Showing posts with label Varanasi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Varanasi. Show all posts

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Meet The Sun

The little room with yellow walls barely contained me. From its tiny balcony on the second floor I looked out over a field to a city street that curved and ended on the shore of the Ganges River at Varanasi, India.

One year ago, each morning before dawn, I dressed, gathered my camera and hurried outdoors in the dark to witness the chanting and prayer rituals of young men and women gathered facing the river. Dressed in shimmering silk and flowing cotton fabrics, the fragrance of devotion emanated from their being. Their gleaming hearts shone in the dark as they reverently performed their ceremony.

The Gange River is so holy it is deemed to be a goddess. In the darkness, girls sang and intoned with sweet notes of sacred love as the young men, in synchronized movements waved urns of incense billowing fragrance, blew into conch shells and created arcs of light with flames of lit oils. I stood nearby and watched, becoming more exhilarated until the conclusion when the first glimmering of daylight shone above the river.

I am typically not a morning person and usually labor out of bed around 7:30 AM.
But during my time in Varanasi the daily ritual of joining the group of devotees by the Ganges, worshiping something ancient, ever-flowing, and holy before turning to meet the sun as it rose above the horizon . . . well, it was not a chore but rather a blessing.

I miss Varanasi.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cows roam freely and are everywhere in Varanasi, India. Photo at night.
It feels as if lifetimes have come and gone in the short span of time I have been in India. The crush of humanity, brightly colored and diverse, mostly in squalid conditions has made my Italian sojourn seem far off and long ago. I have walked narrow passages and skirted around cows while stepping over piles of manure, seen men pissing in the stinking streets, had my eyes dazzled by women in colorful saris of every color and shade, walked past many temples and smelled fragrant burning incense, become vegetarian by default and a chai drinker, and been bombasted by fireworks so loud and frequent during the festival of Diwali that dogs in America probably heard it and quivered. I have drifted in a rowboat on the Ganges River at evening with an American friend and made personal rituals, leaving candles floating in the night water, and visited cremation fires by day and watched bodies burn on pyres of flaming wood. Friends have been made, including a young man who drives a rickshaw and works 16 hour days to support his wife and two boys. Many people are like him—working long hard hours. He told me it would look bad if his wife worked, that he would meet with disapproval from family and so he does what he must. And he always greeted me with a smile, and often looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you happy?”

Lighting candles in baskets with marigold blossoms to float in the Ganges River.

I arrived in Pushkar, India today after the longest train ride of my life—22 hours. That in itself was a sort of lifetime experience. The train was full . . . so densely packed that it was four hours late on arrival, probably because it could not go fast. I was in a more costly air-conditioned sleeper car that squeezed six berths in each compartment and the coach had perhaps 12 such compartments. The only clean items were the sheets they gave. The bathrooms would make some people ill on sight. Imagine the second class coaches. Anyway, I am going native and roll with the punches. I made friends with a family sharing my compartment, and they helped me when I arrived at the station, staying by my side until I got a rickshaw to the bus station where I caught a bus that was similarly packed with people. Now I am in Pushkar and arrived just before an important festival, and this might be good luck.

Herding camel, Pushkar, India

Sunday, November 08, 2015


View of the Ganges River from a Hindu Temple on its bank

How different Varanasi India is from Venice, Cinqueterra, Florence, and Rome, Italy. No longer the neat cobbled passages and thoroughfares. No longer the testimony to grandeur in high art and architecture and civic pride. Varanasi is a cacophony of sights and sounds with seemingly no order. The dense population of 3 ½ million people that live on the bank of the Ganges River are too many for the resources that exist. “Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: 'Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together' ".  "Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the origins of Varanasi are yet unknown. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals."

Street life
Just being here is giving me spiritual insights and transforming my consciousness. I know that I must let go of my agenda and surrender to the Divine. Even having a slight agenda is not permissible. I will give an example in a moment.

The streets teem and if you are in a hurry or expect orderliness and sophistication, reality will dash these hopes in a hurry. Almost every inch of the roads and passages are with people or beasts. All the traffic is dodging other traffic, and even people must skirt around each other. Pedestrians much watch not to step in waste left by animals or trip on an upturned stone. Sometimes a strong stench is inhaled as the gutters often are sewers flowing to God knows where. Shops are everywhere, as are street vendors cooking tasty treats and offering the ubiquitous chai tea. I sometimes think to myself that the garbage and sewage are too close for comfort. Yet the people are lively and do not hesitate in living. To be in the street is also to be accosted by a rickshaw driver or someone who wants to show you something.
Daily pre-dawn prayer offerings

Now, my story about surrender:  Every morning I go before dawn to the banks of the Ganges, at the foot of Assi Ghat to be among worshipers and also to take photos in the supernal light and try and capture the poetry there. I begin at a pre-dawn ceremony of young men and women, set on a stage. The lads stand in a line, performing a prayer ritual that entails specific movements, swinging lamps, waving fans and blowing on conch shells. The young ladies stand aside, singing and chanting. Then I wander the river banks as the light changes and the sun rises over the horizon. It is a perfect time for picture taking. The other morning I sat near groups of colorfully clad women praying and making offerings, and sometimes stepping into the river to bathe. It is thought to bathe in the holy river is to wash away ones sins. I took photos as the sun rose over the opposite bank. I also took pictures of holy men while the sun rose. Alas, when I returned to the hotel, all the pictures I took from that morning were mysteriously missing, but photos from earlier remained. I had seen them all on my camera, but now, those from the morning were gone. Frustration came over me at the thought of losing some gorgeous photos. At last, I surrendered to the Divine and said, “Please accept my loss as a sacrifice to your holiness.”


