Sacred Varanasi

Context: For centuries, life in India has been shaped by two different religions, Hinduism and Islam. They were not any less divergent in their prescription for the afterlife. Burning in hell is the ultimate damnation in Islam, while the Hindus seek the liberation of their soul in the very fire of the funeral pyre. It was not so much theology as the rituals of India’s religions that, presently, attracted me to its sacred Varanasi. There, the pyres at the holy Ganges are the stage for the rites of cremation in its full elaboration. Varanasi also encompasses Sarnath and Deer Park where Buddha gave birth to his religion in the First Sermon and the First Sangha. It was also here that millenniums later his devotes attempted to resurrect Buddhism in India. This, after Buddhism and its symbols had been destroyed in the anti-idolatry zeal of the Muslims, thus paving the way for the resurgence of Hinduism which Buddha’s followers had subdued in that land.

Ganga Aarti

On the bridge over a mostly dry creek which we were crossing, there was a row of fruit and vegetable sellers. Some also had baskets full of small fish. “This is the Veruna River, a tributary of the Ganges, but the fish are from another river here, called Assi,” our local guide said. “Varanasi was named after those two rivers. It was also called Banaras by the British because they could not pronounce it correctly or, as some say, because that was its name in the Pali language of the early Buddhist texts.”

There were small wood fires on the sides of the road in this city, which did not have marked sidewalks, to keep outdoor vendors warm on a cold December night. “Varanasi is the city of learning and burning,” the guide said. The “burning” referred to the open cremation rituals done at the banks of the Ganges which we were going to see. Our bus parked next to Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, the first college established in 1791 by the British for the development and preservation of Sanskrit, the key to learning Hindu theology. From there we took man-pedaled bicycle rickshaws to Dashashwamedh Ghat. As the guide explained, “ghat is a Sanskrit, Hindi, or perhaps Dravidian word. It means steps leading down to the banks of the river.” Many of the nearly 100 ghats in Varanasi are at the Ganges. The Dashashwamedh is the busiest at night.

Our several rickshaws, each taking two passengers, moved in a row through streets teeming with people. Occasionally, we encountered other rickshaws coming from the opposite direction. One carried a corpulent woman in a sari with three full shopping bags. The rickshaws were the only vehicles here, except for the two motored tuk tuks which appeared during our entire twenty minute ride. The shops mostly sold clothes and jewelry. They were busy with customers. The pedestrian traffic kicked up dust in the evening lights.

“We are first going to see an aarti,” our guide said, “which is a form of puja (prayer) that takes place at night, with lights from the candles offered to the Gods.” At the Dashashwamedh Ghat there was “a ceremony of thanksgiving to the Goddess Ganges with a special prayer just for that river.” Therefore, it was called Ganga Aarti. As we approached a platform set close to the water, we saw seven monks standing in front of a bleacher with some fifteen rows of seats, occupied by men and women. “These people come from all over India,” the guide said. Around the Ghat were umbrellas of lights. The monks were chanting, accompanied by musicians on the tabla. The chants were at first in Sanskrit. The monks then repeated the same chants in Hindi, “so that the commoners could understand,” our guide explained. He said that the chants praised the Mother Ganges. One said “How beautiful the Ganges is,” and the next [following] chant said “Anyone who goes to the Ganges will be blessed.”

In the dark, we boarded a small boat that was waiting for us on the river. A woman held candles and flowers ready to hand to us. “We will now pray to Shiva, the God of Varanasi, three times,” our guide said. We followed him and chanted: “Om, Namaste, Shiva!” Then we put the flowers and candles in the water and let them float. These were our offerings to the Ganges. We made a wish and hoped that our wishes will come true.

Dead at the Ganges

We continued our boat ride through the night so that we could watch the burning of the dead at the Ganges. In Varanasi two ghats are dedicated to cremation services. They operate all hours of the day and night. The Manikarnika Ghat, which now came within our sight, is by far the bigger. In a 24 hour period about 100 bodies are incinerated here in the wood fires made outdoors on a yard which slopes down to the Ganges. In the other Varanasi cremation ghat, Harishchandra, about 30 bodies are burned in similar fashion.

