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Spiritual Varanasi, India

In my last article, I spoke about finding thousands of Ganeshas in Varanasi. Unexpectedly. Beyond the Ganeshas, almost everywhere in Varanasi spirituality was overflowing.

Pre-dawn puja on the Ganges at Varanasi

“It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church.*”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Just as I relished morning arati in Vrindavan, I woke up early each day in Varanasi. Here, mangala arati was on the holy Ganges.

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples.*” 

Bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India

Before arati started, I strolled along the sand. In the pre-dawn hours, people carefully disrobed and blessed themselves by bathing in the river. Despite the fact that people, especially men, took dips into the Ganges under daylight, it seemed more sanctified prior to the first morning rays.

“All India flocks thither on pilgrimage…*”

The mangala prayer services in the two ever-so-holy towns of Vrindavan and Varanasi were very different. In Vrindavan, it was at ISKCON temple. Prayer was filled with music and devotion to the deities. It appeared as if the vast majority of Vrindavan attendees were local residents. Both Indian and non-Indian.

Morning arati at Ganges in Varanasi, India

Varanasi arati, however, attracted visitors. Albeit primarily visitors of Indian ancestry. Second, prayers in Varanasi didn’t begin at 4:15 a.m. like Vrindavan’s arati. It was much closer to the actual sunrise in Varanasi. Around 6:30 a.m. Furthermore, I didn’t notice deities in Varanasi. It was more of a fire ceremony.

Morning arati at the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Vrindavan, after the main prayers, women and men formed different circles to circumambulate around a tulsi plant. In Varanasi, many stayed to listen to ragas, live, on stage. Next, it was yoga time. Men sat on lines of red carpet. The women clustered together under a canopy. The practice included 30 minutes of pranayama. Then, 20 minutes of asanas. Rather than closing with savasana, each session ended with laughter yoga.

Varanasi-sunset arati on the Ganges

Evening arati was just as magical as the morning’s in Varanasi. I opted out of the touristy river boat barge views of the ceremony, to sit alongside hundreds, or thousands, of Indians at the waterfront. The white smoke, set against the black night sky was beautiful. So was chanting among the enormous crowd of worshippers.

“Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi.”**

Evening arati on the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Varanasi, morning and evening arati were like bookeends. In between, I strolled around the innumerable sacred temples. Some, were in a near state of ruins. Others, were hiding behind buildings, or tunnels. Surprisingly, the most visited, Kashi Vishwanath, was hiding behind untold heaps of construction. And, a maze of visitors in queue. Most likely, waiting at least an hour to approach the sacred space. The endless string of people inched toward the temple, barefoot, as slow as turtles.

Once past the security guards and magnetometers, we were rushed through the ancient golden temple. Certainly to ensure that as many people as possible could pass through this holiest of sites dedicated to Lord Shiva.

“Benares is the sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground.*”

Being herded through the masses to catch a mini-darshan didn’t exactly get me to a state of blissful spirituality. Being one of just a handful of people at an ancient temple in Varanasi, did. Set amid grey rubble was a pristine orange pagoda-like temple.

“The journey to sacred places is the most common way that people travel in India.”**

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple. According to one local guide, “This is one of the oldest and unique temple of Varanasi as it is made up of woods. It is also called as the replica of Pasupatinath temple (Kathmandu, Nepal).” Constructed by a former King of Nepal, it is a most peaceful spiritual place.

All in all, Varanasi made an impact on me. Definitely a place I’d like to return.

*excerpts from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,”  Chapter 50

** quotes from Diana L. Eck, author of “Bananas: City of Light”

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.