I have wondered what the lesson is and think that the holy spirit is so strong here, the devotion so great, that my agenda of picture taking was reprimanded. Perhaps some holy beings were offended in some way and asked that the pictures be cleared. Truly, I have been gracefully guided to surrender while in Varanasi.
Smiling girl with the ever present holy cows.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

On The Horizon

View of Vernazza, Cinqueterra, Italy

India is on the horizon. Tomorrow, I leave Rome, Italy to fly through the night and arrive in New Delhi. Thus will end my six week sojourn in Italy. The journey began in Venice, continued on to the Cinqueterra region and its five villages hugging the steep cliffs at the Mediterranean Sea, and ended in the Eternal City—Rome.

Rainbow over Venice, Italy

Friends in Venice welcomed me, and I made new acquaintances. Delightful characters emerged all along the way, and I tasted some of the best food anywhere in the world. The art, from thousands of years ago to the present day has filled my senses and stirred my imagination. Experiences will dwell in my heart and storehouse of my mind for years to come, feeding my imagination and calling forth transformation in my perceptions and creative pursuits.

Roman Forum, Rome
Indian civilization is perhaps older than Italy . . . and will work its own special magic. I do not expect the same qualities as Italy, and may have fewer comforts, but I know what to expect from having visited before, (see the blog Surrender). And I will be experiencing Diwali again on the banks of the Ganges River . . . in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

I eagerly anticipate being awestruck.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Nobody Complained

Celebrating the festival of Diwali, Varanasi, India
Have you ever gone to a movie and been the only one in the theater? The lights dim and the movie begins and you have the entire space to yourself—your own private screening. Last Thursday, I was at work in my studio when Heidi Of The Mountains called from her desk at my gallery and said that only four people had come in since she opened. “Do you want to see a movie? The film Samsara begins at 3:45 this afternoon.” I thought about it a moment and realized that this is a very slow time for galleries on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, and said, “Sure, I will meet you.”

We arrived together at the ticket desk at the small art cinema. A young woman was the only person there. She took our money, gave us our ticket, served popcorn, and directed us into the theater. It was empty. My feeling was happiness that we could claim the entire space. We sat in the middle, leaned into each other and as we shared popcorn, the lights went off and the movie began.

The New York Times describes the documentary movie Samsara as “Around the world in 99 minutes, and no words.” Samsara is a Sanskrit word for the ever-turning wheel of life, and the film is a dream-like journey over the entire earth, with stunning time lapse filming that illustrates the constant flow of a changing world. A musical score accompanies the moving images, but no spoken words. We watched and discussed in normal voices the movie as it unfolded . . . nobody complained.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sweet Light

Oh, for sweet light! People around the world rejoice in and praise it. Light represents hope, sustenance, and illumination.

Into my heart's night

Along a narrow way
I groped; and lo! the light,

An infinite land of day.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, where I live, there is an annual tradition of giving light on Christmas Eve. Paper bags are weighted with a layer of sand and a candle is lit and placed inside, then, scores of these “farolitos” (Spanish for “little lights”) are placed along paths, streets, sidewalks, on walls and even rooftops. Streets are closed to vehicles in an old and historic part of town along Canyon Road, where the art galleries line both sides of the avenue. As night falls, people gather in masses to walk among the farolitos, or gather at luminarios (bonfires) to sing carols and be festive. The tradition lights up the heart and soul, as thousands of people stroll. Amid joyous sounds of Christmas music, the revelry of friends and families greeting each other fills the air.

The lights have their roots in the 1800's. Small bonfires were used to guide people to Christmas Mass. Quite often they were set out during the final night of Las Posadas, the symbolic representation of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem walking from home to home before Jesus was born.
 In later days, children carried small farolitos as they reenacted Las Posadas.

This year as I walked among the darkened masses of people and flickering firelights, Heidi of the Mountains walked by my side. “This is my first time!” she exclaimed with glee.

No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.  ~Terry Pratchett

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God's goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me?  ~Albert Schweitzer

A couple years ago, during October, I arrived in Varanasi, India, just at the beginning of Devali, "festival of lights"; an important five-day festival in Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Mounds of marigold blossoms were heaped in the streets, to be gathered to make garlands. In the evening, a man rowed me on the Ganges River to see fireworks and watch the huge cremation fires on the riverbank. As night fell, little handmade boats were floating everywhere—set upon their voyage carrying flower petals and candle, lit with someone’s hope.