“We believe that when a person is cremated at the Ganges their soul is liberated,” our Hindu guide said. “But only bodies of those who died within 250 kilometers of Varanasi are allowed to be burned here. That is why many people come to reside in Varanasi just to die here.” Our boat stopped in the water not far from the shore. We observed small groups of mourners, each circled around one of the several fires on the shore. Every fire was for only one body. Our guide narrated the story of the bodies’ last rite: “Within 6 hours after death the body is taken out and washed in water, wrapped in a white shroud and placed on a bamboo stretcher, and moved to the cremation site. It is accompanied by an entourage of mourners, also clad in white shrouds, who chant ‘What is the truth? It is God!’ The guide pointed out to a newly arrived body on the ground: “It is put down with the feet facing south, the direction of the God of Death.” In the entourage surrounding this corpse there was a man with a shaved head. “He is the chief mourner.” We watched as the guide continued: “The chief mourner next hits the skull of the dead to break it open. Then he makes five rounds around the firewood and the body. That is for the five sacred elements of nature. Now he lights the fire.”

The mourners have to wait until the body is “reduced to about five inches in size.” That is when it is burned as much as it can be. “The chest in the man and the cheek in the woman are the last to burn.” Then the mourners pick up the reduced remains “by sticks” to throw them in the Ganges “without delay.” The mourners now go to another ghat and take a ritual bath in the Ganges. “Nobody cries at all. Everyone is happy. They go home and mourn 10 days. All the men of the family shave their heads. On the 13th day they have a big dinner.”

We went ashore, got out of the boat, and walked up on the side of the Manikarnika Ghat toward our rickshaws. We passed beggars who, our guide said, “are ‘real beggars’, they are not ‘professional beggars’; they come here to die and beg until the day they die.” A woman was selling flowers to be offered to the Ganges. “The garlands are for God Shiva.” Some pilgrims were camping on the streets. “Many of these are the same you saw at the aarti.” A man was selling branches of reed which “are used as toothbrush.” A few steps farther a woman was selling the same. Another vendor offered bottles of water from the Ganges. We saw a bull walking right into a street-level store. “Bull is sacred here because this is the city of Shiva, and bull is Shiva’s vehicle.”

Life on the Ganges

“We consider the Ganges which starts in the Himalayan Mountains as Heaven that came to Earth,” our guide said. “So it is a much revered Goddess.” But the Ganges is “also the source of Hindu culture and it gives life to many on its banks. The Ganges is to India what the Nile is to Egypt.” The next day we went to see for ourselves.

In the chill of the predawn we drove back to the Dashashwamedh Ghat and walked down to the Ganges. A full moon was still in the sky and it lit a picturesque scene of the boats getting ready to go on the river. “Professional beggars” lined up the steps of the Ghat. At one corner of the Ghat we saw the image of Mother Ganges as a goddess riding a crocodile. “Crocodile is the Ganges’s pet on which she rides,” our guide said. Two men were sitting on a rug and performing a ceremony. “That is a Brahman saying prayers in Sanskrit over the ashes of a dead person brought by the other man. After the prayer the man will take the ashes and throw them in the Ganges,” the guide said.

Many of those we were seeing this early in the day were “local people”. They were “real simple orthodox Hindus,” our guide said. “Orthodox Hindus begin their days by invoking the names of their gods. They do not all agree on a supreme God. Some believe Brahma is the supreme God, some consider Vishnu to be the one, and some say Shiva is the supreme God. The locals here mostly invoke the names of God Shiva and Goddess Mother Ganges. In fact, however, they are really nature worshipers; they come out here for the river and the sunrise. They do puja to the rising sun.” The “pilgrims,” on the other hand, come from various other parts of India for “the Holy Ganges.” They arrive at the ghats later in the morning. “They pay 5 to 10 Rupees for a room to sleep in houses supported by philanthropic donors. Those with shaved heads are here for a cremation event.”

By the time we boarded our little boat there were some locals on the Ganges “offering water to the sun in the east,” as our guide pointed out. An older man was washing himself in the river. We passed several big houses and even bigger mansions on the west bank of the river. Some had been turned into hotels. One building was the Palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur, just behind the Manmandir Ghat. It was here that Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh had built an observatory in 1717, a precursor to his more famous Jantar Mantar in the city of Jaipur. The Varanasi observatory was for use in viewing the stars so as to make better forecast about the monsoon.

