We left Agartala on a rainy December 9th and hopped a quick flight to Kolkata. The next step was an overnight train ride to Varanasi, the first stop on our adventure.
Varanasi is touted as one of the oldest "living cities" in India, so I was very excited to explore some of the local culture and history. We decided to change our accommodations relatively last minute because of a terrorist bombing that had occurred near the site of our hotel just a few days prior. While we felt perfectly safe throughout our time in Varanasi, our stay at Nav Sadhana (a college/cultural center run by nuns) was wonderful. The sisters treated us like special guests and made sure we wanted for nothing. Our first day was full of touring. We visited several Hindu temples as well as the city's largest institution of higher learning. The most impressive temple, in my opinion was called the New Vishwanatha Temple. It was beautiful inside and out with a soaring white tower and red main structure. The inside was marble with intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings.
Our second day in Varanasi was on of those days when you feel like you've seen and done too much to ever fit into a mere 24 hours. We woke up at 5am and left for the ancient banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River. We arrived and promptly hired a small boat with one rower. The Ganges is just like the guide books described it, but to actually be there to experience it was incredible. A thick mist enveloped us as the boat glided along the water. Every minute the sun
gets higher and your visibility begins to improve. Slowly you are able to discern more and more of what is happening all around you. The thousands of faithful crowding the banks to take a dip in the sacred river so as to purify themselves, the ghats, where hundreds of bodies are cremated each day, the boaters, the bird, the smells...all made this an amazing experience that I will not soon forget. We passed the site of that week's terrorist attack and, apart from the ghat being vacant, not much looked out of sorts. The world moves on.
The boat ride was one of the most interesting and spiritual experiences of my life. Though not a Hindu, my appreciation for spirituality and respect for custom and religious practice. Perhaps most fascinating was the clash of modernity with ancient ritual. All around us were people submerging themselves in the river, an age-old practice, but behind them camera flashes blinked, cell phones rang, and the noise of traffic from nearby roadways could be heard. Despite the influx of reminders of today's world, I still felt transported back to a simpler place. That's the power of the Ganges.
After our spiritually charged morning, we were off to the Nav Vani School for the Hearing Impaired. The school was beautiful, but per usual is a schools inhabitants that make it extraordinary. The school runs from kindergarten to 12th grade and caters specifically to children with hearing disabilities, though I wouldn't gather that those students feel disabled when within its comforting walls. I am so very happy that I took elementary American Sign Language (ASL) at Stonehill because although Indian signs are different, I was still able to
communicate basic words an ideas to the students. This took them by surprise and made them extremely happy. The children even said that many Indian teachers and officials have visited them, but they just look and smile and and not communicate so they were very impressed.
My experience at the Nav Vani School was a heartwarming one to be sure, but more than that it made me wish that I could do more for them than just smile and fumble over some American signs. We left our new friends with wide smiles and wonderful memories and made our way to the city for some marketing. What an experience! Marie encapsulated our thoughts best when she said, "Just walking around in the city is physically and mentally exhausting." Physically because you're constantly jumping and darting between cars, autos, buses, cows, bikes, scooters, goats, and of course throngs of people...mentally because your brain is trying its very best to keep up while processing the incessant noise and sometimes noxious scents that fill the air. We visited a silk factory and several shops. I purchased some Christmas gifts for family and ever broke down and got a pijama for myself! With marketing finished we headed to our final stop of the day, the largest Catholic church in the city. It was a beautiful building, very modern in its design, and we spent a few reflective moments inside before making our way to the cathedral's basement where the most elaborate Bible "display" I have ever seen was located. It was quite well done, but with all of the poverty in Varanasi just outside its doors, I couldn't help but wonder if that was the best way to spend their money. Completely spent, we went back to Nav Sadhana retired to our rooms.
The next day, our last in Varanasi, was also quite exciting. We went on an excursion to Sarnath, one of Buddhism's holiest sites. It is comprised of ruins and several temples as well as a well maintained park where many people were picnicking and enjoying the wonderful weather. One of the temples actually house some relics of Buddha himself. Also on the grounds was the Dhamekh Stupa, an impressive sight rising 33.5 meters in a huge cylinder of brick.
Also at Sarnath is the tree under which Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. We were quite lucky to see the holy places of 3 major religions while in Varanasi and I was looking forward to visiting some mosques in Delhi.
We proceeded to the train station and as we pulled out of Varanasi on our way to Agra and the Taj Mahal, I couldn't help but smile...