Thursday, 3 March 2011

Varanasi, India

"'Don't give into your fears," said the alchemist, in a strangely gentle voice.  'If you do, you won't be able to talk to your heart.'
'But I have no idea how to turn myself into the wind.'
'If a person is living out his destiny, he knows everything he needs to know.  There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve:  the fear of failure.'"
~Paulo Coelho

Varanasi is one of the world's oldest cities (dating back to 1400 B.C.) as well as one of the world's holiest cities.  When I met Lisa in Udaiper, she told me that some people consider Varanasi one of the four holiest places on earth (the other three places being Jerusalem, Vatican City and Mecca). 

A picture of the Ganga River which flows north through Varanasi.

The Ganga River, which normally follows a southeastern course, briefly changes direction through Varanasi and flows north.  This is considered very auspicious.  Hindu's believe that to die in Varanasi is to receive an instant passport to heaven and release from the cycle of reincarnation.

I've heard that the Ganga River is quite polluted, but from the shore it actually appeared clean (except for an occasional piece of trash floating by).  Nonetheless, I would not touch the water (unlike many people I observed bathing, swimming, washing clothes and generally frolicking).

Sunrise over the Ganga River.

As you can see from my pictures, the city is smoggy.  The air quality across parts of north India is poor, but for some reason I noticed it most in Varanasi and Kolkatta.  A girl I was traveling with developed an upper respiratory infection.  I caught it from her, and unfortunately the pollution only exacerbated it.  Luckily a week later, my immune system has won the fight.

The shores of the Ganga River are defined by series of steps called ghats.  There are more than 100 ghats in Varanasi along six kilometers of the Ganga River.  Each ghat has a name.  Religious ceremonies and rituals of all sorts are performed on these ghats.  For instance, you can watch people being cremated on one ghat.  This is a deeply spiritual experience.      

  Water buffalo standing on Shivala Ghat.

One of the best ways to observe these religious ceremonies and rituals is by rowboat on the Ganga River.  One evening, we watched a ceremony to the Hindu god Shiva from a rowboat.

Picture of the Shiva ceremony taken while sitting in a rowboat.

From the rowboat, we also performed a candle ceremony. 

We lit candles in paper bowls, thought of an intention, and placed the candles into the Ganga.  Our intentions, and the candles, floated away behind the rowboat.

There is only one intention that I have.  My intention is to have the courage to follow my dreams.  I wished the same for all of my friends and family...and I set the intention free on the current that flows north through Varanasi, like a compass.

I did another interesting thing in Varanasi that deserves note.  I visited a Hindu priest, a palm reader.  Javed said that the palm readers in Varanasi are the best.  I'm fascinated with astrology and I had a magical experience with a tarot card reader in Bisbee, Arizona, once.

So here is the low-down of what transpired.  I walked into a small room in the heart of the Old City and the priest told me to write my name, date of birth, and time of birth on a piece of paper.  He then consulted a worn astrology book.  Next, he took my palms in his hands.

There was silence for a moment. 

The first word out of his mouth was "traveler." 

He then uttered a few sentences that I could barely understand; his accent was thick.  I was leaning in, straining to hear...

He was holding my palms as if they were a very precious thing.  With his fingers, he traced their lines.  Words began pouring out of his mouth.  "Good heart."  "Active."  "Intelligent."  "Independent."  "Spiritual."  "Artist." 

"What kind of art?" I asked.

"All kinds of art," he said.  "Writing, design, song..."  He trailed off, and studied my palms closer.  "But not so much cosmetic art."  This assertion made me want to laugh; he was right.  I've always been hopeless at doing hair or applying makeup.  I don't own a brush.  Sometimes in the summer, I go barefoot and wear a swimsuit top in lieu of a bra.

Still holding my palms, the priest looked into my eyes.  "You believe in romance," he said.  Yes, I always have and I swear, I always will...

The priest repeated the words "artist" and "spiritual" a few more times.  He told me that I discovered my spiritual path when I was 26 (incidentally, I was 25 years and 11 months old when I went to my very first Buddhist meditation retreat and had a feeling, finally, of coming home).

He said other things, too, that I recognize in myself.  He said I sometimes take things too personally and "make a big deal over little things."  He said that my biggest problem is my feeling of dissatisfaction, my belief that I am never doing enough.

He said that 28 years old was the year that my luck would change for the better.  And that I recently completed my formal education (I graduated in December)...that I might be done for a while with school, but that I would continue learning.  He said that I would engage in "social work" type work. 

I must tell my Dad this final tidbit. The priest said that I would have two children.  When I asked him when this would occur I received an adamant, "Not now."  Don't worry, Papa, you will be a day.

There are other things he said, too, about my past, my future, and myself, but I won't bore you with all the details.  All I can say is that, like Bisbee, Arizona, this was an another magical (albeit eery) experience.  However, the session was brief, lasting only 10 to 15 minutes.

At the end, the priest asked me what country I live in.  When I said, "United States" he said something that I thought I would share here for the benefit of my "extreme conservative" friends.  

"Obama," said the priest, a sudden smile on his face. 

And then, "He's a very good man."

A goat on the ghats.  I've loved these animals for...well forever.

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