The river’s edge was now getting more crowded. Some more locals were bathing. A couple had made an offering of candles and flowers to the Ganges and was collecting the river’s water “for drinking and to make tea,” as our guide said. “The water of the Ganges in Varanasi is very polluted,” the guide added, matter of factly. The “laughing club” was also there. They come to the Ganges to begin their day auspiciously by simply laughing hard in a group. “Nothing religious about that,” our guide said. A man was rubbing his body at the lip of the river. “He is putting mustard oil on to warm up the body before going in the water.” We saw a group from the south of India. “They are Dravidians, a different race form us Indo-Aryans,” our guide stressed. There are 64 ghats at the Ganges in Varanasi. In addition to the two “burning ghats,” there are “bathing ghats” and “laundry ghats.” At one of the laundry ghats we saw “professionals” washing clothes in the Ganges. “This is their job,” the guide said, differentiating them from others who just washed clothes belonging to themselves.

A few seagulls now flew overhead. Our guide said they had come all the way from Siberia. Then the sun came out. It was tomato-red, but strangely yellow on the inside. Its reflection in the water was like a fire. On the bank of the river we saw a “holy” man in a red turban. His hair was “14 feet long,” our guide estimated. “He has renounced life.” Just then we passed one of the Sanskrit schools which have given Varanasi its reputation as a center of Hindu learning. This was in a monastery. Its students, in yellow robes, were standing close to the river. On a platform a teacher was conducting a ceremony with a small group. “These students have a good future as scholars or yoga teachers,” our guide said. “To be a priest, however, you must be a Brahman.”

Next to the monastery, on the other side of a dividing stairway, was a “Naga: a holy man who is usually nude,” standing in a difficult yoga position [42]. On this day, he had a lungi (sarong) on. In his hands he was holding a flame. He had smeared ashes on his face.

A boat passed us with “Buddhist pilgrims,” as our guide said. “Varanasi is holy for Buddhists and Jains as well Hindus.” In the yard fronting Harishchandra crematorium’s ghat, wood had been stacked up ready for burning. On the short retaining walls of this ghat near the river we read this inscription: “Fortunate are the people who reside on the banks of the Ganges.”

A few steps away, several women of various ages in saris of several colors [45] were getting off a boat at the river’s bank. We were now passing several boats with vendors who proffered souvenirs on the river. Our guide commented: “Not all of the Ganges is holy. In fact, all of the other side, the east bank of the river, is used for picnicking.”

The fog now rolled over the Ganges, giving the river and its west bank a dreamy appearance. The Dashashwamedh Ghat looked different from the night before. In daytime, it was a hub of commerce. We soon came to a big building that was the house of the owner of the big Manikarnika crematorium. “He charges 2,500 rupees to cremate a body, collecting 250,000 rupees a day,” our guide estimated. “He is called the ‘Raja of the doms’ who are the untouchables doing the actual burning.” In the “Raja’s” cremation ghat the burning was continuous. We disembarked from our boat and passed a group of mourners gathered around a burning body.

A woman was washing her clothes nearby. Some men were coming out of the Ganges after their swim and bath. When our guide asked, one of the men told us he was 85-years old, and came to the Ganges for a swim every day.

Doorway to heaven

We began walking up the narrow alleys of the old town that connect the Ganges to the rest of Varanasi. The alley that leads to the Manikarnika cremation ghat is called the “doorway to heaven.” Just past that ghat we saw the big scale that is used to weigh the wood bought for burning the dead. Because of the cost, it is important to measure the exact amount of wood needed, which depends on the size of the corpse. A lower-caste shudra was splitting some wood. Several kinds of wood are used for cremation. Sandalwood is the most expensive and, therefore, is used sparingly only to add the desired scent.

We came to a monastery. A young monk with an orange colored skirt was standing at the door. “Orange is the color of renunciation,” our guide said. Nearby was a Shiva lingam (representation), around which hung an offering garland of flowers. The winding narrow alley was typical of the old town with its overhanging jumble of electrical wires, small shops, restaurants and guest houses, and a cow walking in the middle of the path. There were even narrower side alleys. Through the window of a house we saw two musicians sitting cross-legged practicing with their instruments. A little girl on her way to school paused for us to take her picture. A woman was on her way to the Ganges to fetch water. A vendor was sitting by the side of the alley selling eggplants which were piled on the ground next to her. She had wrapped herself in a shawl against the cold. Another woman was making offerings of flowers to a shrine which had been carved into a wall.

We approached the tea house of “Mr. India” who had earned his title as the country’s champion wrestler a long time ago. Our guide said this tea house was “the place to sit and experience Varanasi going by, especially the bodies being taken through the alley for cremation.” Several men were drinking their tea from glasses. We too sat for a glass of tea. We gazed at an equally curious customer looking at us as he leaned against the opposite wall.

