Thursday Oct 13, 2005 - day 14 - Khajuraho to Varanasi - Kathy: 172 photos, Bob: 124 photos

            Today at breakfast, many of us met five people from another OAT group.  We were told that they misjudged the traffic problems and got to the airport too late.  Therefore, they missed their flight to Varanasi and had to stay in Khajuraho one more night.  Bummer for them, I thought, to have missed a precious day in Varanasi.  Sujay said that we would try to get to the airport extra early so that didn’t happen to us.

            After breakfast, we started out going to old temples.  This is my favorite way to spend a day.  First, we went to a site where there are lots of ancient Hindu temples from the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries.  Our local city-guide said that there were 85 temples in a ten-square mile area, but only fifteen survive today.

            These temples are very beautiful and we took lots of photos.   Again I say: I love old temples, regardless of their religion.




Part of their beauty is because the Muslims never invaded that area, so the temples were never destroyed and defaced like so many thousands of others were in India.  So they are still in fairly good condition.  The stone pieces were interlocked much like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, which means that no mortar or cement was used in their construction.  They don’t leak either, when it rains.

            They are also famous, because the temples have carvings from Tantric yoga.  Tantra is an ancient sect (4000 years old) of Hinduism that taught, among other things, that ecstacy, or Samadhi, can be achieved through sexual intercourse.  You may have heard of their holy book, the Kama Sutra.  Therefore, the temples have lots of carvings of many things: horses, Gods and Goddesses, but the most famous carvings show various sex acts.  What can I say?  Sex sells. 


One of the them depicts the “69” position,

and another shows bestiality.

The thing is, these carvings were not lewd or obscene at all.  The gods and goddesses shown were shown with serene, meditative looks on their faces, not faces portraying lust.

            We were told that there are two thousand original period statues, which means no restoration has been done.

            The grounds were beautiful, with lush green grass.  There were men out cutting the lawn the old fashioned way.

Our guide said that it used to be filled with water, and people would get to the temples by boat, which must have been pretty amazing.

            I took lots and lots of photos, and I went into a couple of the temples.  Inside one temple, Kathy said to me, “You must have been a Hindu in your past life.”

            I asked, “Why do you say that?”

            She said, “Because you’ve always liked your women curvy, with big hips, and voluptuous, just like all these statues.”


            Well, who was I to argue?  Of course, I always tell people that I must have been a corset in my past life, because they were popular in the 1800's and they are used to hold tightly onto the curvy hips, waist and breasts of a woman.  But I digress.

            We weren’t given much time at the site.  We were given twenty minutes to look around on our own, and of course, I could have stayed there all day, but I assumed that we were hurrying so that we could fit everything in with plenty of time to get to the airport.

            Next, we went to view some ancient Jain temples.

The Jain temples were fascinating.  They were a lot like the Hindu temples we saw earlier, minus the sexual stone carvings.  There were carvings that were just as elaborate, but they depicted the Jain masters conquering the demons of confusion, depicted as dragons. 

So there were carvings with masters and dragons, everywhere.

            I didn’t know much about Jainism, so I tried to get as much as possible out of our guide, who gave us a little lecture about them.  I have not tried to verify any of this, so I am just taking his word for it.

            Jainism is supposedly older than Buddhism, and Christianity.  There was a line of twenty-four Jain masters.  The last master was a contemporary of Buddha, so around 500 B.C.

            The Jains don’t believe in a supreme Creator.  They say the Earth and sky were always there.  They say that we created ourselves.  Because they don’t have a concrete God or Creator to worship, they don’t have the deities and idols found in Hinduism.  They have no God to worship, so that made the religion harder for the common people to understand and swallow.  Therefore, it gained less popularity than Buddhism which has very well defined paths and goals.  The Jains stress that each of us walks our own path alone.  Even when surrounded by people, we are still walking alone.  Therefore, only the strong, brave person is saved.  Their code of ethics is “Live and Let Live” and so their path is of non-violence extremism. They don’t eat meat, they don’t eat vegetables that they have to pluck.  They basically can only eat fruits and vegetables that have ripened and fallen off the plant naturally.  They won’t step on an ant or a spider, and they won’t even walk on grass because they are afraid of hurting the grass.

            The founder of Jainism was a guy named Mahabira, and supposedly he had gathered thirty-thousand followers by the end of his career, whereas Buddha had five disciples and only twelve thousand followers, and of course Jesus twelve disciples and perhaps only hundreds of followers.

            Today there are four million Jains, divided into two primary sects.  The first is Degambra, or the “Naked Ones.”  They’re so serious that they don’t even wear clothes.  The second sect is Suitambra, meaning “White Clay” or “The Truth.”

            We looked around the two temples, but we were only given five minutes to see the temples, then we were rushed off.  Pretty soon, the bus turned into another one of those expensive over-priced tourist shops.  Kathy was pissed.  Here we thought they were rushing to get us to the airport on time, but instead, they rushed us into a shop to buy more overpriced goods!  Kathy was so furious that we complained to Sujay.  Sujay graciously paid a car and driver to bring us back to the Jain temple where we had more time to look around, take photos, and climb to the top of these beautiful temples.


            Inside the temples were black stone statues of the Jain master that looked like Buddha.

            Outside the temples, we did some brief shopping at reasonable shops, then walked back to our car where we could catch up with the rest of the group at lunch.  The driver was waiting patiently outside the compound.  When we got into the car, the driver said, “Where are you going?”

