Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mystery Photo 25: Varanasi, in Utter Pradash, India, on the Holy Ganges River.

   The city pictured is Varanasi, also called Benares, a city in the province Uttar Pradesh in northern  India. This city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world which in my mind makes it holy in and of itself. Archaeological evidence shows settlement here in the Ganga valley began in the 11th or 12th century BC. But also Varanasi is one of the seven sacred cities in the religions of Jainism and Hinduism, in the latter of which it is the favorite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva and is mentioned as such in the Rigveda holy scriptures. Since the Mughal Emperor Mohammad Ghari destroyed the city in the 12th century, its temples and buildings in the old city date mostly to the 18th century.
     Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, as well as a scholarly city with one of the largest residential universities of Asia, the Banares Hindu university located there. The holy river Ganges is the center of much of the religiosity of the city. It is regarded as very spiritually cleansing to bath in the holy river waters. Also it is regarded as very spiritually beneficial to die in Varanasi. In addition, many people are brought here after their death to be cremated along the river's holy banks on the ghats.
     The name Varanasi is thought to come from two rivers, the Varuna and the Asi which flow together at this site to form the Ganges.
     During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BC), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. Buddha founded Buddhism at nearby Sarnath in 528 BC when he gave his first sermon after becoming enlightened himself.
     In 1897, Mark Twain said of Varanasi, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." We have been there and indeed, I think Mark Twain was correct.  The long and involved history of the city includes many hard to pronounce Rajput rulers, as well as Muslim and then Mughal rulers, and even some Ottoman rulers. The city was described in the Hindu scriptures in the Rigveda and many lesser known texts.
    Even today, Hindus regard a sunrise holy bath in the Ganges as the holiest of the holy activities or events in one's life. We visited during a Hindu festival at which time many people are on a pilgrimage to Varanasi. Therefore as you can see in the photo below, the ghats were very very busy.

Sunrise holy bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi (Benares)
The women wear the most beautiful saris when they go bathing in the Ganges.

A busy holy place!

The cremation area along the Holy Ganges.

Young and old, male and female, infirm and well come to lavage here in the Ganges.

     The Aarti ceremony, or fire ritual, is held every night on the banks of the Ganges in the heart of the old part of the city of Varanasi, on Dasashwamedh Ghat. We had a row boat ride up the Ganges and came ashore near this Aarti site.The word, Aarti, comes from a Sanskrit word that means something that removes darkness. During the ceremony, young Hindu priests use various implements containing fire, holy Ganges water, and the petals of marigolds and other items to worship the local deity, which in Varanasi is the God, Lord Shiva.
     According to Wikipedia, the flower petals represents the earth (solidity), the water and an accompanying handkerchief correspond to the water element (liquidity), the lamp or candle represents the fire component (heat), the peacock fan conveys the precious quality of air (movement), and yak-tail fan represents the subtle form of ether (space). Ghee (clarified butter) is burned along with incense which provides a purified state of mind and each participant offers his "intelligence" through the adherence to the rules of timing and the order of offerings. Thus, each of  the worshiper's entire existence and all parts of our material existence on earth are symbolically offered to the Lord Shiva through this aarti ceremony.
     Aarti ceremonies differ slightly from site to site, but this one in Varanasi involves metal lamps which are swung in circles by each priest around himself. Also each of the 7 priests waves the two fans around in similar circles, then drinks of the Holy Ganges waters, and scatters marigold petals. Each viewer/participant is encouraged to buy a small candle in a paper cup for a small fee to set onto the waters of the Ganges River. Performing the aarti includes waving the lamps with the lighted fires before the deity in a spirit of humility and gratitude which induces faithful followers to become immersed with God's divine form. The circling of the lamps must be done in a prescribed form first clockwise and then counter clockwise representing daily activities while putting and keeping God at the center of all activities. The lamp light illuminates for the performer and the observers the various aspects of the deity so that all may concentrate on his form.

The aarti plate containing some of the symbolic utensils needed for the aarti.

The marigold petals to be scattered during the ceremony.

The fire lamp part of the ceremony.

Five Hindu priests perform this in synchrony facing the Ganges in this photo.

The gentleman in white seems to be in charge. He saw us come in late and ran to the side and brought two chairs for us, placing them in the very front row of the onlookers.
The burning incense part of the ceremony.

A young boy sells candles in paper cups for us to set upon the waters of the Ganges.

The final photo shows several candles floating on the Ganges.
     I must say that our visits to the Varanasi ghats, twice, once at sunrise to see the early bathers, and the again at sunset to attend the aarti ceremony were very moving, among the many sacred events that Amos and I have had in our vast travels around the world. One does not have to believe every nuance of these events or ceremonies to feel moved. It is too bad that such sacred events cannot do more to restore balance and peace to a world now very out of balance.