Later that day Shailesh took us out on the Ganges in a small boat. He told us that there are 100,000 shrines or temples to Shiva in Varanasi. That was believable as we were rowed past at least a dozen just on the banks of the river. Less easy to comprehend is the Hindu practice of cremating bodies atop wooden funeral pyres along the banks of the Ganges. We saw at least a dozen such pyres. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that.
As the sun set we were given small cups made of a single leaf of a tree with a candle in the center. As Shailesh said a prayer in the ancient language of Sanskrit, we lit the candles and set candle and flowers adrift on the river. The glow of the candles reflected in the water as the sun set was enchanting. Shailesh told us that all Hindu prayers include the following petitions: "May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from fear; may all beings look upon one another with eyes of love. And if pain still remains in the world, may it come to me."
After our sunset cruise, we walked to a restaurant overlooking the river and watched as young Brahmin priests made offerings to "Mother Ganga." I have to say that it was a beautiful ceremony. Their movements were like ballet. First, they rang bells as they turned in circles to summon the gods from all corners of the world. Next they waved lighted sticks of incense to cleanse themselves. Then they offered flowers and finally they offered fire.
Reflecting on our time in Varanasi and Calcutta, I realized that Western Christians believe that worship must be quiet, solemn, sober, and interior. But that is not the way most humans at most times have worshiped. For most people in most times, worship is about saying the right words and performing the correct rituals. It seems noisy, chaotic, and far from worshipful to us, but not to them. More about this later...
The next day we took another overnight train. Our first overnight on a train had been 1rst class; this one was 2nd class (but it was the best we could get). I have to admit that I did not enjoy it, but we did get to Agra only about 2 hours late.
Agra was the seat of the Mughals (Mongols) who ruled India from the early 16th century until defeated by the British in the 19th century. It is better known as the site of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jehan as a tomb for his favorite wife, Mumtaj. Taj Mahal means "palace of Taj". It was completed in 1639.
The Taj Mahal is rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It is made of brick but every surface is covered with white marble. From a distance it looks weightless and seems to float above the ground.
However, more interesting and appealing to me is the Red Fort across the river from the Taj Mahal from which Shah Jehan ruled. It was also the seat of Akbar who ruled the Mughul empire from 1556 to 1605, approximately the same dates that Elizabeth I ruled England (1658-1603). In fact, Elizabeth wrote Akbar a letter in which she said, "We have heard of your humanity..." Akbar (a Muslim) was noted for his toleration of other faiths.
We had one other 2nd class overnight train trip: from Agra to a station near Dharamsala. However, it was exactly on time leaving and arriving. From the train station we had a 3 hour van ride up into the mountains to the village of McLeodganj, near Dharamsala. The main road was closed for repairs, so we took a secondary road that was never wider than 1 1/2 lanes and often narrower. McLeodganj dates from the British period and its name means "McLeod's place". I wonder who McLeod was!?
Dharamsala is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, who is both the spiritual head of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism and the head of the Tibetan government in exile. The Chinese communists initially promised him and his people autonomy but installed their own government in 1960, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India.
McLeodganj is filled with Western tourists and the commerce they attract: restaurants, hotels, coffee bars, and internet cafes (in one of which I'm typing this). Every coffee shop seems to have WiFi. The streets are no more than 15 ft wide and cars go by at regular intervals, offering careless pedestrians the chance to learn about the cycle of death and rebirth first hand. As in other Indian towns, cattle wander freely, depositing their offerings wherever they please. The pedestrians who avoid the cycle of death and rebirth are likely to participate in the blessings bestowed by the sacred animal of the Hindu faith.