Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Monday, May 01, 2017


I learned the name 'Benares' in school, today the town is called Varanasi. No matter the name, it's the same town. India does not want to use the old British name of Benares, returning to the name it has always had in the Hindustani language. Varanasi, in olden days was even called Kashi. It is a very old town. Inhabited since at least (proven) 11,000 BCE.

White Ash Left Front, Fires Still Burning

We all know about the funeral pyres the Hindus use to cremate their dead. Varanasi is the holiest place at the end of a Hindu’s life. After cremation, their ashes are deposited in the holy river Ganga (Ganges). Varanasi is a holy city, one of seven in India. The city is dedicated to Shiva, a Hindu god, but it serves other religions as well. Nearby Sarnath is the place where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, the place where he set the wheel of Dharma into motion.

Getting There Before Dawn
The information about this city is huge; we are only here for a day, not long enough to even see the total city at its surface, never mind delving into some background.

Our day started early. We are up at 5AM to experience the sunrise over the holy river Ganga. Our group hired a small boat to row us up river for about an hour, to watch the goings-on along the River's Northern shore. Huge, broad steps (Ghats) run intermittently along the length of the river, flanking the slightly elevated city. The opposite shore, the low, southern side, is just fields; there are no houses at all on the southern side of the River. During monsoon times the river floods by about 20 meters, putting the Southern
Votive Candle With Flower Petals
side way under water, but by building the Ghats (steps), the northern side of the Ganges is protected from flooding.

Carol's Symbolic Gesture
Each one of our group lit a small votive candle placed in a leaf, along with some flowers and a coin and carefully deposited the light on to the surface of the river just before the sun rose. It’s a symbolic gesture to bring knowledge and light into the
Hans Attempting to End Darkness and Ignorance
world and to end the darkness of ignorance. Some people added a wish to their small vessel, hence the coin.
Enlarge to See the Floating Votives

The boat’s atmosphere was solemn. All we heard were the sounds of the water, the boatman’s oars dipping in and out, a
Starting a New Day
murmur here and there from the Ghats. The sights of the now floating lights added to our feelings of peacefulness. It was magical, especially knowing the noise millions of people (3 million) who live inside the city can make. The sun just crept over the horizon starting a new day.

Bathing In the Ganges
Doing Laundry In the Ganges
Along the River’s edge we saw the funeral pyres, some still burning and huge piles of ashes still to be put in the water. We also saw people bathing and doing their laundry. The river is supposedly not polluted because it is continuously flowing down from the high Himalayas.
Hindu Temple at Benares Hindu University

Varanasi is a town of learning. Not just the religious aspect of life but also the knowledge needed in our daily endeavors. Benares Hindu University, one of 3 Universities in Varanasi, and one of the toughest schools to get into in India, is centered here. It is known for their IT Dept.; 20,000 students study here. It was built by the British in 1916.

Learning and burning, illumination and cremation, etc. are some concepts Varanasi bounces around, kind of jokingly, to show the dualism of modern Varanasi.

Mahamana Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya 1861-1946, Founder 
We visited the very large campus of Benares U., even visited the Hindu temple built within their premises. Dinesh, our now “permanent” Indian guide explained that this temple is dedicated to Shiva, too. Dinesh is a devout Hindu and entering a temple to him is serious, he prays to his gods anytime he has a chance, certainly when entering a Hindu temple. I don't know the rituals and what each motion or offering represents, so I'm just an observer, fascinated by the newness of it all.
Topographical Map of India & Himalayas

Mt. Everest, Highest Peak in Centre
Near the Benares University is a building with a topographical map of all of India, in relief form, hand-carved out of white marble and to scale. It is an intriguing and visual  representation of all of India and the Himalayas. I liked this display, albeit it could use
 some cleaning.
Meditation At Dawn On the Ganges

Our next stop was Sarnath, just about 13 km from Varanasi. Around 560 BCE a young, royal, rich prince wanted to know why there was suffering in this world. It is the story of Siddhartha, a book by Herman Hesse. I read the book a few times. Lots of stories were written about Gautama Buddha (Siddhartha after his enlightenment) and lots of them are told daily. But all those stories agree that Buddhism started here, at Sarnath. This is the place where Buddha, after he sat under the Bodhi tree (FicusReligiosa) and reached a new mental state, started to teach his friends ways to get to this mental state. This is
Archeological Site At Sarnath Where Buddha Taught

the place where mankind was shown that it is possible to reach a level of consciousness that is above suffering. A mental state exists that is above what we see, hear or feel.

