Points of Pilgrimage: Kolkata and Varanasi

Of all the destinations I have told people we are going to, India seems to get the strongest reactions…people who have been and people who have not get this faraway look in their eyes when you mention this country.  It still holds this magic power over the world’s imagination.  So with only the expectation of seeing something we’ve never seen before, we arrived at midnight on a rainy Sunday. 

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Kolkata fulfilled that expectation right away.  In our first couple days, we did not focus on sightseeing so much as just trying to wrap our minds around this India idea…the storied and the modern.  We spent our first afternoon lost, wandering past beautiful colonial buildings with shimmering domes and passing through alleys of death, where dogs were fighting over a carcass, pigs were squealing, butchers hacked up sheep bodies, and crows and birds of prey watched the whole scene.  Then there were colorful side streets, where blankets and saris hung out to dry created bold rainbows from the balconies, and corner shops selling sugar-drenched sweets perfumed the air.  It was quite the introduction to this, the third largest of India’s cities.

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On our next two days, we mainly spent them exploring the Maidan, or the enormous green park that runs through the heart of the city.  Despite the flooding fields, we found herds of goats being tended on the grass and a festival being set up for the coming week.  A few devotees allowed us to wander through the tents.  Squelching the other way across the Maidan, we came to the Observatory and St Paul’s Cathedral.  Entering the latter, it seemed that the outside world was suddenly hushed and the church is full of a soothing greenish light.  Just up the way, we found the Academy of Fine Arts, and its sculpture garden.  Finally, we came to the Victoria Monument, very much a symbol of Kolkata.  In pristine gardens, swarmed by young couples out sneaking a moment of romance, the large white building was an homage to the British monarch who was also the “Empress of India.”  Reflected in the pools and using a mix of Western and Indian architecture, the monument is stunning and a magnet for cameras.

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That afternoon, the second wave of torrential monsoon rains battered the city.  Flood and mess ensued.  Sangbyeong was ill from an encounter with mystery meat of the street.  Despite all this, I had my own pilgrimage to complete.  For about one minute, I considered giving it up, knowing I would be walking through that knee-high water full of sewage, gas spills, dead rats, dirt, and who knows what else.  But, I could not just give up.  I had waited more than fifteen years to see the tomb and missions of Mother Theresa, and now I was almost there.  An hour later, I arrived, soaked in filth from the thighs down and with rain from the waist up.  My first stop was the Mission of Charity for Children with Special Needs.  The sisters graciously allowed me inside, although visiting hours had passed.  I held hands with and greeted many of the children…one crib-bound girl repeatedly called out for me to come back to her.  Needless to say, I left moved and emotionally wrecked.  Just up the street, I entered the Mother House.  There, pilgrims can visit the tomb of Mother Theresa, receive a blessing, and look at the room where she lived and died.  A cross of jasmine flowers and some roses decorated the tomb, and her room is left exactly as it was at the moment of her passing…simple and clean.  I breathed in the calm of that space and thanked this woman, controversies aside, who did great good for people with great needs.

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The next day, we left for a completely different kind of holy site…the holiest of Hindu cities, Varanasi.  Our first exploration of the ghats happened as rain threatened, turning the Ganges into a bright silver mirror under the clouds.  That same morning, Sangbyeong got his haircut and a massage on the main ghat, while locals crowded around to take photos of us and ask me 100 questions.  Later, we made our first exploration of the warren of alleyways that comprise the riverside neighborhoods of the city.

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But our adventures were just beginning!  Over the next few days, we met Cheolsu and Mansu, two Varanasi-born brothers who had learned to speak fluent Korean and taken these Korean nicknames.  Mansu takes care of the tea shop and Cheolsu gives boat tours and teaches tea shop visitors how to make bracelets and pendants out of string.  Their shop is a hangout for travelers passing through, especially Koreans.  We made many new, unexpected friendships while sipping tea in the shop and got tips about the secret treasures to find in Varanasi.  During our daily wanderings, with the directions in hand, we found the famous Blue Lassi Shop, the best place to watch cremations on the burning ghat, and a hundred other charms.

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One evening, along with another Korean from Daegu, we took a boat tour with Cheolsu.  He rowed us out to the sandy opposite bank first, giving us long descriptions and explanations of the development of Varanasi from 3500 years ago to the present.  He showed us huge wash-ups of black hair that people had cut during rituals.  As we rowed along, he pointed out the buildings owned by India’s rich and powerful, past and present.  Darkness descended as we rowed to the water side of the burning ghat, and then we stopped in front of the main ghat to see the daily ceremony being set up.  He dropped us off on the bank so that we could watch the spectacle from the shore side.  Five priests swing burning cobra torches and whisks around in sync, while bells deafen the audience and a powerful male voice sings over the noise of the gathered crowd.  It was a magic and surreal way to finish yet another day in this sacred place.

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When the time came to get on the train to our next destination, we were not really ready to leave Varanasi behind.  As a center for pilgrims and travelers alike, it full of special energy and very kind people.  We will be certain to return, especially if it means another glass of lemon tea and a chat with Cheolsu and Mansu!  With our goodbyes said, we strapped on our bags to headed towards another Wonder of the World…

 

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