EX­PE­RI­ENCE GU­RUDONG­MAR LAKE

Novem­ber to June. Most of the lake will be frozen from Novem­ber to Fe­bru­ary.

Asian Geographic - - Front Page - MANTRA OM MANI PADME HUM

WHEN WHERE

op­posit e pag e op A be­tel seller at Assi Ghat in Varanasi

ot­top­posit e pag e A holy man (called sadhu) on the banks of river Ganges after his rou­tine pray­ers

ott om A por­trait of a sadhu at Assi Ghat, Varanasi Re­garded as the spir­i­tual cap­i­tal of In­dia, Varanasi has been known in var­i­ous eras as Avimukta, Be­naras and Kashi — mean­ing ‘where the supreme light shines’. Of­ten re­ferred to as the holy city of In­dia, it is the holi­est of seven sa­cred cities ( sap­ta­puri) in Hin­duism and Jain­ism for the im­por­tant role it plays in the de­vel­op­ment of Bud­dhism and Ravi­das­sia, a re­li­gion founded on Sikhism. For ages, Varanasi has been the ul­ti­mate pil­grim­age spot for Hin­dus. Hin­dus be­lieve that it is an hon­our to die on the land of Varanasi and that a per­son who does so and is cre­mated there would at­tain sal­va­tion through mok­sha — fi­nal lib­er­a­tion of the soul from the end­less cy­cle of birth, death, and re­birth. No place along the Ganges’ banks is more longed for at the mo­ment of death by Hin­dus than Varanasi. Be­cause of this be­lief, dead bod­ies from far-off places are brought there for cre­ma­tion. Thus, Varanasi is also tra­di­tion­ally called Ma­hashamshana or the great cre­ma­tion ground.

Burn­ing ghats along Ganges’ banks are where bod­ies are burned, and the Har­ishchan­dra Ghat is a ded­i­cated plat­form from where any­one can view this pub­lic dis­play. Ashes of burned corpses are sub­se­quently emp­tied into the holy river. There are five key and eighty-eight mi­nor cre­ma­tion and bathing sites along the Ganges. Among them, Manikarnika is the most sa­cred one as it is as­so­ci­ated with God­dess Par­vathi, Lord Shiva’s wife.

Devo­tees long to die here and this has given rise to busi­nesses that help them ful­fill this wish. Ho­tels of­fer death beds where peo­ple lit­er­ally wait to die on and one such “ho­tel”, Kashi Labh Mukti Bha­van, only ac­cepts oc­cu­pants ex­pected to die within 15 days. In her book, Ba­naras:city­oflight, Diana Eck writes: “Death in Kashi is not a feared death for here the or­di­nary God of Death, fright­ful Yama, has no ju­ris­dic­tion. Death in Kashi is death known and faced, trans­formed and de­scended”.

The old city of Varanasi ex­tends about two kilo­me­tres be­hind the Ganges and is a maze of al­ley­ways and streets.

One of the old­est liv­ing cities in the world, this great north In­dian cen­tre of Shiva wor­ship has had more than 3000 years of con­tin­u­ous habi­ta­tion. Its promi­nence in Hindu mythol­ogy is vir­tu­ally un­re­vealed. Mark Twain, the English au­thor and lit­er­a­ture, who was en­thralled by the leg­end and sanc­tity of Be­naras, once wrote “Be­naras is older than his­tory, older than tra­di­tion, older even than leg­end and looks twice as old as all of them put to­gether.”

Varanasi has been a sym­bol of Hindu re­nais­sance. The city is a cen­tre of learn­ing and civ­i­liza­tion for over 3000 years; knowl­edge, phi­los­o­phy, cul­ture, de­ity wor­ship, In­dian arts and crafts have all flour­ished here for cen­turies. Sar­nath where Bud­dha preached his first ser­mon after en­light­en­ment is just 10 kilo­me­tres north­east of Varanasi near the

Hin­dus be­lieve that it is an hon­our to die on the land of Varanasi and that a per­son who does so and is cre­mated there would at­tain sal­va­tion through mok­sha — fi­nal lib­er­a­tion of the soul from the end­less cy­cle of birth, death, and re­birth.

con­flu­ence of the Ganges and Varuna rivers in Ut­tar Pradesh.

Varanasi and its sur­round­ing area are con­sid­ered es­pe­cially sa­cred be­cause Shiva is be­lieved to have lived here with his wife God­dess Par­vathi. Com­ment­ing on this part of Varanasi along the Ganges, the Hindu scrip­ture Tristhalisetu ex­plains that what­ever is sac­ri­ficed, chanted, given in char­ity, or suf­fered in penance there, even in the small­est amount, yields end­less fruit be­cause of the power of that place. This fruit is said to be more than what is ob­tain­able from three nights of fast­ing in this place and equiv­a­lent to what is ac­crued from many thou­sands of life­times of as­ceti­cism. It is said that there are some 10,000 tem­ples ded­i­cated to dif­fer­ent gods and godesses here.

Per­son­i­fied as a god­dess known as Ganga, the river Ganges is con­sid­ered sa­cred by Hin­dus who be­lieve that bathing in the river causes the re­mis­sion of sins and lib­er­a­tion from the cy­cle of life and death. Pil­grims travel long dis­tances to pour the ashes of their kin into the pre­cious wa­ter of the Ganges. The river is also a life­line to mil­lions of In­di­ans who live along its course and de­pend on it for their daily needs.

