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