There are moments in life that can be easily summed up with a few choice words, and then there are the moments that could never be properly expressed. The latter is how I feel about my magical trip to India.
When I decided to join my teachers Jaime and Dulce in Goa, India to assist in their 200 hour Ashtanga Vinyasa training, little did I know that the overall experience would be life changing. While I have visited many countries, the visit to India was slightly different. The thing that struck me the most was the sense of ritual and homage that most Indians posses. It wasn’t until I reached the city of Varanasi that it became crystal clear, and while I can never do my experiences any justice by trying to put them into words, I will give you some insight into the ancient city of Varanasi. One might wonder why Varanasi? What is so special about that city that made it markedly different that the many other cities in India? The difference comes from the mention of Varanasi in the Vedas. The Vedas are some of the most ancient texts of India and it was said in the Vedas, that if one died in Varanasi, one would attain moksha, nirvana, the end to the cycle or karma of birth and rebirth, the samskara of life. Death in Varanasi was the ultimate death, and that is why Varanasi was important.
We arrived on the morning of the last day of Navarati, the nine-day festival in honor of the goddesses in Hinduism. It was a holy day and there would certainly be celebrations that night culminating the pujas, the cleansing rituals that followers had been undergoing for nine days. As we travelled toward the Ganges River that evening to experience the Aarti ceremony we marveled at the number of people in the streets. We saw processions of actors dressed as deities, people chanting mantras, children dancing, people buying ceremonial offerings of flowers and sweets, people walking barefoot, all of them heading toward the river. When we questioned our tour guide, assuming that this was all for Navarati, we were shocked when Kunal told us that it was not. He proceeded to tell us that things were like that every day, every night people walked to the river. Every night people celebrated their rituals. Every night people did what their parents did, and what their parents before them did and so on. It was a culture of rituals, all performed daily, by people who followed in their ancestors’ footprints.
When we reached the Ganges we boarded a boat that would take us in front of the funeral pyres so that we could see more of the daily rituals of Varanasi. Kunal explained to us how people saved their money to bring their deceased family members to be cremated in Varanasi. More rituals. Another ritual that happens daily, twenty-four hours per day as evidenced through the eternal flame that is used to cremate all of the bodies.
From the funeral pyres we made our way up the river to the Shiva temple where we could see the Aarti ceremony. A ceremony such as I had never seen before, and then we find out that this ceremony happens several times per day, not just at this large Shiva temple, but also throughout all temples in India. Again, more rituals, more homage to ancestral tradition. Concepts that are not seen daily on such a large scale here in New Jersey. This was the night that my brain went into sensory overload, so many people, so many rituals, so many large-scale grandiose ceremonies, and happening daily! What a testament to what is important to a people, to a country, to a culture, to a religion! Yes, I was blown away. Yes, my life was changed after participating in my own puja, my own temple visit where I brought my offerings to the Shiva lingam, where the temple priest gave me his blessings, and where I was blessed to catch but a small glimpse of what every day life has been like for thousands of years. What a blessing it was to visit Varanasi. I hope my inadequate words can give you but a small glimpse of the amazing place that Varanasi is, and if they cannot, perhaps these pictures can better paint a picture in your mind. Jai!