At a bend in the alley where there was a mosque, several soldiers were standing guard. This was December 6, the 17th anniversary of the “demolition” of the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, which was a major issue in the current Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Police were on high alert in the “hypersensitive areas of the city like Kotwali,” the local newspaper said. This was the district we were traversing. According to the newspaper, a political party had announced that its members would wear black ribbons and “organize a seminar to condemn the forces that were involved in the demolition.” The findings of a national Commission investigating the destruction of the Mosque in 1992 had been leaked to the press. It blamed the then Prime Minister (Narsimha Rao) as a culprit because he could have prevented the damage. The report said that the Prime Minister “did little to urge that they (the mob) stop.” In fact, he was accused of inciting the mob because, just before the event, he had talked about their “movement” as responding to “Hindu hurt,” and promoting “Hindu pride.”


Ironically, according to some historians, it was the destruction of the Buddhist religion by the Muslims who invaded India beginning in the 12th century (symbolized in their anti-idolatry zeal to eliminate all Buddha statues and images) that cleared the way for the resurgence of Hinduism. Prior to that, the gospel that Buddha preached had become the dominant religious belief in India. Buddha began his preaching right here in Sarnath which is now a part of Varanasi.

Varanasi was well-established before Buddha appeared. “It is India’s oldest city, a contemporary of Damascus,” our guide said. “It existed even before the Aryans came to India 3500 years ago.”

The settlement which is today called Sarnath is recorded in Buddhist texts as Issipatana. Its current name is apparently a version of Sarangnath which means Lord of Deer. The reference is to a local Bodhisattva (one bound for enlightenment) who, according to Buddhist legends, offered himself as the prey to a king in place of the doe the king was hunting, so moving the king by this gesture that the monarch created a park here as a sanctuary for deer. The Deer Park is still there. It is in this Park that Buddha preached his first sermon. His audience that day consisted of five skeptical former friends, as our local guide told his version of the story of Buddha:

    Buddha is a title which means enlightenment. Buddha’s real name was Prince Siddhartha. His family name is Gautama. He is also called Sakyamuni which means the Sage of the Sakyas, his ethnic group. He was born in 563 B.C. His father was a Hindu king in northern India. His mother, Mahamaya, when she was pregnant with him, went to her parents’ house in Lumbini, in today’s Nepal, where she delivered him. She died a few days later and Buddha was immediately brought back to India. When he was 19, Buddha left the palace of his father. As he wandered he saw many old and sick people and this shocked him. While he pondered how to stop such suffering in the world, he met a holy man who told him enlightenment was the only solution and it required renouncing the world. At 29 the Prince left his wife and child and his father’s kingdom. This is called “the Great Giving-up” and it was done to enable him to seek knowledge and to reach Nirvana which is enlightenment, in order to reduce suffering. In Bodhgaya, in northeast India, Buddha spent some time in caves where he fasted. The extreme of fasting was killing Buddha and a girl offered him a bowl of rice. When he accepted and ate the rice, his five friends who had come to believe in his advocacy of renunciation left him, accusing him of hypocrisy. They moved to Sarnath. Buddha resumed fasting and, sitting under a fig tree, ficus religiosa, which has since been called the Buddha tree, he finally attained enlightenment. To do this he closed his eyes and meditated. He spent 7 weeks, one week each sitting at a different angle. Then he followed his five doubting friends to Sarnath and gave his first sermon here in Deer Park. He converted those old friends; they became his first disciples. Buddha lived to be 80 and preached for 39 years. Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty accepted Buddhism and under him all of India became Buddhist in the third century B.C. Of the four places sacred to the Buddhists, all are now in India except for Buddha’s place of birth. They include Kushinagar, 200 miles from here, where Buddha died in addition to Bodhgaya and Varanasi.

In Buddhism the commencement of Buddha’s preaching in Varanasi is known as dharmachakrapravartana which means that he thus “turned the wheel of law in motion.” As his five disciples also became enlightened by Buddha’s teaching, the first Buddhist sangha, or the community of the enlightened, was founded here by Buddha himself. Accordingly, Buddhists consider Sarnath to be the birthplace of Buddhism. Pilgrims flock here from all over the world.

“Fewer than one percent of the population in India is now Buddhist because Hinduism has become strong in this country,” our guide said. Although Sarnath is also held holy by the Jains as “a site of asceticism,” where their 11th Tirthankara (supreme religious leader) died, for centuries this place was not visited by many people. The archeological work that began in 1789, and still continues, has unearthed monasteries, stupas, temples, inscriptions, sculptures, and other antiquities from the 3rd to the 12th centuries. It appears that the place had been abandoned in the meantime. Our guide attributed this to destruction by the invading Muslims.

