Friday, December 3, 2010

Varanasi, Day 19

Varanasi, also known as Benares, sits on the Ganges River. It is one of the holiest places in the world to Jains and Buddhists and IS the holiest place in the world to Hindu's. It is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindu's. It may be the oldest continuously inhabited city in India and one of the oldest in the world. It is believed to be 3,000 - 5,000 years old and is known for its silks and perfumes as well as a center for religion and education. Benarasi silk Sari's are much coveted all over the world.

The old city is a labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with shops and Hindu temples. You would be lost without a guide. More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit Varanasi each year. Bathing in the Ganges is said to wash away ones sins and dying in Varanasi is said to release one's soul from the cycle of transmigrations. Varanasi has more than 100 Ghats, most used for bathing, but some for cremation as well.

This area is also important to Jains and Buddhists. It is in nearby Sarnath that Buddha is said to have given his first sermon about the basic principles of Buddhism. Jains consider Varanasi to be a pilgrimage site.

People leave offerings in the temples... they buy the supplies in stalls along the way

We arrived in Varanasi late morning and checked in at our hotel and had lunch. Our guide came back to pick us up midafternoon and we headed out to the Archeological museum which has artifacts from the 3rd century B.C to the 12th century A.D. They did not allow any photography. Too bad, they were very interesting. Next stop was a Buddhist temple.

Beginning of "Agni Pooja" ceremony
The major activity for the day was going to the most impressive of the Ghats, Dashashwamedh Ghat,  in the evening to watch the Ganges Aarti ceremony. A group of priest perform every evening the "Agni Pooja" (Worship to Fire), where a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. I actually made a 39 minute video of this but I don't know how to edit it. The ritual is very interesting but it is also very repetitive. Each action is repeated in 4 directions. I am not sure of the age of this ritual and I could not find it in the search I did, but I assume this is more than 1000 years old. You can see many of the rituals we are used to seeing in Christian churches and Jewish Synagogues being used here. It was very crowded with thousands of people, many of whom were pilgrims, both on the platform above the ghat and on boats. Our guide found us a great viewing spot. Getting back to our car was no mean feat. You cannot take the car into the old city and while the buildup to the ceremony was stretched out, the exodus was another experience all together.

Early to bed... early to rise in the morning for the sunrise ceremony.

Our trip was quickly coming to an end. Only 2 more days left.

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