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    All These Colors Tour: India Part 25

    Monday, October 8, 2012
    Varanasi, India

    A late afternoon crowd gathers for Hindu ceremonies and just to relax at Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    A cow and a colorful boat make quite a pair on the Ganges river in Varanasi, India.

    Varanasi “is regarded as a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. At roughly 3000 years old, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. The culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the Ganges river and its religious importance. The city has been a cultural and religious center in North India for several thousand years. The Benares Gharana form of the Indian classical music developed in Varanasi, and many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians resided or reside in the city. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath located near Varanasi (Kashi). Varanasi is today considered to be the cultural capital of India, where scholarly books have been written. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges river in Varanasi remits sins and that dying here ensures release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations.”–Wikipedia

    A colorful crowd gathers for Hindu ceremonies and just to relax at Kedar Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    I walked back down the banks of the Ganges river, but this time, I ventured a little bit further to a burning ghat I can’t recall the name of, one of several spots in Varanasi where Hindu cremation ceremonies take place on a daily basis. When I arrived, fires were already raging inside several stacks of large kindling situated on little dirt knolls. The whole atmosphere was surprisingly uncrowded and relaxed as groups of men sat around on benches and ledges and socialized. On the surface, it looked kind of like your local beach bonfire, but with the incineration concentrated on human remains rather than marshmallows. But, the religious and spiritual importance of it to Hindus can’t be exaggerated. One passerby–a short, thin, dark man–carried on his head a cloth bearing a hardcover book with two large bones held in place on top with his right hand.

    A group of women performs a Hindu ceremony at Kedar Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    Without saying a word, he stopped right in front of me, pivoted around 360 degrees in one spot then kept walking, offering up one of those inexplicable, dream-like scenes that India often delivers. A bit later, four men–outcasts called Doms–arrived upon the scene with a bamboo stretcher bearing a corpse all wrapped up in a white cloth and garlands. First, they laid the body in the Ganges river to bathe it with holy water, then transferred it to the top if the wood pile, which they promptly set on fire. It took a little while for the assemblage to reach a full blaze–unlike the royal cremation I witnessed in Ubud, Bali, which was completely engulfed in flames within 10 seconds. The wood kept burning and burning, but the corpse stayed put. I’ll bet it took a good hour or two to fully burn, finally releasing the spiritual essence from the body so it can be reborn. The ashes are then thrown into the Ganges river.

    A man blows a conch shell during the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    After hanging around for an hour or two, my stomach beckoned, so I headed back Northeast bound for the Brown Bread Bakery. En route, I got stopped in my tracks at Dasaswamedh Ghat by a beautiful nightly Hindu ceremony called Ganga Aarti, which comes complete with music and dance performances and religious rituals performed in front of a huge crowd seated all over the steps, in a bunch of boats on the water, and standing around the performers. Most of the music featured upbeat, melodic Hindu ditties played on accordion, tabla and voice. One man even brandished a conch shell and blasted an invigorating solo drone that lasted several minutes through huge loudspeakers. I was completely amazed and enthralled by that. Right after I left the concert, I passed by another ghat where a few people in a temple way up on top yanked away on the most dissonant, clangorous bells I’ve ever heard in my life. I was astonished by how good it sounded and made a mental note to return with my mic another night. The path back to the Alka Hotel was blocked by a mud pit that was situated in a pitch black area, so I walked up the nearest staircase to take the back lanes over to the BBB. After schlepping for a really long way, and turning down a couple of side lanes, I realized I was lost. And as each minute went by, I felt even more so.

    Part of the audience at the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    Battling for walking space with clusters of pedestrians, dogs and livestock, I became increasingly disoriented. Some of the lanes were literally pitch black, making it nearly impossible for a non-local to walk through. You could easily step in a pile or crap or on a rabid dog. Obnoxious motorcycle drivers raised the havoc to a whole other level as they loudly blared their horns and almost hit people. I got so angry, I lost my composure several times and cursed really loudly at no one in particular as I walked along. Finally, after close to an hour of going in circles, I admitted defeat and cried uncle. As it does to every visitor, India had frayed my sanity. When I finally saw a guest house, I stepped in and hired a local to walk me back to my hotel. Just as I suspected, we were only a few blocks away, but I would have never found the way back myself, as half of it was through zig-zagging pitch black lanes. As I entered my hotel room, I knew this was one of those classic travel days I’d always remember, and that I’d “look back and laugh” as the old saying goes, at my little adventure.

    Men perform a Hindu ritual with fire at the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India.

    Roll over photos for captions.
    Words and photos ©2012 Arcane Candy.

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