India Afterthoughts II: Varanasi

Puja Varanasi

Varanasi was the most memorable of all the places we experienced in India. It’s probably the poorest big city I’ve ever seen – and somehow the most spiritual. Its streets were jammed with pedestrians, scooters, auto-rickshaws, and pedicabs.

Shop owners invited me into their stalls. When I ignored them, they followed me offering marijuana and opium. Ragged beggars held out their pitiful hands. The place was teeming with life. The city’s small shops were shoe-horned into winding streets too narrow even for Vespa and Honda Hero “two wheelers.” But as I walked rubbing shoulders with the crowds, a voice in my head kept repeating, “This is amazing, absolutely amazing!”

And then there was the great puja (religious ritual) we witnessed on the Ganges’ banks. Everyone in Varanasi seemed to be there sitting in sprawling grandstands. Others sat in boats anchored close together just off the river’s edge like the crowds in the gospels listening to Jesus.

As we entered the scene, women painted dark red bindis on our foreheads without being asked, and then demanded money in return. Others equally unsolicited thrust miniature bowls of flowers and candles into our hands to float ceremoniously in the River, and then exacted their fee.

As I returned from floating my own offering, a young man reached out to shake my hand. Suddenly he was giving me a vigorous massage – my hand first, then my arm; he reached out for my shoulders. That cost me a hundred rupes.

And then the ceremony itself! Four brightly lit stages stood before us each covered with golden embroidery. As we watched from the wooden stands, six priests chanted and danced majestically on each stage. They were dressed identically in beautifully gold vestments. They stood at measured intervals on the platforms, and with constant loud chanting blaring from huge loud speakers, the holy men swung thuribles first of smoking incense, then of candles by the dozen, and finally of wild orange fire. All their motions were choreographed with exact precision.

(Meanwhile our blond, blue-eyed grandchildren ran through the crowds laughing and playing as people reached out to touch them , bless them, or snatch them up to be photographed in their arms. It was like that wherever we went. They were constantly ogled and treated like celebrities.)

Totally other; totally amazing!