At Dashash­wamedh Ghat, a pub­lic wor­ship cer­e­mony called Gan­gaaarti ded­i­cated to Lord Shiva and the Ganges River takes place nightly. Thou­sands of devo­tees gather to watch the cer­e­mony dur­ing which priests spin smoky brass lamps, chant and sing on the seven-plat­form river­side stage from boats, ghats and build­ings on the river­bank. At the end of the cer­e­mony, the priests walk to the river’s edge and pour wa­ter into the river while chant­ing pray­ers. Devo­tees also float small oil lamps ( diyas) on the river.

A favoured her­mitage site for many of In­dia’s most ven­er­ated sages such as Gu­atama Bud­dha and Ma­havira, Kabir and Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ra­manuja and Patan­jali who all med­i­tated here, Varanasi has been and con­tin­ues to be one of the most vis­ited holy places on the planet. While Varanasi may over­whelm first-time vis­i­tors with the myr­iad of sen­sory stim­u­la­tion, this is what gives this city the spir­i­tual flavour many come here for. ag

Varanasi and its sur­round­ing area are con­sid­ered es­pe­cially sa­cred be­cause Shiva is be­lieved to have lived here with his wife God­dess Par­vathi.

just months prior to the earth­quake has been propped-up with metal but­tresses while a stone clock, sculpted to ap­pear cracked and bro­ken, re­calls the time and date of the dis­as­ter.

Like a phoenix, Yushu has risen from the ashes in the years after the dis­as­ter. It has no doubt been re­built with Chi­nese money and man­power, but it is im­bued with Ti­betan soul as a statue of the leg­endary King Ge­sar over­look­ing colour­ful Kham stone houses ex­presses. The Yushu Earth­quake Memo­rial site is spook­ily quiet. Ap­par­ently, the Ti­betans, schooled in the fragility of life, don’t dwell on the ir­re­versible. And this at­ti­tude that life has to go on is ap­par­ent from the sight at the edge of town: lo­cals dressed in colour­ful cos­tumes con­gre­gate at one of Yushu’s scared sites, the Jiana Mani Stone Mound.

‘ Mani’ refers to stones en­graved with Bud­dhist mantras that are seen as sa­cred prayer aids. The faith­ful chant ‘ om­ma­ni­padme hum’ as they cir­cle the world’s largest mani heap, spin­ning prayer wheels and pros­trat­ing them­selves on the ground as a ges­ture of ven­er­a­tion. Other more ca­sual ad­her­ents es­cort chil­dren, el­derly and the oc­ca­sional cow around what, to the un­know­ing eye, ap­pears to be a con­se­crated pile of bricks. The first word ‘ om’ is a sa­cred syl­la­ble found in In­dian re­li­gions. The word ‘mani’ means ‘jewel’ or ‘bead’, ‘padme’ means ‘lo­tus flower’ (sa­cred to Bud­dhists), and ‘hum’ rep­re­sents the spirit of en­light­en­ment.

Stone wor­ship can be traced back to over a mil­len­nium ago when na­tive shaman­is­tic be­liefs and rit­u­als — some­times lumped to­gether un­der the um­brella term Bon — were preva­lent as Ti­betan scholar Sam Van Schaik puts it: Ti­betans have al­ways lived in a world swarm­ing with spir­its, demons and mi­nor deities… There were the spir­its of the moun­tains, rivers and lakes. Bud­dhism never truly sup­planted the an­i­mistic tra­di­tions of the plateau peo­ple; it merged with them to forge the unique ta­pes­try of spir­i­tual ex­pres­sion we see to­day.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal lore, a Bud­dhist mas­ter named Jiana built a small mani stone pile at this lo­ca­tion some three cen­turies ago. Since then, lo­cals have main­tained the prac­tice with de­voted ar­ti­sans adding mantra-en­graved stones to the pile daily. It is es­ti­mated that there are 200 mil­lion mani stones here though no­body can be sure.

Fol­low­ing the pil­grims on their clock­wise tour of the tem­ple mound, I met a rock carver named Dorje who is sell­ing his mani stones.

“I’ve been here ten years. I carve stones and sell them to pil­grims who add them to the pile. Peo­ple come from many miles away,” he told me. Some Ti­betans travel here over days or even weeks. I asked him how long he planned to con­tinue carv­ing rocks.

“For the rest of this life,” he said, ex­press­ing an­other deeply held Ti­betan be­lief: rein­car­na­tion.

Ti­betan an­i­mistic prac­tises are, per­haps, the log­i­cal world­view of an iso­lated peo­ple be­dev­illed by ex­treme weather events, land­slides and earthquakes be­fore the holy Dalai La­mas, when gov­er­nance was left to the tsenpo, the ear­li­est of which were con­sid­ered gods among men.

By 7 AD, the tsenpo lost their di­vine sta­tus, and like most me­dieval rulers, sourced their

Bud­dhism never truly sup­planted the an­i­mistic tra­di­tions of the plateau peo­ple; it merged with them to forge the unique ta­pes­try of spir­i­tual ex­pres­sion we see to­day.

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