – much like everywhere else in India, the cows always have the right-of-way

the streets of Varanasi

the streets of Varanasi

sari shop in Varanasi

sari shop in Varanasi

Buddhist monk in Varanasi

Buddhist monk in Varanasi

Hindu temples in Varanasi

Hindu temples in Varanasi

a "ladies only" shelter in Varanasi

a “ladies only” shelter in Varanasi

Hindu Brahmin - to be a Hindu priest, you must be born to the Brahman caste

Hindu Brahmin – to be a Hindu priest, you must be born into the Brahman caste

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?

our first view of the Ganges near the near the Dashashwamedh Ghat

our first view of the Ganges near the Dashashwamedh Ghat

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.

"manual" crematory in Varanasi - there were several funeral pyres going when we were there - supposedly, there has been at least one funeral pyre going at this site for centuries

“manual” crematory in Varanasi – there were several funeral pyres going when we were there – supposedly, there has been at least one funeral pyre going at this site for centuries

"manual" crematory in Varanasi - there is an electric crematory at the other end of the river

“manual” crematory in Varanasi – there is an electric crematory at the other end of the river – we couldn’t take photos right up at the site nor would we have felt respectful doing so

aghori (taken from Google images)

aghori (taken from Google images) – aghories are a very holy group among Hindus, and though it is not a popular practice anymore, they are infamous for cannibalizing the remains of the cremated bodies.

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?

disposing of a dead Hindu child's body in the Ganges

disposing of a dead Hindu child’s body in the Ganges – the child’s body is at the end of the boat

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.

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening's aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening’s aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening's aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening’s aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

the evening's aarti underway

the evening’s aarti underway

the evening's aarti underway

the evening’s aarti underway

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.

women ringing out their saris after having "washed" them in the Ganges

women ringing out their saris after having “washed” them in the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges - a dog caught a fish, at least it won't be eating refuse for dinner

the bank of the Ganges – a dog caught a fish, at least it won’t be eating refuse for dinner

opposite bank of the Ganges - normally completely deserted as it is a flood plain during the monsoons

opposite bank of the Ganges – normally completely deserted as it is a flood plain during the monsoons

a ghat on the Ganges - a ghat is simply a series of steps leading to a body of water, particular a holy body of water

a ghat on the Ganges – a ghat is simply a series of steps leading to a body of water, particular a holy body of water

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

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.

preparing bowls of water from the Ganges for the morning prayer ceremony

preparing bowls of water from the Ganges for the morning prayer ceremony

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

ZOOM in on this photo - all those little brown piles . . . human feces

ZOOM in on this photo – all those little brown piles . . . human feces

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

this man's vocation was that of a launderer - can you imagine wearing clothes that have been "washed" in this water?

this man’s vocation was that of a launderer – can you imagine wearing clothes that have been “washed” in this water?

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

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.

walking through the old part of Varanasi - trash everywhere - imagine that smell

walking through the old part of Varanasi – trash everywhere – imagine that smell

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

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.

no wonder all the cow's had diarrhea - if this was your diet, you'd have diarrhea, too

no wonder all the cow’s had diarrhea – if this was your diet, you’d have diarrhea, too

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.


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17 responses

15 07 2013
Sam Jebagnanam

Dear Matthew and Kelly,
I just read through your blog on your visit to Varanasi. I m a staff in Compassion India and I m so happy that you sponsor 2 kids from India alone. It was encouraging to read your blog and I would like to tell you that it is just the tip of an iceberg that you have witnessed. There are thousands of such pilgrims in India which are the strong holds. As you have mentioned, the satan has deceived people with such idols and practices in India.

Another good news is that many missionaries from various organizations preach the Gospel in the remote villages of India which also includes such pilgrims. I request you earnest prayer for
1. Gospel to be preached in India. Every Indian would know that Jesus is the only Savior.
2. Missionaries who sacrifice so many things to preach the Gospel.
3. Support from the Government authorities
4. Protection for the missionaries (there is always oppositions for the gospel to be preached).

Thanks for sharing your experience and reminding me to pray in anguish for India.

Regards,
Sam

15 07 2013
huddlestonk

Thanks for sharing Sam. We loved our time in India and continue to pray for the many people we met.

15 07 2013
That Moment When a Dream Comes True | To Kick a Pigeon and Other Musings

[…] Previous posts on our trip to India: -An Introduction to India -Meeting Sai -Local Celebrities -Speaking to India’s Future Leaders -Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting) […]

17 07 2013
compassioncalling

Powerfully sad and dark! We studied Hinduism and Buddhism in our Appologetics course in college last semester, and I will admit to being saddened as I read about all that these people do to seek cleansing from their sins. We also studied Islam and other religions as well, and that entire course was very eye-opening for sure. I am currently in an Introduction to Global Missions course, and I recently learned of missionaries who have ministered in India. What I found unique about their ministries is how in order to adapt to their surrounding culture they became Christian Brahmans and used Hindu terms to share the Gospel in terms that were familiar to the people to whom they ministered. Thanks for sharing! I’m learning much about India through your posts and shared experiences.

