You could say that I am not a believer. No true faith.
When it comes to religion and faith, I have always flown under the radar as someone who is “not particularly religious.”
Occasionally, God and prayer cross my mind. It’s more of a reflex action — something I picked up growing up in a moderately religious family. Pray when you haven’t studied for your exams; pray to get out of trouble; and other such situations where I sought divine intervention as a last ditch effort, mostly unsuccessfully.
My visits to temples, churches, and mosques these days are largely touristy. Though, I am intrigued by the number of people — many of them highly educated and wise — who rely heavily on their faith during good times and bad.
But, faith and logic do not always go hand in hand.
Varanasi, a city considered holy by the Hindus is a perfect example.
My visit to Varanasi would not fall under what is termed “religious tourism.” For me, Varanasi was a pit stop, Khajuraho was my destination. Since I had to change flights in Varanasi, I figured it made sense to break journey and check out what the holy city was all about.
The city of Varanasi can be overwhelming.
Until reaching Varanasi, I had been spoilt. The crowds, the motorcycles, rickshaws, buses, and cows were great to watch from the quiet comfort of a car. In Varanasi, the last mile to the local attractions had to be covered on foot. Security restrictions around the Kashi Vishwanath Temple with it’s gold-laden domes, and parking limitations were cited as the reasons.
I am not opposed to walking; in fact I enjoy it. But, walking lockstep with my guide through busy roads and self-regulated intersections, somehow managing to not get run over or step on cow dung that littered the streets was quite the experience.
For a holy city, Varanasi is not particularly clean.
If you associate serenity and piety with places of worship, you will have to dig deep within you to find it in Varanasi. Or, you could try the temples and churches of Kerala.
I have often professed that visitors to India should be prepared to look beyond the dust and the dirt. And yet, I found myself thinking that the city should be doing a better job of managing the cows, the stray dogs, and pigs that roam freely on the streets.
It’s perhaps the Canadian in me! Or, I have lost my touch.
As I walked barefoot through the narrow bi-directional alleyways that led to the main temple, I wondered if I was the only one who was conscious of the wet, slippery floor, the jostling crowd of devotees, police personnel, and the odd panda (priest) offering to fast-track me to the deity for a quick buck.
To see beyond all that, you gotta have faith!
If dense crowds and alleyways are not your thing, I would recommend the Ganga Aarti, an elaborate ritual held every evening on the banks of the river Ganges (Ganga). The co-ordinated performance by a group of elegantly dressed young priests lasted about forty-five minutes and was riveting! If you are curious, you can check out this video on YouTube.
I was brought out of my trance-like state by a “panda” rubbing some holy ash on my forehead and demanding “dakshina” (offering/money) for his unsolicited service.
You gotta have faith!
Streets aside, the river Ganges itself is considered one of the more polluted rivers in the world. But to the faithful, taking a dip in the Ganges is second only to being cremated on the banks of it. Over thirty-thousand bodies are cremated every year using wooden pyres on the banks of the Ganges and the remnants often floated into the river.
Varanasi is sort of the stairway to heaven for believers.
It makes me wonder!
As I left Varanasi, the lyrics from Viva La Vida came to mind: “For some reason I can’t explain, I know St. Peter won’t call my name…” I couldn’t remember the name of St. Peter’s Hindu counterpart – the keeper of the key to heaven.
I had just turned down an opportunity to wash away all my sins. All I had to do was take a dip in the Ganges.
I settled for a sprinkle. Just in case…
It’s the old reflex action!
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