Archive for the ‘Hinduism’ Category

Diwali! (and movement)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Sorry about disappearing there. Had a good time in Rishikesh and have spent the last week making my way into Nepal. Some pretty rural places along the way, so no real internet. But I went tiger spotting (without actually seeing one) in the Nepali jungle and am now in Lumbini, the birthplace off the Buddha. More on this soon. Here’s a post on a religious festival in India).

It would be a played out travel-writing cliché to call India an exciting melange of the ancient and modern. Every stupid culture is a blend of old and new (except, perhaps, for those isolated indigenous tribes that have yet to discover the world of fridge magnets and R. Kelly). Even relatively infantile countries such as Canada and Australia combine old European perspectives with fresher (mostly American) influences.

In India, however, the word ancient actually applies. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, centered around its longest running major religion. Hinduism developed over 1500 years before Christianity, and the famously Buddhist concepts of karma, reincarnation and liberation from the cycles of rebirth are actually appropriated directly from it. Hindus consider Siddhartha, the Buddha who began teaching the Path to Enlightenment 2500 years ago, to be one of the ten major incarnations of Vishnu. Buddhists disagree, of course, but seemingly without anger. Big surprise, there.

Considering the origins and longevity of the tradition, it was with some excitement that I considered where to be for Diwali, the widely celebrated Hindu festival of light and renewal. Much like back home for Christmas, locals hang strings of coloured lights from their homes and businesses. They light candles and release floating lanterns down rivers. Garlands of (real, so often wilted) flowers are strung up everywhere, and people are generally happy and wishing each other a Diwali Dhamaka!

Based as much on time and distance as auspiciousness, I decided to stay in Rishikesh. It’s position alongside Ganga endows it with some holiness, and its mountainous surroundings provide some scenic background as well as cooler temperatures. It still reaches thirty in the afternoons here, though the evenings are pleasantly cool. Asking locals about the celebrations, however (Lanterns? Singing? Candle lighting?), I was met consistently with a single word: fireworks.

Of course. What other direction could modern Indians take the celebration of light conquering darkness? What better way to symbolize knowledge overcoming ignorance than with explosions? And I mean fucking explosions! These aren’t the piddling Roman Candles you stupidly fired at your friends when you were fourteen. Nah, the locals here can get their hands on some of the big fellas you’d trust only with trained professionals. Locals like the pack of preteens in the alley behind your guesthouse.

Hilariously, the most popular option seems to emit little to no light at all. They’re just little cylinders of gun powder designed purely for maximum pop. The blast easily registers an eleven on Spinal Tap’s dial, and if you’re close enough you actually feel the concussion wave. There’s nothing quite like watching three Israeli girls jump six feet in the air, spin around with death stares blazing, only to see two sheepish six year olds giggling behind them.

Yes, the absolute lack of safety precautions which makes life in India so exciting becomes even more obvious during Diwali. Instead of stepping a reasonable distance away, the locals seem preoccupied with ducking their heads. I guess as long as only your back and shoulders get singed you’re doing well. A spinning disc unit that throws off ankle-level sparks was danced around by three kids about four or five years old. Much to our shocked amusement, they all lifted their pant-legs, as if scorching their feet and ankles was fine but holes in trouser hems would be unacceptable.

It was a much rowdier celebration that we had expected. The staff at our guesthouse restaurant didn’t close up until 11, which meant we had fireworks exploding in front of our third floor balcony until midnight. At least you could brace yourself for the sound of artillery fire thanks to the bright glowing light that filled the room as the rocket ascended to eye (and ear) level. The police and army stations that are ubiquitous in every tourist town were understandably on guard. Bombs and gunfire could have been going off all night without them having any idea.

It was quite the party. It lasted three nights of adventurous walking in dark streets and laneways. Dodging cow, horse, dog or mystery shit is a normal part of pedestrian life here. So is avoiding the aforementioned animals, semi-drunk young men on scooters, maniacal jeep drivers trying to dump their loads of tourists, and truck drivers with questionable brakes.  It’s been fun adding flaming projectiles to the mix. One group of locals started firing rockets into the river. Some of them bounced off the surface and careened onto the opposite bank, where other groups of locals were sending off their own barrage. I watched a South African friend get saved by a rickety fence as a runaway rocket struck it and bounced to the ground before exploding.

India, the land of near misses.

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Ganga.

Monday, October 19th, 2009

You’d be hard pressed to find a river more revered than Holy Ganga, known abroad as The Ganges. While not as long as the Nile or as mighty as the Amazon, Ganga possesses a spirituality and character unmatched by the other great rivers of the world. Honestly. Name another river that is actually a goddess descended to earth to cleanse humanity of its sins and illnesses. See?

River worship is quite a practical phenomenon. Rivers are life givers, supporting permanent communities through droughts and dry seasons. A standard monsoon in northeast India lasts only four months, so the river is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation for eight months a year. In such a climate, it’s only natural that the biggest river around would develop into something worthy of  religious devotion (there are many holy rivers in Hinduism, Ganga being the most important).

