Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Naked Yogis, Clothed Goats & Recyled Cow Pies

Varanasi -- Naked Laughing Yogis, Clothed Goats and Recycled Cow Pies

No amount of photographs and words could convey how strange and wonderful, bizarre, surreal, jaw-droppingly amazing…is the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges in India.

Mark Twain described it as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Varanasi grew up on the banks of the Ganges. Long rows of steps called “ghats” line the banks, and the steps are crowded day and night with pilgrims and holy men and just plain folks who live there, as well as goats, cows, water buffalo, and the occasional monkey. Every day you will also see funeral processions and bodies wrapped in silks being burned on giant wood fires before their ashes are thrown into the river

Varanasi is considered a “crossing” (tirtha) or sacred place where mortals and gods can cross into each other’s worlds. Every Hindu wants to die in Varanasi or have his ashes thrown into the River Ganges because that is how to achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. (In other words the river is an express train to salvation without having to go through all that reincarnation first.)

For this reason, fires burn on the steps of the Ganges as people from the untouchable class cremate the dead 24 hours a day. But the cremations are something I’m going to write about in my next posting. Today I’m just going to list some of the other bizarre sights that soon become “normal” in Varanasi, which is perhaps the oldest surviving Holy City and the most efficient recycling plant in the world.

The banks of the river-–the steps of the ghats—are like a three-ring circus that can be viewed while you are sailing down the river in a row boat or walking along the steps.

You will see:
-- Herds of cows and water buffalo that are periodically bathed in the Ganges and decorated with leis of marigolds by the faithful (they’re sacred cows after all!)

--Women in saris and men in turbans doing laundry in the murky river and laying out rainbow-colored saris to dry on the steps. (Somehow the clothes come out clean.)

--Holy men, wrapped in saffron-colored loin cloths sitting under umbrellas, praying, chanting, waving torches in fire worship (after dark), stripping down to bathe and brush their teeth in the river. At dawn, the “Laughing Yogis”, swim out into the river (which was freezing when I was there) and shout out their loud Ha-Ha-Ha’s of laughter, as they are answered by guffaws from yogis still on shore. Their laughter is part of their worship.

--The goats in Varanasi wear shirts. At first I thought this was some sort of exotic religious practice – naked sadhu’s (holy men) swimming in the river and clothed goats on shore. But everyone assured me when, I asked, that they put shirts and sweaters on their goats “so they won’t get cold.”

--Everywhere you walk in Varanasi you have to be careful not to step into the cow pies left by the sacred cows and water buffalo. But in a brilliant example of re-cycling, there are men on the ghats who gather the cow poop and pat it into neat little patties and dry it on the steps (see the photo above). This way, everyone can use the product of the sacred cows to burn as fuel.

(Next posting: Burning Bodies in Benares.)

1 comment:

SRIRAM said...

wow it seems un-believable..
Those saadhus , I think they self realised themselves and understand the world , GOD everything...
I need more info about there daily habits...