A Blessed Pilgrimage

by Dr. Yutang Lin | 1990 | 18,562 words

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Part 13 - Watching Sunrise And Cremation

At The Ganges River

At 5 oclock, on the morning of the 16th of January, our group left the hotel by bus to see the sunrise at the Ganges River. Upon arrival we got into a big rowboat and cruised along the river. I chanted the nectar mantra to bless some clean water then poured it into the river for purification. I also poured some milk tea as offering to the river deity. On the river were cruising boats full of tourists and small rowboats peddling a boatload of souvenirs. On one side of the river was a sandy wasteland; on the other side was a cluster of variegated villas and Hindu temples crowded together. The sun rose from the sandy wasteland, its reflection in the water formed an orange red slender string. A spill of bright yellow and red was spreading in the sky and on the river. Amid such a tranquil atmosphere, a small boat rowed slowly along the sandbank, adding ripples to the colorful water.

In the dim light of dawn we saw two piles of burning wood on the city side of the riverbank; these were the sacred cremation ceremonies and no photographs were allowed. It takes 26 kg of wood to cremate a corpse completely. In India this would amount to no small sum for an ordinary person. The fire used to start the cremation, in accordance with the Hindu faith, should be the sacred fire obtained from the untouchable caste called Doms in order to ensure its function of spiritual purification. This fire has been kept by the Doms and passed from father to son for generations. According to the financial situation of the deceaseds family, the Doms would try to get as high a price for the sacred fire as possible; consequently the cost of fire would often be more than the cost of the wood. The Hindu cremation ceremony prohibited females from attending. At the end of the cremation the skull is broken up in order to release the soul to Gods realm. A mothers skull is traditionally broken by her eldest son, hence the Hindus have a special regard for their eldest sons.

On the riverbank there was also a modern electric crematory. In the river near and along the heavily populated bank, some people were doing laundry, while others were bathing in a ritualistic way. This river was also the source of water for the city. Hinduism proclaimed this river to be sacred, and hence, bathing in its sacred water would purify and remedy ones sinful karmas. Hindu pilgrims who went to the Ganges River customarily brought some Ganges water home to share with folks; hence, the souvenirs sold in this area included many varieties of water containers. When we reached the shore, I dipped my bare feet into the river, thereby, symbolizing my wish to have my negative karma reduced.

We saw a corpse, completely wrapped in red clothing, lying on a long ladder; it was being carried, with its feet first, to the riverbank by four men. They put the ladder with the corpse on the ground while awaiting its turn to be cremated. I stood at a distance, away from them, and performed the Tantric ritual of Three Kaya Powa to unify the deceaseds consciousness with the three Kayas of Amitabha Buddha. I kept a distance from them to avoid annoying the Hindus with a Buddhist practice.

After breakfast, some of us went to visit the local bookstore of the famous publisher, Motilal Banarsidass; I bought two Buddhist books in English, which had just been published. As we walked on the streets and in the alleys, domesticated cows were leisurely pacing on their own, and it was said that the local people were able to recognize each cows ownership. I peeled a banana leftover from my breakfast to feed a cow; it took her just one bite to swallow the whole thing. At noon I returned to the hotel and got diarrhea, probably due to the early morning chill, so I rested the rest of the day.

On the morning of the 17th of January, I recovered from the diarrhea and went to Sarnath. First, I went to the temple of the Mahabodhi Society to pay my respects to Buddha. The monk attending the shrine hall spontaneously opened the small gate and gestured for me to go up to the altar platform. So I went up to prostrate to Buddha and circumambulate the altar while chanting. Upon leaving I put 50 rupees into the donation box.

Afterwards, I went to the Dhamekh Stupa and offered six candles and a package of incense. With the package of lit incense in my hand I circumambulated the stupa. The wind was blowing so strongly that the incense bundle burst into a torch. When more than half of the incense had burned I put the remaining on the lowest level of the stupa and went to a spot not far from the stupa for sitting meditation.

Then two Hindu men carrying a very long ladder to the Dhamekh Stupa walked by. One of them stayed on the ground to hold the ladder steady, while the other climbed up to the niches in search of coins and khatas that pilgrims had thrown in as offerings. There were eight niches and they cleared all of them out. When they were ready to leave, some pilgrims bought the khatas from them that they had just gathered because things that had been offered to Buddha would carry the blessings granted in return from Buddha.

After a short lunch break I lit another package of incense and, holding it, circumambulated the Dhamekh Stupa. A group of Tibetan Lamas came on a pilgrimage. They lit more than 100 candles and dozens of packages of incense, which they scattered around the stupa on the lowest level.

Later, on the street, I met a Chinese monk limping and using the help of a long stick. He said that he came from China over four decades ago and was on his way to visit a dentist for his toothache. I offered him 50 rupees and he said in return that he would pray to Buddha for my well being.

At dusk we went to the Ganges River for a concert of classical Hindu music. We boarded a large houseboat, which was rowed by one adult and two kids; our local tourist guide passed a wreath of orange yellow flowers to each one of us to wear. We went up to sit on the flat roof of the houseboat. There were already two Hindu musicians, a sitar player and a drummer, waiting in silence. The boat slowly rowed from the city side toward the quiet sandy wasteland; cool breezes gently caressed us, and noises of the city gradually faded away. In the twilight, the ripples on the river were dancing to the mellifluous music; as the musicians improvised, an exotic mood filled the air. Sipping hot milk tea I was immersed in the tunes that came and immediately vanished, leaving no traces. The nights darkness slowly swallowed the magnificent edifices along the riverbank, sparing only the twinkling of city lights. Stars emerged with bright cool light, but it was not the familiar constellations as back home. We were all drunk with the mystic beauty of such an unearthly moment. When we returned to the city side and went ashore, two men were carrying a corpse, wrapped in white cloth, on a ladder. In life Impermanence was so vividly pressing. I immediately practiced Powa for the deceased.

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