It begins on the roof of the world, under a glacier high on the India-Tibet border. Sapphire blue and ice cold at first, it mixes with white foam as it crashes over rocks and boulders. Picking up green as it descends, it becomes a brilliant turquoise, slowing as the valleys widen and the altitude softens (hydro dams do their part, as well). Soon it finds the frying pan mud of the Indian plains, turning a warm soupy brown and, having lost its urgency, slowly wanders its way east. Eventually it forms the massive delta in Bangladesh – where it floods often as it meets the rising sea.

Ganga is central to the life of Hindus. Bathing in the river cleanses sins, and many families return home from pilgrimages to her banks with vials and bottles of the holy water. Perhaps more famously, however, Ganga is central to Hindus at the time of death. The greatest pilgrimage in the life of a devout Hindu is to make it to the shores of the holy river in time to die and be cremated on the banks. The body, once burned to cinders, is dumped into the river to be carried away. This is extremely beneficial for future lives, helping to cleanse the soul of sins and aid in its quest for reincarnation on a higher level. Varanasi is perhaps the holiest city in Hinduism, and has developed into the premiere death tourism centre. I’ll be there in a few weeks.

But for now, I’m still in the mountains. The holy city of Rishikesh, where the Beatles lived and got high and wrote the White Album, is low in the foothills. Here the river is quick and cold and wonderful. It probably isn’t as clean as we’d like to think, but compared to its condition down on the plains it is positively pure. So we swim in it. The locals bathe in the holy waters to receive the blessings of the goddess, but we swim to cool off from the heat. I’m not Hindu, but there is a sense of renewal from these waters. The undeniable spirituality of India rears its head again.

But it isn’t enough for us. With Naomi from Sydney and Alon from the Tel Aviv suburbs, I spend twelve hours on buses and jeep taxis and make my way back into the Himalaya. At over 3000m and in freezing temperatures, we spend the night in the small town of Gangotri, which owes almost all of its economic success to religious tourism. Nearly as important as the death pilgrimage to Varanasi is the personal mission to the glacier from which Ganga springs forth.

Called Gamukh, or the Head of the Cow, the mass of ice is known to Hindus as the place where Ganga first descended to earth. The blessings bestowed upon a Hindu for bathing in the river are multiplied greatly if done at the river’s birthplace. I still haven’t quite figured out what draws so many foreign, non-Hindus to the spot, but we nevertheless felt the need to go.

After a night in Gangotri, we walk fourteen slightly inclined kilometers to Bhojbasa, a mountain camp of low stone buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We spend the cold, dark night in an ashram, a combination Hindu temple/guesthouse, eating simple dhal and rice on the floor with the pilgrims. Our room, shared between the three of us, is a stone box with blankets on the floor and a single naked (energy saving) light bulb dangling on a wire. All around us are jagged snowy peaks towering over barren, rocky scrub. The chai is excellent. So are the stars.

At seven the next morning we clamber over boulders and rocky streams toward the glacier. Four kilometers later, a 15m tall jagged wall of dripping ice looms over us. From a dark cave rushes forth the holy water. I had expected, thanks in part to the Lonely Planet’s use of the word embryonic, for it to be an icy creek or brook. Not a trickle, surely, but at most a fast stream. Wrong. A full fledged river courses out of the ice with a flow of surprising intensity. It is at least five or six meters wide, not deep but moving quickly. And it is icy, icy cold.

But we wash in it. Alon strips down to his skivvies and goes in fully, while Naomi and I just wash our face, neck and hair. Some of the pilgrims go in all the way as well, though not all of them. The sun is bright and strong but the air is cold at almost 4000m in mid October. We drink our fill, as well. I’ve never tasted such clean, cold, delicious water. Bottle that stuff and you’d make a fortune. But the negative karma would be astronomical, I’m sure. Still, we fill a plastic water bottle so we can ship home a little glacial Ganga water. I hear drinking it can cure serious diseases. Get your own.

We watch a BBC documentary team film some footage of the glacier. They interview a local glaciologist who explains how much the wall of ice has receded even in the last six months. A very up close look at climate change. During the filming, a local guide arrives and grows angry with all the tourists standing too close. Apparently two foreigners died last year when a chunk of the wall broke free and crushed them. The BBC crew calms him enough to get their footage, but he manages to get everyone else to move a safe distance away.

We sit and enjoy the energy of the place. Alon and Naomi write in their journals. I join a few pilgrims and meditate next to the river for a few minutes. The sun is getting hotter as it climbs, the thin atmosphere doing little to calm its blaze. We walk the four kilometers back to the ashram for more dhal and rice before packing up and walking the rest of the way back to Gangotri. Early the next morning, we’re in a jeep taxi for the nine hour ride back to Rishikesh with two ladies from Pune (near Bombay) who now live in San Francisco.

Now it’s Diwali, the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar. I’m still in Rishikesh for it. Will post on it soon, in all it’s fire and noise and madness.

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