Buddha did not want to start a new ‘religion’, in fact he was totally opposed to his teachings even being called a “religion”. And…Buddhism really is NOT a religion in the sense that someone worships a God. All Gautama tried to show, tried to teach, is that there is a way; a way to end all suffering.

Naturally when ‘others’ get hold of a proven idea they start to want to ‘improve’ upon it, some even start to mystify things and start to make a business out of it, and… voila…we have “Buddhism”.
The Tree Is An Offshoot Of the Original Bodhi Tree
The present day Sarnath is the spot where Buddha had his epiphany and where he started to teach his friends. The rest is story time.

Still, I liked the park, the more or less spot where ‘Buddhism’ started. And I followed the crowds to view an offshoot of the ‘original’ tree where Gautama had his experience. I guess people like this “story-time” world we create around us, me included.
From a Hindu point of view Gautama had a Hindu experience, he was born a Hindu, he died as Hindu. Buddhism is just an offshoot of Hinduism, like the Jains (a passive sect of Hindu) or Sikhism.
Old Wooden Hand Loom
Multiple Colours Of Silk Thread
Fabric Is Face Down On the Loom
The One I Bought
Textiles, especially silk textiles, I know something about. So when the tour said we will visit a weaving shed I just had to go and take a look. Varanasi is known for silk textile production. I was a little smug walking into the building; and seeing just 3 men weaving on old, wooden hand-looms put a smile on my face. I am more used to the latest, high tech way of mass producing yardages. Well I ate crow. I know those people were only putting on a show for us, but behind it, all weaving techniques were shown and one of them was just mind boggling. To weave a fabric using 45+ different filling colors is just amazing. 

Close-Up Showing the Many Colours Used

Not only that, this fellow had the fabric in the loom face down. The daily production is about 2 to 7 cm, depending on how many colors he uses. The process is very tedious and needs a clear head, one mistake and weeks of work can be ruined. To remind me of this place and this technique I bought a large sample I want to frame. It was amazing. Naturally they had simpler weaving as well, still the speed and handling of the silk, the acquired dexterity, never mind the old loom, was impressive. John H., you would have loved it. They even used a kind of American Fine Index jacquard to make the pattern, all operated by hand. I wonder who their card cutter was. I could have spent more time there but the group moved on.
We Had A Reserved Section With Cushioned Seats
It was beginning to get dark and for the evening Dinesh had planned we visit ‘Ganga Aarti’, a daily Hindu celebration and prayers at the edge of the River Ganges, honoring the goddess Shiva. There were 30,000 people that evening but the next night, over 1,000,000 people were expected for the Festival of Lord Shiva. I can hardly imagine this many people, coming to the Ganges to celebrate and to give thanks. The ghat where the celebration is held every night was very crowded when we were there, 1,000,000 people seems inconceivable. Amazing India, truly, Amazing!

A Lot Of People Attending, Some By Boat
We went to the Ganga Aarti via bicycle rickshaws and it was kind of easy to get there, just relax and the man will bike you to it. On the way back it took the genius of Dinesh to get us all in a rickshaw and out of the huge crowds. I felt like a baby being cradled, needing Daddy to get me home. Thank you Dinesh!

Huge Crowd To Get Back To Our Rickshaws
 Our dinner was a large affair filled with Indian specialty foods at the Great Kabob Factory. Dinesh was in charge and wow, does he know his foods.

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