This time in Varanasi we stayed very near to Harishchandra Ghat and invariably spent evenings sitting on the steps of the ghat. Taking a seat on the steps of Ghat and watching the life and death happening around you is an incredible experience. Usually in all other cities the crematoriums are kept away from the bustling life around by erecting high walls etc. Death is not allowed to be mingled with life but in Varanasi it’s entirely different. Here life and death co-exist.

Boys played cricket on the steps and their boisterous shouting echoed in the atmosphere intermittently, hawkers sold their items, groups of people sat sipping tea, playing cards, tourists and pilgrims walked across continuously and in close proximity a pyre was lit, the flames leapt into the air, sparks sprang around and a body was being disintegrated into ashes. Family members stood around waiting while other mourners sat silently on the steps. Another corpse lay on the earth near water, wrapped in white cloth.  Relatives stood near it while woods were being piled to get the pyre ready. A crowd of people with a corpse wrapped in red saree were descending the steps.  A boat laden with logs of woods was drifting in waters towards Manikarnika Ghat perhaps. The ashen grey sky on the other bank of the river appeared to be closing in. Watching all this some how I did not feel disturbed, rather a feel of calm acceptance slowly spread within. Watching a corpse burn away on the ghats as if is like burning away the fear. It’s like burning away the trash, the apprehension piled inside. My own reaction left me intrigued rather than disturbed.

Why was it so?  Why I felt differently about death there on the ghats of Varanasi. Perhaps because here death is not shunned. It’s not kept apart. The smells of death here mingle inseparably with the smells of life. Death is here for everybody to see and life along ghats move on, gazing at the subtle smoke rising from the funeral pyre I was getting attuned to death. Ever presence of death midst the bustling life initiate us to confront/face our morality. It did not scare me. It did not frighten me rather this ever exposure to death somehow felt like preparing me to accept our transient morality. It initiates us to face the reality. Encourage us to live life to it’s fullest. To embrace life in a way where it is not consumed by the fear of death.

Varanasi is a place where people come to breathe their last. It is a staunch Hindu belief that dying here in Varanasi ensures freedom from the cycles of rebirth. Hindus from far and near arrive here and await their end. Some go on with their daily routine of taking bath in the holy river, praying and worshiping while waiting for the end. Others, who are too weak and incapacitated just keep lying and praying to Lord to free them from the bondage of life.

Here we learn to live side by side with death while everywhere else we run away from death. Here death for us is not merely an abstract concept but  a visually real presence. Death is deeply ingrained in everyday life.

The diesel fumes belched out of engines of wooden boats carrying laughing and enjoying tourists mix with the smoke rising from the funeral pyre, the rituals of getting blessings of mother Ganges by newly wed couples are performed side by side the cremation rituals..it somehow imparts the essential meaning of life…the harmony in juxtaposition.

Karl jung said when man’s conscious thinking is in harmony with the deep truths of unconscious revealed in mythology, fear of death is no longer overwhelming. Being comfortable with one’s own morality one can release the anxiety of death.

 

and I felt perhaps liberation means being free from the anxiety of death. Varanasi  truly does liberate.

for nam12

 

 

for nam10

 

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Manikarnika Ghat also known as mahashamshan. literally means huge crematorium

 

 

for nam8

on Harishchandra ghat in front of a temple of goddess this fire burn continuously perhaps a pyre symbolically

 

for nam7

 

 

for nam9

 

stairs leading to the idol of goddess above. Dogs are always present here. Looking at them I remembered the story of king Harishchandra.The ghat is dedicated to this king. When Satyavadi raja Harishchandra gave away his whole kingdom and had to work as an assistant to a dome[a person looking after the affairs at the cremation ground}, a faithful dog always gave him company. Are these dogs still keeping on the tradition of their ancestor……

 

 

for nam11

Boat carrying logs for pyre……death making a way for living

for nam2

 

for nam1

show must always go on

for nam3

 

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Shiva’s Kashi

 

