Archive for the ‘Varanasi’ Category
We have had five days in Varanasi walking up and down the Ganga riverfront, discussing the state of the river with Veerbhadra Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, visiting the central flower market, and generally getting more familiar with the ritual and commercial life of a dense urban city. Everyone is still in good health and excited about the days ahead. Tomorrow we leave at 7:00 a.m. for the sandy flats of the Kumbh Nagar, the city that has been constructed at the confluence, the sangam, of the rivers in Allahabad. We’ll meet our other colleagues there tomorrow evening. Wishing well to all, Diana Eck
January 14, Makar Sankranti in Varanasi, Diana Eck
Our Kumbh team had a first glimpse today of the massive bathing rituals of the Kumbh Mela. Today is Makar Sankranti, the first of the shahi snans, the “royal bathing days” of the Kumbh, and here in Varanasi this is also one of the most auspicious of Hindu festival days. It is characterized by bathing along the River Ganga in the morning and kite flying in the afternoon. And also, of course, eating particular foods, especially the foods of the harvest: rice grains of all kinds, dried, pounded, and above all cooked with lentils to make khichari, the food of the day.
By dawn, pilgrims were coming in a steady stream along the walkway in front of our guesthouse in Asi Ghat, headed toward the clay bank of the river and a dip in Mother Ganga. They bathed in the chilly waters, made offerings at the small shrines of Hanuman beneath the great tree on Asi Ghat, circling the tree and offering water, flowers, and bilva leaves to Shiva, represented by the dozen or so Shiva lingas there at the base of the tree. Having bathed and worshipped, they offered a handful of rice grains to each one of the multitude of beggars lining the pathways and the walkways of the ghats. The crowds were festive and full, all along the river at all the major bathing ghats. We boarded a boat at Asi with a boatman named Gauri Shankar, who rowed downstream past one ghat after another for more than two miles to Panchganga and then back. It was a Varanasi bathing festival at its best.
The reports came from Allahabad that nearly 10 million had come to bathe in the confluence of the rivers and watch the spectacle of the ascetic akharas as they marched in procession to bathe. By tomorrow, many of these pilgrims will have come to Varanasi to complete their pilgrimage by a dip in the Ganga here and by going for darshan of Shiva Vishvanatha. The photo here is of Prayag Ghat, one of the central bathing ghats of Varanasi, named for Prayag, the old name of Allahabad.
Varanasi, January 12, 2013, Diana
The traffic into the city from Lalbahadur Shastri Airport was a reminder of the most difficult urban problems of today –streets choking with cars, trucks, motor rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and roadsides littered with plastics, trash, mixed with garbage. As we got into the city, there were streams of people too, and an occasional policeman at an intersection, valiantly directing an overwhelming flow of traffic. It took over an hour to reach Asi Ghat and the Ganges View, an oasis on the river, where we were warmly met, shown our rooms, and served tea.
Here at Asi Ghat, we are beginning our preparation for the Kumbh. The congestion, the loudspeaker now at evening amplifying the discourse of a swami preacher, the women and children begging for alms, the pilgrim women with bundles on poles slung over their shoulders. As night falls and the street grows quiet; there are groups of women huddled around small fires on Asi Ghat, with others sleeping under blankets on the pavement. I thought of the remark made by a dinner partner in Delhi two nights ago, that most of the people who come to the Kumbh don’t stay anywhere at all, or should we say, anywhere in particular. No tent, camp, or shelter. Just on the ground.
The Kumbh has been constantly in the news. As we landed in India, there was the story of a baby born in one of the Mela clinics to a woman construction worker, appropriately named Jamuna. There was the press release from Swami Chidanand Saraswati on the meeting he would be calling for January 18-9 on the environment and the Kumbh, a meeting that five chief ministers and two state governors would attend, so they say. There were brief reports of the security, the police, and the fire department preparations. With the first big bathing day approaching, Makar Sankranti on January 14, the headlines read “One hundred million head for the Kumbh.”
Our group from Harvard has students interested in every aspect of the Kumbh. Some are seeing it primarily through the lens of the “mass gathering,” with all the issues that such huge numbers pose. Some are in the area of Global Health, interested in plans for health care delivery, sanitation, and the varieties of toilets that will be in use. Some are mapping the remarkable infrastructure of the “pop-up” megacity, with its roadways, electrical and plumbing services, and tele-communications networds. Several are looking an environmental issues: flowers, their profusion, their sources, and the destiny of these millions of marigold garlands, which are not supposed to be deposited in the River; the move to offer saplings as prasad for pilgrims to carry home; the Green Kumbh movement, with the concern to ban plastics and create a more environmentally conscious pilgrimage; and of course the Ganga and Yamuna, their protection and purity in an age of pollution.
And, of course, for some of us, myself included, the most remarkable aspect of the Mela is the massive ingathering of people from every sect and religious movement, villagers and urbanites, ascetic renunciants and celebrity pilgrims.
Brightly lit shrines under a peepal tree (Ficus religiosa) in the streets of Varanasi