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Finding Enlightenment in Varanasi India

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 28/03/2016 Kimberly Cantor

On our third and final full day in Varanasi, we had Shukla take us on a city tour with his tuk-tuk. There are over 2,000 temples throughout Varanasi but we only visited a few (I know, how pathetic). To keep the temples pure, we had to take our shoes off and leave them outside (which is always a gamble to see if they are still there when we return). And we weren't allowed to take photos of the inside so I only have ones from the outside. However, from our viewpoint, the importance, history and sacredness of these temples definitely outweighs the aesthetics as they were pretty run down and dirty. But it was still incredible to see the Hindus in everyday form, entering the temples, praying to the various gods, being blessed, etc.
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The first temple we visited insisted on giving Vinny and I a "third eye" for protection. I have always been curious what the significance of the "third eye" was but never actually researched it until now. Also known as the inner eye or chakra, it's a mystical and esoteric concept referring to a speculative invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight. It is also a symbolism of enlightenment. Almost everyone in Varanasi has one.
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Next, we went to a temple that was quite entertaining because they had an entire floor dedicated to explaining the various Gods within the Hindu religion through different scenes (Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Surya, etc.). Imagine an all Indian version of It's A Small World ride at Disneyland (with all the moving, electronic characters) but from 1930. It was a little creepy but it certainly helped us learn in a fun fashion.
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Then, we went to the tallest temple in Varanasi, the Shree Vishwanath Madir, which is actually located on the Banaras Hindu University - the largest Hindu University in all of Asia.
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Lastly, we went to what they call the Monkey Temple because there are hundreds of feisty monkeys all around - some fight with each other, some steal your food and some just stare at you (which can be quite intimidating). The temple is all outside but you can't take your stuff with you past a certain point because the monkeys might rip it right out of your hands. How bananas of them.
After all the temple visits, Shulka took us to a delicious lunch spot that was the most ethnic, local Indian meal we have had yet. They cook all the food in clay pots outside. We had no idea what he ordered but we trusted him (I think). It was delicious. I had a pepper that was by far the hottest thing I've ever eaten - I felt like a cartoon character whose face turned bright red, my palms were sweating and I swear flames were coming out of my ears and nose. What an adrenaline rush. One thing that has been consistent at most meals is a ton of dipping sauces. Shukla had us put about four different sauces on each bite. Three thumbs up.

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The final stop of Shukla's Varanasi City Tour was checking out a factory where Sarees and silk scarves are made. Pretty cool to see them start with a cardboard piece of material, punch out holes for various designs, then add it to a machine that makes the most god awful noise. The people working in these areas must either wear ear plugs or are so used to it because my ear drums were ringing for a good 20 minutes afterwards. We saw a few kids working as well - not sure if that's legal but I guess if they don't care, why should we. The next time you put on a pashmina or silk scarf, think of these people who are making them for you :)

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At night, we attended the Aarti ceremony down at the main ghat, which occurs every evening (rain, hail, or shine), as dusk descends. It's a very powerful and uplifting spiritual event that hundreds of people attend daily. Some were from up the road, some were from other parts of India, some were from Europe or America or Asia - different countries, different states, different religions, different castes, different colors. Sarees to jeans, Dhoti to suits, it was a confluence of faith, cultures and traditions which was mesmerizing in itself. The main attraction takes place on seven wooden platforms placed on the edge of the steps of the ghat. On each wooden platform, there are small tables covered with saffron color silk clothes with prayer items, that include a conch shell, incense sticks, praying bells, handkerchiefs, large brass lamps with snake hood, flowers, water pot, yak-tail fan, peacock feathers, etc. Each of these items are considered to be very sacred in Hindu mythology. The ceremony lasts about 45 minutes. Quite magical to be there and witness this in person.

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This pretty much wraps up our three and a half days in Varanasi. What a mind blowing, unimaginable, indescribable, powerful experience. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world like this city. And how fortunate are we to be able to see it.
We sure will miss the Granny's, Mayur and Kashi. Thank you for making us feel so welcome and at home. Your hosting, teaching, cooking and over all demeanor is what made Varanasi such a memorable experience.
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Tomorrow we fly back to Delhi (about one hour and twenty minutes) then drive down to Agra (about five hours), home to the Taj Mahal. Can't wait to see this beauty in person.
Until next time, keep smiling :)

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