My mind withdrew its thoughts from experience, extracting itself from the contradictory throng of sensuous images, that it might find out what that light was wherein it was bathed... And thus, with the flash of one hurried glance, it attained to the vision of That Which Is.
Saint Augustine

After I left India, by chance I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the beginning of Loi Krothon, a festival where firelight plays a central role. "Loi" means "to float" and a "krathong" is traditionally made from a section of banana tree trunk. A krathong will be decorated with elaborately folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks. A low value coin is sometimes included as an offering to the river spirits.

During the night of the full moon, Thais will float their krathong on a river, canal or a pond lake. The festival is believed to originate in an ancient practice of paying respect to the spirit of the waters. In Chiang Mai, night parades wind through the streets, with many of the costumed participants marching with candles aglow. Also, candles are lit under canopies of paper and as the warm air rises and is trapped, the lit paper bags rise into the air—thousands through the night, glowing all the way. It is quite the sight.

And of all illumination which human reason can give, none is comparable to the discovery of what we are, our nature, our obligations, what happiness we are capable of, and what are the means of attaining it.
Adam Weishaupt

There is not enough darkness in the entire world to put out the light of even one small candle.
  Robert Alden

Sunday, November 02, 2008


This week feels as though I have died and been reincarnated at least nine times. One minute I am dazzled by a lovely lady in her colorful sari and her trail of sweet perfume, and the next moment stumble on a dying man covered with flies lying on the pavement with a beggar’s cup next to him and a stench in the air. India is not for the faint at heart or those with a weak stomach. It can be alluringly beautiful one second and utterly ghastly the next. Streets are whirling with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, trucks, buses, people, horse drawn carts, dogs and cows—all sharing the traffic jams. Gentlemen in tunics and women dressed in brilliant flowing silk are on the same sidewalks as lepers and deformed beggars in rags. Men, who feel the urge, simply stop and urinate in public next to the streets, and everyone ignores them. Vendors cook over the same gutters that are used to piss into. Trash, dirt and dust is everywhere, and the people appear oblivious to the filthy conditions except when they go in homes or businesses and take off their shoes.

I feel blessed because wherever I arrive, the first person to meet me has befriended me and become my guide and guardian. It truly feels as though angels are watching over me and sending the right person to enter my life, and then, the way is clear for me and I can just surrender and go with the flow. The more I surrender, the more dazzling the journey becomes. In Agra my angel was Ilyas Khan, an old taxi driver who drove me around and watched over me like a hawk to be sure nothing went wrong. He even bought me locks for my suitcases. In Varanasi, it was Rama, a young man who with his friend spent hours driving me around in a rickshaw all hours of night and day, and brought me to his home to meet his family. In Bodhgaya, the first person I met was Varun, a handsome, gentle young Indian who has a good grasp of English and some college education. Together we have visited maybe 20 Buddhist temples and driven far into the countryside to visit his grandmother who lives in a village. On the way, he said I would be the first foreigner to visit there. The children and I quickly bonded and they took me around so I could take pictures. At times, we walked hand in hand, and must have looked funny when one by one, other kids joined our group and whole tassel of us became a parade.

When I arrived in Agra, I had some prejudice about seeing the Taj Majal, since it is a premier tourist destination and has been hyped so much over the years. But when I first laid eyes on it in the morning light, I was immediately dazzled and smitten. It is bewitchingly beautiful. One of the most beautiful creations of man on earth, it has been called “ a materialized vision of loveliness,” and a “dream in marble,” and a “resplendent, immortal tear drop on the cheek of time.”
In Varanasi, (also called Kashi, also called Banares), the mysticism of the east captured my spirit. Varanasi is the most holy place for Hindus, who believe that bathing there in the mighty Ganges River cleanses them of sin. To be cremated in Varanasi and then have your ashes sprinkled in the river makes for certain entrance into heaven. That is why cremation fires burn day and night. To be on a rowboat and see the bonfires along the river at night is quite moving, also, as dawn breaks over its eastern bank when devotees are bathing, doing yoga, chanting, burning incense, going into the temples to make offerings, ringing chimes . . . an amazing scene.

Bodhgaya is where I have been the last few days. It is purported that Buddha received his enlightenment here, and a great many temples have been built. Devotees, especially monks from around Asia come here and can be seen everywhere in their brightly colored robes and with shaved heads. Governments of countries with big Buddhist populations, like Japan, Malaysia, and others, have sponsored the building of temples, and also donated toward helping the local people.

Now I have just arrived via train to Calcutta (Kolkata), and before next weekend expect to be in Bangkok, Thailand. Varun made arrangements for me to stay with his parents in Calcutta, and his father picked me up at the rail station. Unfortunately, I ate or drank something yesterday that made me sick. I have been cautious, but in the village, I was polite and ate some food and drank village water that was graciously offered. In the evening I was throwing up and going to the toilet every ten minutes. Today I woke up feeling terrible but took the train anyway. I can’t touch food for a while. Varun’s family is quite sweet but the bed I was offered is too small. I have found a hotel room that is adequate for the short time I am here.