By: Mackenzie Enich
When I was a little girl my mother would take out the slide projector and shine the light on a little pop up screen that was wedged between two faded black arm chairs. The entire set up was old. The screen left green paint chips from the tripod legs on the carpet after it was put away and my mother always said the projector did not click through the slides as quickly as it used to. Even so, I begged often for the slides to be brought out so I could lay back on the carpet in the middle of the living room with my hands behind my head and watch the world go by through the photos of people’s faces to the tune of “Small Green Island.” I would say to my friends at school, “my mom has traveled the world” and smile proudly. And she has been around the world, she took a year to do it. All I ever wanted to do was grow up and do just as she had done; see the world.
My mother is a retired junior high school geography teacher and one year during her teaching she applied for a sabbatical and bought an “around the world ticket” to see the places she was teaching about. I remember many of the stories my mother has told me over the years and I have even been lucky enough to visit a few of the places she talked about and have my own experiences. However one place with all of its stories has forever stood out in my mind, India.
The stories my mother told about Indian culture and people were always my favorite. I have leaned a fair amount about the Indian culture over the years and I am still passionate to learn more. My mother always said the Indian culture was a culture that existed in its own place and time.
I stand with my palms resting against a brass banister. I press the rest of my body up next to the cool gate to let the temperature seep through my clothes to my hot skin. I stand in front of the Hindu god, Shiva, the destroyer. The temple is cool compared to the outside air. It is especially cool on my bare feet.
I am in the inner shrine of a Shiva temple in the center of a Hindu University. This was one of the original temples in the holly city of Varanasi. This city is also known as the city of temples and the birth place of Shiva. There are over 100,000 temples in Varanasi dedicated only to Shiva.
As I stand against the gate I close my eyes and listen to the prayer. The voice comes from the man standing next to me, our guide and our Brahmin. His words soar around the room and fill its entirety. He knows the string of sand script words by heart and they pour out of him in a deep beautiful song.
It lasted three minutes. For three minutes my eyes were closed. For three minutes I wonder if I should be more religious. I am in my own way. I may not attend church or worship a particular deity but I am a religious person of the world. My spiritual feeling comes when I talk to people about their stories, when I begin to understand others. So for three minutes I give thanks to those who help me get where I am today, traveling around the world. For the rest of my life I give thanks to the people who allow me to try to understand and to those people who will always love me and support my passion for telling the truth around the world.
Later, I climbed two feet up into a bicycle rickshaw and Rebecca climbed in next to me. The hard plastic held our weight but the seat was questionable since it was only supported by two thin bicycle wheels. With the seat at a forward slope and there not much room for two people it was difficult to stay in the shallow seat. The only things holding us in seat was the fear of falling to the broken road and the dust. Our driver tightly wound a green and white striped scarf around his head, leaving a tail near his left ear before he climbed on his bike. Many of the other drivers tied similar scarves around their heads and climbed on their bikes.
We headed for the edge of the city, the most holly part of the city. It is where the Ganges river touches the edge of the city. The center of the city appears to live on the banks of the river. The wheels of our rickshaw splashed through puddles and bounced over broken speed bumps. Faces and hands flew by as we swerved and dodged cows and tuck tucks in the streets. I held on as we hit every pot hole and laughed with every time we missed a cow. Thirty minutes and one thousand people later we reached the banks of the Ganges.
A set of 100 stairs leads down to the edge of the water. Holly men sit on the stair under orange tarp tents, entirely naked with their bodies painted in ash. The white ash makes their ebony skin grey and there long beards white. These men sit there on the steps, live on the banks of the river, and pray as the sun comes up until it goes down.
Every 12 years there is a festival (a sort of pilgrimage) held in Varanasi. The last one was in 2001 and 3.6 million people came to the city. The festival ended a few days ago. This year 5 million people made the journey to the city. That kind of energy would be incredible to see and beautifully dangerous. Someday, maybe in 12 years, I will get to see something like that.naked with their bodies painted in ash. The white ash makes their ebony skin grey and there long beards white. These men sit there on the steps, live on the banks of the river, and pray as the sun comes up until it goes down.
I step slowly on to the last cement step with locals and foreigners alike standing at the edge of the water as the river licks the bottom of the wooden boats. The boat gives into the water asI step on the front to get inside. The air is cool and the bugs hover over the water. Two men sit at one end of the boat with giant ores rowing us and down the river.
The set of stairs we came down is just one of 85 sets. There are 85 ghats up and down the bank of the Ganges, each 100 steps or more. They stretch as far as the eye can see down the river. Old buildings stand, on top of the stairs, with holes so the river wind can pass through them. These buildings were built by the wealthy over the years. The kings and queens of past lives left the bricks to stand as a guard over the river. Most of the buildings are empty although some are inhabited. They are all beginning to crumble toward the stairs and the color is starting to fade.
When the water turned dark with the reflection of the night sky the fires of the crematorium became more visible. Sparks flew as boys beat the burning logs with sticks. Massive logs, the size of whole trees were stacked ten feet tall all along the upper part of the bank. It takes 300 kg of wood to burn one body. Five fires glowed near the edge of the river. All the fires were being tended but all the funeral processions had left. Three bodies, covered in gold fabric, laid on the stairs to the right of the fire, waiting their turn to be burned. Down below the cremation four men stand in the shallow water, cleansing the ashes and taking what gold and silver is left over from the bodies. The families never come back to reclaim the metal.
Many people think there are bodies floating around the Ganges River and at one time it was true but not anymore. There are four types of people that are not allowed to be cremated. A monk, a pregnant women, a child under ten, and a person who died from a snake bite. In these particular cases the bodies are taken out to the middle of the river, tied to a rock, and left to sink. The only reason a body comes to the surface are if the river dolphin cuts the rope. The sparks of the fires drifted up to clouds as we sat and watched. Eventually we moved away up stream to say a prayer of our own.
I sat with a bowl in my hand containing a lit candle with small gold flowers around it. To my right our priest begins to sing a prayer in sand script again. I closed my eyes and held the candle close to feel the warmth of the flame on my nose and smell the flowers. I closed my eyes for three minutes.
After the deep voice of the prayer dissolved into the night air all that could be heard was the lapping of the river at the bottom of the boat. I opened my eyes, turned around, made my wish, and sent my candle down the river.
Every night seven priests do a light ceremony to give thanks to the mother river for allowing them to make it to the end of the day. Thousands of people crowded on the ghats and in the boats at the shore. We stayed in our boat and only tried to move through the hordes of people when the ceremony was over.
It took 30 minutes to navigate through the streets back to where our rickshaws were parked. The lights were bright on the main road and all that could be heard was the incessant beeping of motor bikes trying to get through the crowd. It never works well. As westerners many people were trying to stop us and take photos of us. As women we often found ourselves surrounded by men. Orange, yellow, green, and blue sari clothed women rushed by. I only have six inches of space around me, less when a cow came walking down the street.
My mother always said the Indian culture was a culture that existed in its own place and time. She was correct. When I got to Varanasi I thought; this is India. Varanasi is all of what I thought my Indian experience would be. It is a whole other world. When I was a little girl and my mother showed her slides from India, I would close my eyes for three minutes and listen to her stories. For three minutes I would be in India with my mother. For three days I was here in my India. Someday I will be in India with my mother and we will experience it together. I take these few words to say thank you to my mother for forever inspiring my passion for traveling.