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The Other Shore of the River Ganges

MY EXPERIENCE ABOUT VARANASHI

Har Har Gange! May this divine river Ganga wash your sin and bless you.

Varanasi, North India, October 1995 – India, a country of contrasts. It took almost 15 years to decide that I was ready to set foot there, from a confront world totally different from me. The book The Pilgrimage to the Sources of Lanza del Vasto was to be the inspiration for this adventure on the subcontinent.

Now I am finally there, with a small group of travelers and our guide, Philippe. Already a few days since we arrived, and it’s so hot and humid that all the water I drink comes out through the pores of my skin. We wander in the maze of Varanasi, also known as Benares.

My eyes are not enough to record all that I see; in fact all the senses are solicited, starting with the sense of smell. The smell of incense and spice sometimes mingled with urine and cow dung, because the latter, sacred, are ubiquitous and venerated by the people.

We are heading to the Ghats where the cremations take place. These Hindu rituals tinged with a tragic exacerbated for Western eyes do not leave indifferent. To avoid voyeurism, we move away from grieving families, but the scenes are still poignant.

We continue our journey towards some temple enveloped with incense and flowers, but we will return later on the banks of the Ganges, the sacred river, to attend an event which, even now in my mind, exceeds my understanding by its dimensions.

At the end of the day, I arrive with the group and Philippe near the river. There, two Indians are waiting for us in a large rowboat. We embark one by one, and then leave the shore towards the opposite shore. Our rowers have a lot to do, because the current of the Ganges and very powerful and the distance to cross respectable, in spite of everything.

Time is stretched by the magic of the moment: we are on the great sacred river of India and before us, under the rays of the setting sun, the holy city extends with its Ghats, similar to languages ​​that drink with the blessed water of the gods. Then, after a few maneuvers, we approach the opposite shore, and we go a little further up the hill.
We are not alone.

A large crowd, mostly local, converges on a place whose dimensions seem to me infinite. All around this huge field, different scenes are installed and several costumed actors give themselves in performance.

Tens or even hundreds of thousands of Indians came to hear and see the stories of the Mahabharata, sacred book of India and great epic poem. We stop in front of a scene to follow the action, although this extremely complex warrior story escapes us a little. In fact, the show happens as much, if not more around me than on these many scenes.

This sea of ​​humans seems to me at once completely chaotic, but strangely harmonious.
Meanwhile Philippe, who went to get some samosas to nibble, I hear in the distance a strange sound of bells mixed with the rhythm of drums. As the sun is now down, the darkness and this entire compact crowd prevent me from seeing what is happening.

I move a little, without losing sight of the group, and I can see in the distance, approaching in a slow and majestic procession, the Maharaja of Varanasi, sitting in a canopy on an elephant painted with arabesques and decorated, followed four or five other equally colorful frames.

I remain motionless for a few moments, speechless. Did my companions see what I saw? I turn to find them a little further and Philippe has already arrived with delicious samosas. After a few bites, we have to take the road back, because it is already late,

Have I dreamed? Am I getting into one of those fabulous stories that were presented on stage in front of me? But no, I said to myself, it was very true, because everything is possible, since I am in India!

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