Varanasi, India: Understanding more about Hinduism, and exploring the weavers district and bazaars.

Still struggling with jet-lag we woke up early, so Karen decided to do the yoga class on the roof of the hotel. As is turned out it was a just her and the yogi, but it was a unique experience to be able to do yoga with the sun rising over the Ganges!

Today was organized into three different tours and was heavily focused on a deep dive into Hindu culture. Our guide collected us and took us a few steps down the road to the door step of a temple. There are somewhere in the order of 23,000 temples in Varanasi, so if you stop anywhere you are likely to be on a door step of a temple. After a short introduction we headed down the streets passing several more temples. Walking around Varanasi you start to appreciate the density of this city of 1.2 million people. The streets are narrow and are challenging to navigate as you have to avoid piles of rubbish, cows and dogs (and their excrement) and crazy scooter drivers. Surprisingly, you don’t see too many people!

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Street art

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The entrance to a Hindu Temple

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Anyway, back to Hinduism. Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, according to many scholars, with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years. It is the world’s third largest religion; numbering about 1.15 billion, or 15-16% of the global population, with 90% living in India. There are said to be 33 million gods in Hinduism symbolizing one abstract Supreme Being, but there are ten main Hindu deities that are more commonly celebrated.

  1. BRAHMA – The first deity of the Hindu trinity, Lord Brahma is considered to be the god of Creation.
  2. VISHNU – The second deity of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the Preserver (of life).
  3. SHIVA – The final deity of the Hindu trinity is Shiva, also known as the Destroyer.
  4. GANESHA – One of the most prevalent and best-known deities is Ganesha, easily recognized by his elephant head.
  5. HANUMAN – Another easily distinguishable god is Hanuman, the deity depicted as a monkey.
  6. KRISHNA – Lord Krishna is one of the most powerful incarnations. He is kept very near to many Hindus’ hearts, as he is not only viewed as a hero and leader but also as a teacher and a friend.
  7. KALI – Perhaps one of the fiercest deities is Kali, also known as the Dark Mother. Kali is known for her tongue protruding from her mouth, her garland of skulls, and her skirt of bones.
  8. RAMA – Rama is the model of reason and virtue and is often considered to be the ideal man due to his compassion, courage, devotion and adherence to dharma.
  9. SARASWATI – Saraswati is the goddess of learning, music, art and wisdom.
  10. DURGA – The goddess Durga is an important representation of the Divine Mother, also known as ‘the Invincible’. She is said to protect mankind from evil and misery, and does so as the destructive force of jealousy, prejudice, hatred and ego.

There are some additional key things to know about Hinduism:

  • Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organized religion.
  • Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, which means they worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.
  • Hindus believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect).
  • One of the key thoughts of Hinduism is “atman,” or the belief in soul. This philosophy holds that living creatures have a soul, and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul.
  • One fundamental principle of the religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives.
  • Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasizes good conduct and morality.
  • The Om and Swastika are symbols of Hinduism. The Swastika, which represents good luck, later became associated with evil when Germany’s Nazi Party made it their symbol in 1920.
  • Hindus revere all living creatures and consider the cow a sacred animal.
  • Food is an important part of life for Hindus. Most don’t eat beef or pork, and many are vegetarians.
  • Hinduism is closely related to other Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

Now back to our tour. From the center of Varanasi old town we headed to Banaras Hindu University, which was established in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya. More specifically we were heading to the New Vishwanath Temple, located in the centre of the campus. The temple itself was spectacularly large and is an oasis in the chaotic centre of Varanasi. After leaving our shoes at the shoe parking place we headed into the temple itself, which like many Hindu temples was lavishly decorated. The halls were filled with the sounds of chanting, which we thought were recorded, but it turned out to be a live group of musicians. Our guide took us through several rooms and gave us more insight to the Hindu faith, including some rooms with shrines.