On the day that I visited, the hallowed grounds of Sarnath were crowded with Buddhist pilgrims. We walked on the pathway parallel to the field where the ruins had been exposed by the archeologists. A green lawn separated us from the ruins. On the lawn two Buddhist monks sat in their red robes while three Buddhist women moved their arms and went on their knees in prayers. There were five more such women a few steps further. Alongside of us walked two pilgrims who were turning the wheel of dharma. Our guide said that they were among Indian Buddhists visiting from the Himalayan region of Ladakh. There were also some Indian Buddhist women on the lawn at this point. As we approached the stupa that dominated the scene we encountered several grey clad Vietnamese pilgrims. More of them were on the lawn below. One of them told me that they were part of a group of 126 men and women visiting from Vietnam.

The Dhamekh Stupa looked imposing as a solid cylindrical tower rising some 42.6 meters. Inscriptions dated to 1026 unearthed here indicate that its old name was Dharma Chakra Stupa, presumably commemorating the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon. In its foundations an earlier stupa with Mauryan bricks has been discovered. This dates that stupa back to the time of Emperor Ashoka.

Our local guide noted that “Buddhism did not become a religion until 200 years after Buddha’s death,” which would be Ashoka’s time. The teaching of Buddha’s first sermon at this location was “foundational,” the guide said and summarized them in “four points” as follows: “Suffering is a must, it is the noble truth. The reason for suffering is craving. Even if our craving is fulfilled we would then want more. Therefore, fulfillment is not the solution; one must minimize the suffering by minimizing the desire.” The guide then added: “Buddhist enlightenment is the rightness of speech, thought, and deed; it makes life heavenly.”

Sarnath Museum

The Archeological Museum at Sarnath holds the artifacts excavated there which constitute much of our precious little connections to the early history of Buddhism. The most celebrated of these is the lion capital which once crowned Ashoka’s Pillar. Ashoka was the Mauryan Dynasty emperor who became the first to conquer almost the entire Indian subcontinent, between 269 and 232 B.C. While this feat required a bloodthirsty campaign and reign, later in his life Ashoka became a follower of Buddha’s teaching.

Ashoka’s Pillar records his visit to Sarnath. It now stood almost as a sentinel, 2.31 meters high, in the space that faced me as I entered the Main Hall of the Museum at Sarnath. The Pillar was made of sandstone. It had four parts. At the bottom was a vase, shaped like a bell and covered with lotus leaves. Above this vase was a round abacus, and above that was the capital with four lions which were carved all from one block of stone. On the top was a crowning dharmachakra (wheel) with only four of its original 32 spokes still intact.

The four lions of the capital stood back to back. They symbolized both Ashoka’s imperial rule and the Buddha facing the four directions. The dharmachakra symbolized the dharma or law. On the abacus there were four animals: a lion, an elephant, a bull, and a horse. Between each two was a small dharmachakra. These four animals represented the four sections of the Anotatta Lake mentioned in the Buddhist texts – and, according to some legends, where Buddha was conceived. The dharmachakras represented the regions among the sections. The lotus with its flowering leaves symbolized creativity.

The four-lion capital of Ashoka’s Pillar has been adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian Republic. The glory of Ashoka’s imperial achievements, especially in uniting India, might have thus been acknowledged; our guide, however, stressed this designation as a sign of a “tolerant” Hindu India honoring Buddhism.

The Sarnath Museum also has some of the earliest statues of the Buddha. I noted three colossal standing Bodhisattva statues made of red stone. Dating back to the first and second centuries, they were from the Kushan Empire period. There were more from the later Gupta Empire period (320-550 A.D.). These were refined and showed passion and emotions in Buddha. They are said to be among the first sculptures of the Sarnath School of Art which produced thousands of such artistic images in this area. “There was no presentation of the person of Buddha until the first century,” our guide pointed out. He noted that the polish of the statues we were seeing in the Sarnath Museum indicated “the influence of Greek art.” More specifically, it was “the influence of the Hellenistic art, including the Egyptian sculptures.” He called the Gupta period “the Golden Age of the Sarnath school of art.”