All the pictures courtsey Sunder Iyer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It must not have been more than 10 in the morning , ghats at Varanasi were simmering under the blazing summer sun. While walking along the ghats you don’t find any shade so we were in a hurry to reach the small tea shop near the Kshemeshwar mandir at the ghat. From our last visit we remembered that this chaiwalah erects canopy by stretching bed sheets that provide adequate shade. Sitting under the shade sipping the hot tea,  enjoying the activities on the ghats and communicating to the quietly rippling Ganges had been an enriching experience. The memory of the last visit as if propelled us towards the shop. But Alas ! reaching there we found that the chaiwallah was wrapping his canopy and was ready to leave . His earthen oven was standing silent and cool. I conveyed my disappointment to him .
He smiled and said , ‘Madam, you go to the lane upstairs. You will get tea there and it’s cool too there.
As I was feeling a bit tired due to scorching heat, I decided to take rest behind the wall of the temple. It was shady there and the cool breeze flowing from Ganges  across the open gates of temple was very soothing.
As we were talking to the chaiwallah, an old man ascending the steps after taking bath in the Ganges stopped listening to our communication and then he too sat on the platform of temple.
While Sunder roamed around clicking the shots I struck a conversation with that old gentleman.
He was Gopal ji. a rickshaw puller. When he was about fourteen years old due to some property dispute some relative threw acid on the hands of his father . His hands were damaged and Gopalji had to wear the mantle of the bread winner of the family. He started pulling rickshaw at that tender age and is still continuing with that. Presently he must have been in his mid sixties. Got married his younger sister and brother. The younger brother too left for the heavenly abode some four years back.  Gopalji is living with brother’s family but has to eke out a living too.
During the course of conversation I asked him ,” You have lived a hard life. just fulfilling your duties, responsibilities. Did you never feel like having a family of your own, having some one your very own?” A smile spread across slowly on his face. Something for a fraction of second as if glowed in those placid eyes.
He told,” Could not spare much time for myself. Got the younger brother married. Had the responsibility of ailing father and mother. Time just slipped out of my hand.”‘
I again asked him,”Did you not feel like complaining to God that He chalked out such hard and drab existence for you.”
And pat came the reply seeped in Hindu philosophy. “Why complaining to God? It’s our own doing. must have neglected my duties and lived my life frivolously in the last birth. Only I have to reap what I sowed. After a brief silence he continued,” and as far as having some one of my own is concerned, I don’t deny that during youth I felt the pangs of desire some times but now ….on the ghats of Ganga Maiya often I meet people with whom I bond well till we are together and then we part ways. Life should be lived like that phase by phase. Clinging to it gives pain. Just go on moving like our Maiya here.”
Inculcating deep philosophy and living the same one need not be a man of letters, academician or a sear. An illiterate rickshaw puller can some times do more justice to these deep lessons. Or was it the Beneras impact.
After a heart felt enriching conversation, we invited Gopalji to have a cup of tea with us in the shop upstairs in the lane. After that we parted ways but the meeting will always be engraved in my memory.

 

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pics courtesy Sunder Iyer

Nowhere on earth, the day unfolds in a way it does in this sacred city of Benaras. Bathing on the ghats on the sacred hours of dawn is like participating in an ethereal, divine phenomenon. As the sun emerges on the eastern sky on the far end of horizon, it pays obeisance to holy mother Ganges. The city of light, Kashi glows with divine radiance. It’s the moment of transition from mundane to the divine.
Sitting there on the ghat facing the stretch of ganga upto the reach of vision, one can feel the pulsating energy of unseen in the flowing waters. Ganga here is as if a flowing form of shiva’s energy. Despite the numerous activities going around you and the prevailing disorder and chaos, you can be with yourself here. The tolling temple bells, blowing conches, the mingled impact of mantras and shlokas recited in many voices ,the backdrop of pinnacles of age old temples, the sky as if arching to take a dip in ganga on the faraway bank, you can listen to that beckoning from another world, can feel the soul lifting and soaring. The presence of ‘beyond’ becomes so real. It takes time to get acquainted with your own new self.
On ghats every person is a testimony to one’s own journey and search. Every symbol present there is what it is but at the same time points towards a bigger unseen reality. Everyone is influenced by the manifestation of spiritual force in own way. One day when we arrived at Assi ghat, an old man sitting on the stairs of the ghat was addressing Lord Shiva loud and clear. Naked upto waist, oblivious of his surrounding , gazing towards river he was saying , “are bhole baba, kah to diye ki kashi chhod ke nahi jayege par kuchh kashi ki fikr bhi karoge ki nahi ki bas bhole ban sab takte rahoge” As per mythology Lord Shiva had given his words never to leave kashi, that is why kashi is also known as avimukta. Old gentlenman was referring to that fact and was ‘warning’ the lord that it is not enough just to be present in the city, he should interfere into the changing scenario as well and take the matters in his hands. Well, this is living devotion. At the ultimate level of devotion the devotee as if becomes one with the God.
Kashi is where divine manifests itself. One can visualize, experience and feel it. Even when we are not able to comprehend it we love the vibe and let us submerge in it. That foreigner couple appeared to be experiencing something like this. I saw them sitting on the ghat for about two hours but seldom caught them talking. They were lost in themselves.
There was this family from south India on Kedar ghat……husband and wife in late forties or early fifties and their parents. Father was so frail and fragile that my eyes stuck there, lean, thin and unable to stand without a support on the wet and slippery stairs of the ghats. Despite the cloudy sky and mighty current of the Ganges, the ghat was full of people from all over the country. I was wondering how did they manage to get that old gentleman down the steep stairs of Kedar ghat, the couple held father from both the sides tightly and gently made him stand in the water. It was a bliss to watch the old gentleman……eyes sparkling with uninhibited joy of experiencing the fulfillment of a long cherished desire. The pull to get absolved of all the wrong doings, to get purified by taking a dip in Ganges is so great that no odd seems big enough to stop oneself and the faith is accepted unquestioned. The holy faith commands an unflinching regard. It would not have been easy for the family to bring the old gentleman on the threshold of the divine city but they did all within their powers to fulfill his wish. Standing on the last step the mother was watching the scene. She could not restrain the tears of joy. The son now held the gentleman by waist and he took the holy water in his cupped palms, poured on his head and splashed on his face. Gradually a calmness spread over his whole being. His face was so calm as if he has experienced nirvana. Bowing to mother Ganges with joined palms he was ready to go back to steps. The whole thing was mesmerizing . It was experiencing Kashi.
That day while travelling on boat from Assi to Raja ghat ,we had several such experiences.every where we were reminded of that vast ,unseen,limitless world of divinity which exits and breaths in every atom on this earth.mind id invariably pulled to the invisible dimension.
Number of boats plying to give tourists a glimpse of the ghats but you get attracted almost with a magnetic force to that faraway boat slowly floating on the water with only the boatman on the board, as if that can take you across to the world beyond. A plethora of symbols which assert the presence of that world, which drags you to the circular complex lanes inside your-self, instigating you to get lost in the maze and then find the self.