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Madan Mohan Malaviya

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The Hindu Temple at the University

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The Swastika is a common symbol for many cultures

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Live band inside the temple

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This is my style of cooking – through everything into a big pot

From the Hindu University we crossed town to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman (the god depicted as a monkey) Temple. Here the security was far greater than we had seen anywhere else in Varanasi, and this was due to a bombing at the temple in March 2006 which resulted in the death of 10 pilgrims, with another 40 people being injured.

We then headed back towards our hotel, and were dropped off a short distance away, allowing us to take a walk through the streets and visit more sites. First stop was a school for Brahman priests, who were deep into their studies when we arrived. Finally, we visited the Shri Jagannath Ji Mandir Nrusinh Bhagwan Temple, set within a small compound. The shrine had a very simple wooden structure, and pays homage to the Lord Jagannath (the symbols representing this deity are very curious), who is believed to be “Lord of the Universe” and is considered a form of Vishnu. Within the grounds live several families and devotees, who serve and maintain the temple, and live a very simple life.

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Selling vegetables on the street

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Brahman training school

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Kind of them to name a cafe after me!

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Looks delicious but our guide warned us away from eating street food

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The signs of poverty are everywhere

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Stylish auto-rickshaw

Not long after our return to the hotel we were picked up by the guide for our next tour (it was the same person who had taken us on the boat ride the night before). This was to be a break from the Hindu culture lessons for the day, as we were heading to the Muslim districts of Varanasi where the main silk cloth production takes place. This area is very different to those that border the river Ganges; it has the same narrow streets, but the extreme poverty of the area was soon apparent and was especially evident amongst the children. All around us we could hear the clickety-clack of looms, sounding like an approaching army of giant crickets. We followed the guide as he darted through the narrow passage ways, avoiding numerous human and animal obstacles en route, finally ending up at a single room shop where a man was diligently working on a decorative ceremonial turban. From here we sped through more alleys and into workshop of a weaver. The room was small, dark and filled with the sounds of working looms. How people could bear this is difficult to fathom, as there is obviously no health and safety inspectors to insist on protection for the workers hearing. It was hot as well, but this was December and a cool day at that. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a hot summer’s day when the outside temperatures reach 45oC. Having seen how the stuff is produced our guide took us to a sales room with another slick tongued salesman. Luckily, the experience of the previous day prepared us for what was to come, but we did end up leaving with a few items (I count this as a lucky escape as Karen had her eyes on quite a number of items).

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Children playing in the predominantly Muslim weaver’s district

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Trash and animals everywhere!

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Turban maker

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Artisans making the loom designs by hand

By now we were getting hungry, so as soon as we got to the hotel we headed for the roof top terrace and ordered ourselves some food in preparation for the last tour of the day. What a view!

The evening tour was into the bazaars of the old city. As we passed through the narrow streets we were regaled by a multitude of colours, sounds and smells; it was a total sensory overload. There were a multitude of small shops selling saris and cloth on bolts which were stacked from floor to ceiling. It is hard to believe that all these stores selling the same goods can survive. We did wonder how you decide which of these many stores to shop in, realizing it is probably a matter of wandering and checking in on each and then going back to the one that best fitted your needs. This would be my idea of hell! Among the fabric vendors were shops selling religious paraphernalia and food (which we had been warned about eating). We saw the occasional artisan, including a man who was working on an intricate metal panel relief design, which he was labouriously creating by hitting the panel with a metal punch and hammer.

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A hidden Hindu temple in the back streets of Varanasi

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Nandi guards the entrance to the temple

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The bazaar in Varanasi

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Got to love those pickles

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A craftsman sculpting in relief with basic tools

After the tour we returned to our hotel room to get ready for dinner. As we prepared there was a knock on the door. It was the creepy waiter from the night before, who invited himself in and discretely pulled out some CDs from the musicians who played in the evenings at the hotel. Being British we were too polite to tell him to piss off, so we ended up with some more souvenirs of our trip … in this case not ones we wanted. Appearing soon in your local charity store – “The Musical Delights of Varanasi!”

 

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