17 07 2013
huddlestonk

I’m glad you are finding this interesting. It really was a fascinating trip in so many ways. Let me know if you have other questions.

22 07 2013
Dining With Royalty | To Kick a Pigeon and Other Musings

[…] -An Introduction to India -Meeting Sai -Local Celebrities -Speaking to India’s Future Leaders -Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting) -That Moment When a Dream Comes […]

29 08 2013
rajnishmishravns

I did not “Like” the post because I had to inform you personally, how correct your assessment of the filth in Varanasi is. I totally agree with you about the polluted river too.
I am not a practising Hindu. So, I offer this comment very objectively when I say that religious discrimination has gone hand in hand with its racial elder brother (or the younger one?) and you seem to be infected with it.
I pray to Christ that you do see the true light.
Amen.

29 08 2013
huddlestonk

Thanks for your comments. I always welcome different points of view. I would ask you to consider this before labeling me as one who is “infected” with religious discrimination. Simply holding to a different faith from someone else does make me discriminatory. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a salvation that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6 from the Holy Bible. Anyone is welcome to disagree, but disagreement does not equal discrimination.

How I treat people would be a much better indication of whether or not I am discriminatory. I try to respect all religions, though I disagree with many of them. I try to treat people with respect and kindness. I try to treat them as I would like to be treated. I hope that does not sound discriminatory.

29 08 2013
rajnishmishravns

Thanks for approving my comment and letting it appear on your post. That’s candid and brave. I don’t know you. So, whatever I typed about you was based only on what you posted in your blog. How would I know that you treat people sans discrimination until you mention it explicitly? Your identity in the material world and the one in the virtual world are definitely different, as you proved by not discriminating in practice but doing so through your blog post.
It’s 100% true that simply holding to a different faith from someone else does make you discriminatory. I called your treatment of religions and the peoples who believe in them discriminatory, and you do it because of your faith. I won’t go into the realm of comparative analysis of religions. There are experts who’ve done it much better than I can. It’s available on the net too.

30 08 2013
huddlestonk

Being called discriminatory is a first for me so I’m curious . . . what specific statements do you consider discriminatory? I would also ask you to perhaps read more posts on my blog. You’ll get a much better sense of who I am in the “material world” which will hopefully allow you to make a more educated assessment as to my beliefs and character.

2 09 2013
rajnishmishravns

Dear Friend
Instead of keeping it as a comment thread, I’ve converted our interaction into a blog post. Here’s the link: http://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/faith-in-kasi/
The reason: I think our interaction isn’t totally personal, it has elements of a larger debate in it. Please do read the post and leave comments so that we can reach an agreement.

3 09 2013
huddlestonk

Rajnishmishravns, you are welcome to post the link to my blog on your own site. However, for the sake of my other readers who have contributed their own comments on this thread, I’m going to continue to add my thoughts here.

I think we need to back up and define “discrimination” as there are different uses for it.

Perhaps the most common definition is reflected in Wikipedia.com: “Discrimination is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category, in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated.” Most people, when they hear the word discrimination, think of this. The word has a very strong, negative connotation to it. Especially when used in the phrase “infected with religious discrimination,” the label becomes even more harmful and slanderous to the one being judged.

Dictionary.com also defines discrimination as “the act or instance of making a distinction” or “something that serves to differentiate.”

When you label me as “infected with discrimination,” to which of these definitions are you referring?

4 09 2013
rajnishmishravns

I’ve done some serious work on the lines of our discussion. Please see the following pages:
http://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/faith-in-kasi-ii/
http://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/faith-in-kasi-iii/

6 09 2013
huddlestonk

I would still appreciate it if you could answer the simple question I posed in my last comment. How do you define “discrimination” when you label me as one who is “infected with religious discrimination?”

7 08 2015
Abhinand Raghavan

Correction: May your faith ‘liberate’ you. Not all can see what Varanasi has to offer. Hope you do return to my country.

7 08 2015
huddlestonk

Thank you for reading. My faith in Christ as the one, true Lord has indeed liberated me. Of that I am sure. I do hope to get back to India someday.

4 05 2016
Claire

I was in Varanasi in March and I am delighted to read your summary of your visit. I agree with all of it. I must say it was the most disturbing place I have visited. I appreciate how the Hindus cremated there dead in Varansai, However to turn it into a tourist attraction is extremely distasteful and disrespectful to their dead relatives.
It could be a beautiful town if only they would keep it clean and free from filth. I was very very conscious of the air that I was breathing there, air completely filled with smoke and ash from the burning Gnat.
As with all religions, in my point of view, there is a huge element of brain washing but everyone to their own. Varanasi and other parts of India are so immersed in their religion it is not healthy. Of course have religion in your life but don’t forget to live your life too.
Varansai should clean the Ganges, how many little children and mothers are dumped in there…along with cows, rubbish, sewage etc etc. The river and the views of Varanasi are beautiful especially at sunrise….if the river is one of their mother,s why not treat it with the respect it deserved……no pollution!. ,

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