Manikarnika Ghat is the main cremation site on the Ganges.
The Ganga Aarti fire festival is held nightly for 30 minutes, rain or shine.
HEADS UP: Late last year, contributor Joel Simpson was kind enough to share some pointers about traveling in the developing world. (Read his profile on the “About VP/[Contributors tab,” http://www.bit.ly/1tzS8VW]) He did 12 countries! We promised pictures, and they (from nine countries) will be rolling out every other Sunday through around mid-April. Dear Travelers, get ready to have your breath taken away.
BY JOEL SIMPSON
THE Ganges river, which devout Hindus bathe in daily despite warnings of industrial pollution, flows through it. Hindu University is there. It is the site of major Hindu festivals.
Welcome to Varanasi, the holy city of Hinduism.
Barbara – my travel companion – and I chose this city in Northeast India as our base for a seven-day Indian experience, spending a fair amount of time on the river. We would also squeeze in a two-day excursion to Khajuraho, 300 miles away.
The Ganges is a permanent spectacle. A predawn to mid-morning private paddle on it is almost as exciting as the balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey. (http://www.bit.ly/1NWiJFC) Eighty or so ghats – picturesque 18th and 19th century buildings of various designs – line its bank.
I am barely seated in my boat when a man appears selling a “diya,” or devotional candle on a paper plate, surrounded by marigolds. For 90 rupees (about $1.50), I can launch it into the water, thereby assuring myself health and prosperity.
This diya seller slipped into my boat before I noticed. The lighted candle diya when launched with the right hand into the waters of the Ganges would bring health, wealth and happiness — all for 90 rupees ($1.50).
Farther along the river, populating red and white steps, is a line of yoga practitioners, boatloads of pilgrims, silhouetted by the newly risen sun, myriad bathers, as well as colorful boats, including a bizarre submarine with a face.
Children swim naked. Adults pour water over themselves, put it in their mouth and spit it out. A dead body floats by. A buffalo driver waters his burdens. Most curious of all are the cremation ghats: it’s considered very holy to have oneself cremated on the banks of the Ganges. Amid all of this, commerce thrives.
Later, I manage to visit a number of temples in Varanasi, along the way passing stately semi-decayed buildings bedecked with filigree. The streets are thronged – lined with garbage, with cows often taking up an entire lane.
Water buffalo in their favorite place.
One evening I attend the fabulous nightly fire ceremony to the river gods, the Ganga Aarti. It attracts a horde of locals and tourists, many watching from boats. Five priests slowly swing trees of candles around their heads in synchronized movements. (http://www.varanasi.org.in/ganga-aarti)
A very different type of ceremony was common in Khajuraho. It is the home of erotic carvings on 22, 1000-year-old temples that are still in religious use today. The carvings depict the daily life of the royals or aristocrats, including very frank depictions of their lovemaking: the Kama Sutra illustrated in stone. http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/khajuraho.html
Yoga in the early morning.
Contemporary India is rather conservative, so it’s astonishing to see these sculptures on temples that serve the pious. One removes one’s shoes to enter.
Local guides use hand mirrors to point out the erotic scenes. It becomes obvious that these exotic positions were feasible only with attendants.
One of the famous erotic carvings from the temples of Khajuraho, 9th-10th centuries.
Sunset at Khajuraho.
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