Learning to Pray: A Path to Varanasi
In India, spirituality is inescapable. It is woven into the rhythms of everyday life in sometimes paradoxical ways that help define the special logic of this country, mixing mindfulness and devotion with a very human daily existence. While you’ll experience this spirituality anywhere in India, this path to the city Mark Twain described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend” will have you learning to pray in no time.
Agra – Not exactly a spiritual center, but while you’re in India you may as well see the Taj Mahal. The Taj is as stunning as you could have ever imagined it, breathtaking from the moment one passes through the gate. Consider this a warm-up; while there is a mosque in the complex, spirituality isn’t really the focus of the Taj Mahal. Instead, it embodies a different, possibly more accessible to the Western mind, kind of devotion. Realizing a man built this stunning structure in memory of his wife makes it all the more beautiful. Plus, passing through the persistent souvenir hawkers on the path to the gate is a good exercise in the incongruity of materialism and spiritualism that frequently exists outside Indian temples.
Mathura and Vrindavan – From Agra, grab a train to Mathura, birthplace of Lord Krishna. Trains don’t run from Agra to our next destination, Varanasi, which gives you a great reason to spend some time in these riverside twin cities. Take some time to explore the temples of Mathura, and then catch a share rickshaw to Vrindavan, where Krishna passed his formative years. Vrindavan is home to Sri Krishna-Balaram Mandir, one of the main temples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as ISKCON, or the Hare Krishnas. As a foreigner, the minute you step foot in Vrindavan a rickshaw driver will slow down and ask if you want to go to the ISKCON Temple. Whatever your feelings may be about the Hare Krishna community, open your mind and hop in the “cab” (but not without haggling your fare first.) Chanting with the ISKCON community is a soulful experience, whatever your beliefs may be. While, like most organized religious communities, ISKCON has its faults, their method of worship is joyful, welcoming and exuberant. Give yourself a few hours to get lost in it. Once you get started we hazard a bet you may lose track of time.
Varanasi – Nestled on the Ganges, this holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism will entrance your mind and capture your heart. This is the pinnacle of this particular adventure, the experience the last two little taster stops have been warming us up for. Give yourself a little time to linger here. Wandering the maze of streets and strolling the river in this sacred place is not something you’ll want to rush. The temples here are worth visiting, for both their beauty and their significance- a visit to the major temples of this city is an important pilgrimage for pious Hindus. The main attraction though is the ghats, the areas where steps lead down to the river. Settled on the ghats is where you can soak in the special rhythms of this most sacred of cities, observing everything from young boys playing cricket to old men ritualistically bathing in the revered river. As it is considered auspicious to die in Varanasi, some of the ghats, called the burning ghats, are devoted to cremation services. Be respectful- observe from a distance, and take no pictures. Take your time and let the spirituality of this old city soak in slowly – no matter how it manifests for you, you won’t be the same after.