India has many holy places. I visited two of them. Pushkar, with its 52 ghats surrounding the holy waters of the lake in the center of the city, and Varanasi, with its hundreds of ghats lining the Ganges River. You are definitely not supposed to take photos of people praying at the ghats, and most certainly not of the burning ghats. Of course, I managed to violate this rule both times (unintentionally, I might add).
The holy city of Pushkar sits on the edge of the Great Indian Desert. At the center of the city is Pushkar Sarovar Lake, a sacred place for Hindus. While Pushkar is loaded with fake priests that are after tourist dollars, there is still a sense of reverence from the people. Selling alcohol near the lake is strictly forbidden and most restaurants are “veg.” Asking for alcohol or “non-veg” food usually gets you the hushed response of “Holy waters.” (Fortunately, you need not walk far to get your evil spirits and meat, though beef is nearly impossible to come buy throughout most of India).
I went down to the lake, snapped a few photos (without anyone knowing, thankfully), and managed to create quite a stir when I walked down the steps to the lake in my slippers. Oops! Even worse, they were made from leather. I profusely apologized repeatedly, quickly kicked the sandals far up the steps to everyone’s satisfaction, and amusement. Then a priest was on me at once.
I think I got the real deal, fortunately. Maybe not what an Indian would get, but good nonetheless. I was told to do a ritual washing of my hands in the water and to repeat a prayer in Hindi, then had it explained to me in English. Basically it was a prayer to Vishnu to protect me and my loved ones from harm and to ensure our prosperity.
All the while, I am sitting cross-legged by the water, constantly washing my hands and collecting water for the prayer. Water was put on my head at one point and also used to mix yellow and red powders into a red paste. This was dotted on my forehead to form a tika and the top of head after the prayer. Rice was also placed on top of the tika on my forehead. I was told what most Indians and foreigners donate as part of this ceremony (which really is part of it) and asked if I wanted to donate.
As a foreigner, this is where you usually get screwed. If you know what you are doing, you typically donate 100 rupees per a person you prayed for (20 rupees total for Indians). I donated 20 rupees per person, for a total of 100, so only 5 people I know are going to avoid being reborn as slugs. I was asked if I was sure that was all I wanted to give, but that was the only pressure (if you consider that pressure, which I didn’t). Then a string was tied around my wrist. I chat with the priest briefly and then we went our ways.
The string, it turns out, is called a “Passport” and is for foreigners. It lets others know you have prayed so you are not asked to pray again. Most of the time people just make the friendly suggestion to do so if they don’t see a passport. I did it willingly and right away. My friend had no interest in doing it. She was asked a few times if she wanted to pray, but I was not asked again. People only looked at my passport and smiled at me. Of course, the giant red tika on my forehead was a pretty good indicator I had already prayed, even if no one saw my red and gold passport.
After praying I immediately went and had a few beers! So much for all my praying.
Varanasi is so named for where the tributaries Varuna and Assi meet and flow into the Ganges. The Ganges is a severely polluted river that Indians view as most sacred. Indians bath in the river, pray in the river, and are cremated along the river. They dump raw sewage into it, do their laundry in it, and drink from it. And they have been doing so for thousands of years.
Hundreds of ghats line the Ganges at Varanasi. Ghats are steps that lead down to a holy river or lake. During the winter season it is easy to walk the ghats along the Ganges and see what’s happening. Parties are going on every night, weddings come down to the Ganges, people are bathing, doing laundry and drying it all over the place so you have to duck around it, and, of course, people are praying.
Many of the ghats that line the Ganges are typical ghats for bathing and praying. However, two of them are burning ghats, and one in particular, Manikarnika, has been used for over 3,500 years (or so I was told by my boat guide). Burning ghats are where people are cremated (many bodies come from miles around Varanasi to be cremated).
Out of respect for the deceased and their families, photos are strictly prohibited. I knew this and, of course, avoided photographing them. The main burning ghat, however, has several nice spires and since I was careful to avoid the burning bodies (there were 9 at the time) I thought it would be fine. Oh no! I was ordered by a young Indian guy not to take photos of the burning ghats. I explained there were no bodies in the photos, just the spires of the ghats, but he let me have it. Told me my camera would break in 5 months, I would be hurt in 8 months, and mumbled some other Hindi voodoo at me.
I felt bad. At least for a few minutes, until I realized the photo wasn’t even that good.
Have you been to a ghat? Were you cremated in a former life? What was it like? Share your experiences in the comments section below.