Buddhist Temple

The old Buddhist Temple of Mulagandhakuti, dating back to before the 12th century and now in ruins under excavation, was the inspiration for the new Mulagandhakuti Vihara (Monastery) which was constructed in 1904-1931 by the efforts of a Sri Lankan, Bodhisattva Anagarika Dharmapala. A sign at the site credited him with reviving Buddhism in India and bringing it to the attention of the West.

As a Buddhist “noble man,” Anagarika Dharmapala first made a pilgrimage to Sarnath in 1891. Finding the conditions of the sites “deplorable,” he determined to restore India’s places of Buddhist worship in an ambitious plan to “regenerate Buddhism” in that country. He was encouraged by the then British rulers of India. In the course of forty years he succeed in establishing centers of the Maha Bodhi Society of India (for the purpose of resurrecting Buddhism in India and of restoring its ancient Buddhist shrines) with the support of Indian authorities and the assistance from kings of Buddhist countries. In 1893 Anagarika traveled to Chicago to participate in the Parliament of the World’s Religions and in that forum, it is claimed by his followers, he “introduced Buddhism to the West.” Anagarika died in Sarnath.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara is now a major place of worship for the world Buddhist community. It enshrines some relics of Buddha discovered in Madras and Punjab. There is also a ficus tree just outside the Vihara. That tree is said to be the growth of a sapling brought from Sri Lanka in 1930 which was, in turn, from a “third generation” sapling of the Buddha tree under which Gautama Buddha had mediated in Bodhgaya. Deer Park is right behind the Vihara’s tree.

Buddhist monks in saffron and yellow robes, including some from Tibet, were strolling in front of the Temple as we entered it. Frescos covered most of the walls inside the Temple. They depicted important episodes  in Buddhist history. These paintings are considered masterpieces; they were done in the 1930s by the renowned Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. That project was financed by the Japanese Imperial Government. As I walked around, I noticed that, coincidentally, on this day a Japanese camera crew was taking pictures of the wall paintings for a program.

Temple to Mother India

Not far from the Buddhist vihara in Sarnath is an important Sikh gudwara. Varanasi also has several Muslim mosques and hundreds of Hindu mandirs. All major religions of India have long been represented here by their respective temples. What was missing, in the opinion of a wealthy resident, Rashtraratana Shri Shiv Prasad Gupta who was also a leader of the Indian Freedom Movement, was a temple to Mother India (Bharat Mata). He set to rectify this in 1918 by building such a secular temple in Varanasi. “This was to honor patriotism,” our guide said. “It was to bring all together in the pre-independence India.” Mahatma Gandhi came to inaugurate it in 1936.

I followed the “HUMBLE REQUEST” of a sign at the temple which must have been posted a long time ago: “With extremely holy sentiments reverent visitors are requested with folded hands to take off their shoes down below the stairs outside the temple in diffference (sic) to the founder’s holy sentiments and dignity of the temple and only thereafter take trouble to enter the same.” Two boys who were washing their bodies with water from a hose just outside the temple watched me as I entered.

Inside there was a man praying loudly. The Bharat Mata in Varanasi is the only temple in the land dedicated to Mother India. It did not have the customary gods and goddesses of Hindu temples, or the furnishings of the temples of other religions. Instead, it housed only a relief map of all of pre-independence India, carved out of marble. The topography of the map showed the elevations of the mountains and depths of the sea. I was struck by the fact that aside from the Himalayas in the north and some mountains in the south and the east, the rest of the vast country was remarkably flat.

Our guide was especially proud of Kashmir. He pointed it out on the marble map and said that “Jahangir (the 17th Century Mughal King) upon seeing Kashmir had declared that, indeed, this was the real heaven!” The guide then recited a line of Persian poetry with a heavy accent to the effect that this was what Jahangir said on that occasion: “Gar ferdos roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast! (If heaven is on earth, this is it, this is it!).’” This was perhaps an embellishment of what Jahangir had said, as he was no poet, but it reflected the King’s famous love for Kashmir where he, in fact, chose to spend the last days of his life.

Our guide continued on the theme of Kashmir with comments about the troubled relationship with Pakistan. “When there is a cricket match with Pakistan all work stops in India as we all want to watch it on TV or follow it on the radio.” He joked about that rivalry between the two parts of the once undivided India which this Mother India temple, where we were standing, was to honor. “The cricket match is a war,” he said, laughing. On a more serious note, the guide said India helped East Bengalis in their fight (against Pakistan) to divide the land even further, creating a third state of Bangladesh, “because the Pakistani army was raping the Bengali women.”

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