(pics by sunder iyer)

As 4.30 am alarm cooed in the darkness of room, we jumped out of the bed. By 5.30 we were at Assi ghat. Assi is the ghat nearest to BHU campus and after the new extension perhaps it is the most convenient and spacious one to seep in the aura of the place.
The dawn was yet to break. Atmosphere was wrapped in that translucent mist which added to the mystique aura of the place, but even at that early hour the place was pulsating with a feel of awakening. Yes, awakening inside out. Old bent forms with pooja baskets and bags had started flowing on the ghats ………those fragile contours/silhouettes of body forms appeared exuding a kind of firmness……..perhaps, it was the firmness of faith, the driving force was the belief which made them carry on their daily ritual of bathing in Ganges in brahm muhurt, irrespective of vagaries of weather….be it biting cold or lashing rain, they tread on their path unfailingly day after day…….where from they derive such strength?
The belief is that this brahm muhurt snan is the most purifying one which will absolve them of their sins. If anywhere on earth the unquestioning faith can be felt and lived, it is here, in Benaras, the abode of Lord Shiva.
As the morning unfolded, Assi got busier. The pitra paksh period was on. The fifteen days of the dark phase of ashwini mas are an important phase as per the Hindu religion. This period is devoted to remembering , thanksgiving and praying for the peace and wellbeing of the souls of the departed ancestors. It was an amazing experience to watch people from far and near to arrive on the banks of ganga and follow the rituals with intense devotion.
Those two aged gentlemen, may be in their early sixties and seemingly from a humble financial background were there from a neighbouring state chanting shlokas dictated by the pundit in chest deep waters, with full faith. At that advanced stage of their lives, it certainly must not have been easy for them to travel to the place, physically as well as financially. I simply wonder the force that drives them to these ghats. It is believed that performing these rituals at river Ganges in Benaras helps the souls of the departed ancestors attain peace. Do all of them really hold to their belief, so many questions popped up in my mind but just one look at their faces and all my doubts, apprehensions were laid to rest. The peace, the serenity that prevailed on their faces, the satisfaction of performing the ritual was so evident. For me, the entire experience was truly enriching. One could feel that long held sigh of relief of their ancestors and they definitely might have felt the blessings being showered on them.
Hindu religion believes in immortality of soul. The body perishes but the soul never dies. After death the soul houses another body, another form, till it attains liberation from the continuous cycle of rebirth. The rituals are performed with the belief that the souls of ancestors still exist on earth. we may not know them, see them or find them but it still binds us. We can not shrug off our indebtedness to them. They contributed to our lives and wellbeing of the earth in their own ways, now its our turn to pray for their wellbeing, wherever they are, in whatever form……bird, animal any form of life, but the bond continues. What a reassuring and beautiful feeling, the cosmic bond.

 

 

The lord

 

 

 

 

 

under a tree

 

prayers on pitr paksh

 

for the ancestors

 

 

 

The offering of food is considered to be accepted by ancestors if a crow arrives and devours the food.The crow is considered to be a messenger from the world of spirits.

 

A world beyond beckons……

 

 

pics by sunder iyer.