After the first two days in and around Chennai came 4 days of rigorous traveling. I went on an SAS trip that visited Varanasi, New Delhi and Agra, all of which are culstered in the Golden Triangle in the northern part of India. We took 4 flights, and 2 train rides over 4 days just to fit all the traveling in. And we had to wake up every day before 5 am. Pretty rough and exhausting, but seeing all the incredible sights in India was amazing.
Our first stop was in Varanasi (north India), which is considered the holiest city in Hinduism. It sits at the mouth of the Ganges River, which the Hindus believe is the river of Shiva, and thus, is extremely important for prayer and rituals. The first day we were there we toured several important temples. The first sat on this large plot of green land and is believed to be the first place Buddha ever gave a sermon. It was such a peaceful and beautiful environment to be in. We even got to watch Buddhist monks lead a meditation and chanting ceremony which was really powerful.
The next morning at sunrise, we went on a river boat down the Ganges river to get the full experience of rituals and prayer for Hindus. Since this is the holiest city, people are constantly making pilgrimages there to bath and pray at the river. It is estimated that 100 thousand Indians come to the city a MONTH! We arrived at the river around 5:30 am, just in time to see all the people entering the river and preparing for prayer. Hindus are supposed to start their day with a holy cleansing in the river. We boarded are small little boat that was pushed by 2 men and started down the river.
The entire river bank is built up with temples and stairs, and people litter the entire thing. Men, women and children all bathe together on the steps of the river, even though the river water is SUPER dirty and full of trash. Hindus also believe that if you die at the Ganges River, you will automatically skip future reincarnations and go straight to a state of enlightenment and nirvana. So, all along the bank and in the city, there are very sick and dying people just waiting for their time. It was really sad to see so many old, sick people just sitting on the street, waiting to die at the holy river. The whole city just felt melancholy, waiting for their time to come.
Once people die, they are cremated on the side of the river and have their ashes thrown into the Ganges. So during our boat ride, we saw several bodies being burned along the river banks. It was a pretty emotional experience for me, and even now I’m struggling to understand my experience there. I couldn’t believe how powerful seeing the flames was on my emotions.
In addition to cremations, poor people who cannot afford to be burned are disposed of in the river after they die. Our group saw a dead body as well as a dead baby. That was an even more powerful moment for me. I was literally speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. While some might see this is as inhumane or disgusting, this has been the way Hindus have dealt with death for hundreds of years.
This was the most powerful few hours of the trip for me thus far. It really opened my eyes to cultural & religious differences regarding life and death. Almost the entire boat ride I sat in silence, just trying to take in the experience. Feeling the spirituality around us and watching the religious rituals was an experience that will forever stay with me and will remind me to value my life and all that I believe. I am an incredibly thankful that I went to Varanasi and saw the heartbeat of Hindu religion and Indian culture.