            These were not words we wanted to hear.  We never got the name of the hotel we were staying at, nor the name of the hotel where lunch was going to be served.  We had assumed that Sujay told the man where to bring us afterward, and maybe he did but the guy forgot.  At any rate, we were lost.  But the town is not that big.  The driver drove to a local travel office and yelled inside, in Hindi, “Hey, where do the OAT groups eat lunch?”  The occupant yelled something back and soon we were off.  We arrived at the correct hotel, just in time to catch lunch, another bland meal.  I’m getting really tired of hotel restaurants.

            After lunch, we went to the airport and went through the security checks.  These checks were more secure than anything I’ve seen in the United States.  First of all, we were not allowed to have batteries in our carry-on baggage.  Second, all of our bags were checked three times.  Third, everyone on the plane went through a pat-down search, and our boarding passes were checked multiple times.

            Once on the plane, I waited until we were at cruising distance, then I pulled out the laptop and started writing.  After two sentences, they announced that we were starting our descent, and I had to power-off the laptop again.  I thought it was a one-hour flight, but it seemed like only a half-hour from start to finish.

            Now we are in the city of Varanasi, the Holiest city in India.  There are three names for this city:  The first is Kashi meaning Light.  The second is Benares, which is the British name for the city when it was occupied.  The third is Varanasi, its present name.

            It turns out that Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world that has been inhabited continuously for literally thousands of years.  It may very well be the second or third oldest in the world.  I remember that the city of Jericho in the Palestinian area of Israel (which we visited many years ago) was the oldest and I could believe that other cities such as Baghdad (the ancient city of Babylon was just south of modern Baghdad) would be old too.

            Varanasi is built on the West Bank of the Ganges river, also known as the Ganga river, in the only place where it runs from South to North.  This is the city where all Hindus come to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life, and every Hindu home has some water taken from the Ganges.  It is believed that when you die, if you are cremated in Varanasi, you can escape the cycle of rebirth, so there are cremations going on around the clock.  Our city guide said that Hindus only cremate their dead during the day, except in this town where they go on constantly.

            After gathering our luggage at the airport, we drove to the hotel and on the drive in, we could see the city was dirty; piles of trash in the streets with cows eating out of it.

After driving to the hotel and checking in, it was already close to dark outside.

The hotel lobby had a large, lovely fountain that was in everyone’s way.  It had beautiful lotus flowers floating inside.

Nevertheless, we took our bus to a certain location, and from there, we hopped on bicycle-rickshaw taxis.  These rickshaws took us down to the Ganges, which was a long twenty-minute ride.  But it was a wonderful “cultural experience” because we were right in the thick of all the traffic and noise.

            The noise was horrendous.  We were told that there was a special custom in Varanasi that extended the same religious festival another day.  So everywhere in the streets, people were dancing and walking around.  They were lighting firecrackers that were enormous, like dynamite, making us all jump.  We wondered if some suicide bomber was trying to kill us, but no, it was just the revelers.  Busses were roaring, Tuk-Tuks were beeping their horns.  Motorcycles were blaring their horns.  Rickshaws were chiming bells that were attached to their brakes.  Others were jingling bells in a fast way, and they reminded me of the song “Ritual” from the CD “Tales From Topographic Oceans” by the group “Yes” that has similar bells.  All in all, it was a cacophony of utter noise.

            The traffic was complete chaos.  People were coming and going in literally every direction.  Motorcycles were driving the wrong way down the one-way streets.  Cows and water buffalo were walking briskly in all directions, stopping for nothing, oblivious to the traffic.  Rickshaws and trucks were darting in and out, back and forth.  I just sat there in my rickshaw, hanging on for dear life, with the biggest grin on my face.  I turned to Kathy and said, “You know, my sister Cathy would have a nervous breakdown after five minutes of this.”  She replied, “So would Geri Melberg.”  (Her stepmother.)

            After a delightful white-knuckle ride of great peril, the traffic became too bad and we pulled over.  Everyone got out of the rickshaws and we started walking down toward the river.  Walking turned out to be even more perilous because we were no longer protected by the rickshaw and its driver’s ability to dart in and out.  Now we were moving targets and had to dodge cattle, bicycles and people ourselves!

            We finally got to the bank of the river, where we climbed down some large stone steps in the dark.  Below, was one of the cremation sites, and we were told not to take photos of the cremation.

            Some of the steps disappeared under a crag of rocks and mud and the going got rough.  The guides were helping the women find a safe path.  I darted past, telling Sujay that I was a mountain goat in my past life.  We listened to our city guide talk about the town while watching the cremation site a while.  The cremations are always done by the senior man of the house, and the women are not allowed to watch.  Afterward, we all got on a boat and three guys started rowing us down the river to the North.

            In the dimness of the late evening, we watched what we could until we saw the site of a large religious celebration.  This was the closing ceremony for the festival for Durga I wrote about earlier.  There were thousands of people chanting and singing, and there were two stages.  On the center stage, a priest-like guy took turns chanting and waving smoke and fire pots around.  Below, five other priests echoed his movements on the second stage.


It was quite magical to see.

            After the ceremony, we rowed back out into the river.  There, we lit tiny candles sitting in what looked like decorative cupcake papers.  The cupcakes were purchased by our guides from a cute little girl.

We were told that we could make a wish or prayer to Mother Ganges and put the lit candle into the river.  Having felt nothing special or sacred here in the holy city of the Hindus, I wished and prayed for enlightenment.

            Eventually, we were taken back to our starting point, walked back to the rickshaws, and made our way to the bus, and back to the hotel for the night.