I'm one long day until 40 days of silence, so I thought I'd post some more photos. I'm staying now in Rishikesh, way upstream from Varanasi, still on the holy Ganges, frequently referred to here as Mother Ganga. For the devout Hindus who've been raised to believe and the pliable Westerners who will believe anything, the Ganga CANNOT be polluted. Ignore the scientific tests that show more fecal matter at the shores of Varanasi than in your average pre-flush toilet bowl. If you swim and get sick, it's because you need to be purified. If you die? It's your bad karma - may you come back as a higher caste. At the same time that my analytical brain ponders that sort of belief, I'm honored and humbled by the beautiful devotion, openness of heart and surrendering to God that pilgrims from all over India show when bathing in Mother Ganga. When I hear the swimmers in Varanasi, half-way across the wide river, shouting "Mahadev! Mahadev!!" which translates to "Great God! Great God!!" it sends tender shivers up my back. Is there some kind of inconsistency in those competing viewpoints? Somehow, not for me. But don't ask me to explain it. (You can't explain it to someone who doesn't get it, and you don't need to explain it to someone who does. Good enough.)
The water in Rishikesh is beautiful and cold and green with no fecal tests to confuse me, so I'm happy to swim here - theoretically. I'm still not a fan of freezing cold water. Tomorrow I'm going back downstream 20 miles to the town of Haridwar, where the massive Kumbh Mela festival is happening. I don't know the whole story, and I'm sure it would fill a book, but these gatherings happen every few years, with this Maha (great) Kumbh Mela happening every twelve years. There are auspicious days for bathing in the river, and the next one coming up is in two days - the day our retreat starts. I'll miss that, but I'm spending the day beforehand wandering around the huge tent city, among the throngs of arriving pilgrims and ash-colored holy men, or saddhus. At midnight friends and I board the train for the 8-hour trip to the foothills, with a two-hour drive to the retreat center. I'll post again sometime after I'm out, on April 25th.
The photos below are also here:
This feel-good sign was inside a train.
This saddhu is naked and covered with ash. For all we know, he was a banker earlier in his life. It's not uncommon for men in their 50's to renounce the worldly life and travel as saddhus. It's typically supported by the family and society in general.
I was invited into this small tent by the saddhu on the left. The young man in the middle is in the early training stages. All of the saddhus in this tent (and most tents, probably) smoke strong marijuana most of the time. It's part of their religious practice.
Smoking a "charas" or plug of marijuana, mixed with tobacco, in a pipe.
This kid makes me melt!
I think this guy was my Marketing professor at Berkeley.
This young woman just about turned inside out when I turned my camera from her child to her. She could barely stand it!
I tried so hard to get him to smile, but he only would when the camera wasn't pointing at him.
This kid doesn't look so healthy, but wow, what a smile.
A procession of saddhus came through the camp.
Waiting in line for free food from one of the saddhu's camps.
The photos below are also here: