After a day of travel a few of us decided to layover in Dubai. In a place of near sterile cleanliness, vast wealth and some of the most beautiful modern sky scrapers and architecture I was struck by the vast differences between here and India. We spent the afternoon driven around in a luxurious cab to the Gold Souk, a mock historic village, a gorgeous beach on the Persian Gulf, the hotels of the Palm island and by the tallest building in the world. We opted for dinner at the hotel and rested up for our 24 hours of travel come morning.
From Varanasi we travel to Sarnath at the confluence of the Ganges and Gomati rivers in Uttar Pradesh. Sarnath is a sacred site in Buddhism where Guatama Buddha first taught the Dharma after becoming enlightened in the fifth century BCE. Since then many stupas and temples were built and since, excavated leaving the grounds of Sarnath that we see today. The main structure is the Dhamek Stupa a large structure marking the site in the deer park where Buddha gave his first lecture. We walked, well I rolled, through ancient Ashoka pillars and the foundations of numerous other buildings, visited deer in the park and toured the museum which houses much of the original art.
On our way back to the hotel we were stopped in some of the heaviest traffic we saw in India. The streets thronged with people celebrating Sivaratri and we passed a parade with painted gods and trucks full of young boys waving and blowing kisses. It was a wonderfuly random treat!
Another early morning and we find ourselves approaching the holy Ganges River in Varanassi before dawn. There is a buzz in the air as people gather to await the Shivaratri Festival celebrating the anniversary of Siva's marriage to Parvati. Before we know it we are coming down the steps or ghats that run between some of the oldest temples in India, some built near 1700. The city of Varanassi is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and the morning rituals of bathing and cremation have taken place here for thousands of years.
Sunrise is a special time on the Ganges, filled with magic and purpose. We purchase aluminum tins filled with flowers and a candle as remembrances that will be lit and released into the water as the sun rises. We disembark and are slowly taken among other boats of tourists, hawkers and locals. We have the privilege of listening to devotional ragas played by a group of college students on our boat. As we see the red orb of the sun low against the horizon, we light our candles and float them into the water. There are many traditions surrounding death here, one such is that a full immersion into the holy water will absolve you of all sin, another is that a drink of this holy, although polluted, water will release you from the cycle of death and rebirth. I did gather a small bottle to bring home with me and the water is not as dirty as you might think but I will retrain from imbibing.
We make our way to the crematory area where photos are not allowed. Huge piles of wood are gathered and holy fires burn that have been burning for many years. It is said anyone who dies in Varanassi is blessed and thousands of cremations occur on this ghat every year. We watch a family waiting by their departed loved one for the chief mourner to join them so that the cremation can begin. Death is so close to life here, such a different way to look at it compared to our sterile version of burial in the West. We walk up the ghats through narrow slippery alleyways, past niches in the walls housing pujas to various gods and goddesses. We intend to visit a temple but the line is too long for our large group due to tomorrow's festival so we head back to the hotel.
We wake in Rajasthan and arrive at the base of the Amer fort, get loaded up on elephants and ride up to the Amer fort to the sound of drums and song, just like the ladies of Raja Man Singh I would have in the 15th century. Amer Fort is known for its artistic style of Hindu elements. With its large ramparts, series of gates and cobbled paths, the fort overlooks the Maota Lake upon which a saffro garden once grew.
Our tour concludes with a lovely lunch of Valentine'[s Day pizza and local cuisine on a rooftop courtyard where we happened to watch a group of teenagers training homing pigeons. After a brief respite back at the hotel, we dress in our Indian finest for a special light show and history lesson at the Amer fort and a lovely buffet meal in one of the palaces.
Today we travel west to Jaipur and visit Fatehpur Sikri along the way, a series of royal palaces, harem courts a mosque and private quarters built in 1569 for the Mughal emperor Akbar.
I attend Cheryl's class regularly and feel that my practice has improved immensely over the past few years due to her expert coaching. Her teaching style is clear and compassionate and her previous experience in teaching adults is evident in her organized approach and easy to understand instructions. I also appreciate that Cheryl not only teaches us about how to correctly position ourselves, but also touches on many aspects of yoga philosophy, which in turn has deepened my personal practice and heightened my awareness of the connection between mind and body, breath and relaxation.