Is Phoenix a sanctuary city

Holy places in the Hindu religionsExpedition into the universe

"There are many reasons why Hindus go on pilgrimage. Younger men, for example, who undertake the march to the source of the Ganges, talk about wanting to prove their fitness. At the same time, however, they repeatedly refer to the tapas , the Hindu discipline of asceticism. "

Says the Australian religious scholar Richard Barz.

"Like Baghirat, who is said to have stood on one leg in the Himalayan town of Gangotri for 5,000 years. Then Ganga, the river goddess residing in the Ganges, poured down from heaven and washed away the sins of his ancestors. Such things were the pilgrims during their pilgrimage in mind - even if they originally only wanted to train themselves physically. "

Unlike Muslims, for whom pilgrimage is a compulsory religious program, Hindus plan their pilgrimages as they see fit. There is not the one Sanctuary in India, but many places that have sacred potential for Hindus. Hindu believers are convinced that mountains can have divine power - but also animals, people, rock formations, plants or bodies of water.

"Each sanctuary holds different holy places"

"An example: There are three places that are venerated because the holy river Ganges is said to arise from them. Followers of the god Krishna therefore visit Mathura or Vrindavan, while followers of Shiva are more attracted to Varanasi. But: A worshiper of Shiva may under certain circumstances Many religious scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries made the mistake of introducing some sort of ranking system for Hinduism. In this ranking, all holy places that have to do with the Ganges were at the top. In my opinion but after that this is not really correct! "

Because: Whether Hindus visit Varanasi with the 108 places of worship, whether they ask in Haridwar on the upper reaches of the Ganges to be freed from all their sins or whether they just walk around the statue of their god at a lesser-known pilgrimage site - each of the shrines holds different saints Places in themselves, so the conviction. And so every procession for Hindus becomes an expedition into the universe.

Many sacred waypoints are located at intersections between land and water, on river banks or on mountains. Divine presence is also assumed when two or three rivers flow into one place. Legends do the rest. According to moderate estimates, several hundred thousand Indians are out and about every day to attend a religious festival or to make their own personal pilgrimage.

View of the Indian city of Varanasi on the Ganges (dpa / picture alliance / Tesinsky David)

First a bath in the Ganges

And most of them travel at least once in a lifetime to Varanasi, India's most famous Hindu pilgrimage site in the state of Uttar Pradesh, according to Hindu scholar Anuj Dardivedi:

"After arriving in Varanasi, people first take a bath in the Ganges. Then they go to the temples that are most important to them. Even those who just want to learn more about Hindu customs and traditions come here - to Varanasi."

Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, after dusk: the smoke from the first cooking fires mixes with the scent of sandalwood that escapes from many small shrines. Temple bells ring to awaken the gods from their sleep. To the right and left of the stairs that lead down to the river, Brahmin priests sit in orange robes to take the pilgrims' vows and money.

Hindu pilgrims take a bath in the Ganges in Varanasi (imago stock & people)

Holy cities and sites are abundant across India. But none of these places is of as great importance as Varanasi, which is the center of the world for followers of the god Shiva and is also called "Kashi", "City of Light".

The sky river in "Kashi", the "City of Light" (imago stock & people)

"Aren't there many rivers that flow into the sea? But which of them is like the heavenly river in Kashi? Aren't there many areas of liberation on earth? But none equal the smallest part of the city that Shiva never left is. "

In this place consecrated by God Shiva, says the Hindu priest Pandit Phanikumar, the believers can not only accumulate religious merit, but also internalize the teaching of the Dharma particularly well:

"At a religious site like this, people are filled with Dharma, the Hindu ethic: everywhere they are surrounded by prayers and the worship of the gods, and they can exercise charity because there are particularly many poor people at pilgrimage sites. In presence With so many gods one cannot help but realize what constitutes the Dharma - namely the appeal to fulfill one's ethical and religious duties and to pass this knowledge on. "

Diversity of Hindu Religions

In addition, Varanasi brings out the diversity of the Hindu religions particularly impressively. Around two thousand places of worship - temples, shrines and images of gods carved in stone - can be found in the "City of Light". All deities who have rank and name are among them. So also Shiva's son Ganesha, the most popular deity of the Hindu pantheon.

"People love him because of his great intelligence, his personality and his appearance: Ganesha is fat and has the body of a child with an elephant's head. He likes sweets, is kind and also very clever. And he rides a little mouse!" In addition, there are so many legends that surround him. "

Says the Indian scientist Manjiri Bhalerao, who comes from Pune. Most Hindus not only love this god, here in Varanasi they also need him very much. Anyone who has completed the five-hour circumnavigation of the most important temples and cult images of Varanasi must have their spiritual merit credited by Ganesha. Otherwise all effort was in vain. At a certain shrine of the so-called elephant god the believers stop again, fall on their knees in front of the red glowing statue with their silver hands and ask the deity for her blessing.

A statue of the Indian deity Ganesha. (AFP / Indranil Mukherjee)

Just a few meters away, an old man is painting the horns of an astonished-looking cow. It is noon in the holy city. The pilgrims step out of the Ganesha shrine into the glaring sunlight. They go to a snack bar, where they are served sweet milk tea and vegetarian dumplings. A little further on, a sadhu, a Hindu saint, has buried himself in the ground. Only his head peeks out.

Nearby is the cremation site, where sons kneel down next to the pyre to let Ganges water drip into the mouth of the deceased father. It has always been the custom, says corpse cremator Kailash Chowdoury:

"In order to show respect for the deceased, the son, father or brother must have their hair cut beforehand. Then they take a ritual bath in the Ganges, put on a white robe and go to a temple nearby. There he brings the holy fire. "

In Varanasi, where God Shiva is said to have moved into his earthly abode, the holy fire burns for twenty-four hours. It is said that anyone who draws a cup of water from the floods is absorbing the spirit of Hinduism. In Varanasi, Hindus are getting closer to their ultimate goal: liberation, the end of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

"Learn the principles of morality and the profession in the first 25 years of your life. In the second stage, earn money and enjoy the sensual pleasures. After that, lead a virtuous and pious life in seclusion for another 25 years. And then, in your fourth stage of life, strive for liberation. "

Holy places live on the dead

Holy places like Varanasi live on the deceased who saved up to be consumed by fire before they died. In Varanasi, God Shiva is supposed to whisper a mantra in their ear, powerful syllables that support the deceased on their onward journey. The cremator Kailash Chowdoury is also completely convinced of this:

"Those who let themselves be burned in Varanasi go completely pure into eternal happiness: into nirvana. That is why relatives from all over the world bring their dead relatives here to have them burned in this place. If there is no other option, the cremation sometimes occurs but at home. But even then the family brings the ashes to Varanasi and scattered them in the Ganges. "

Not only the corpse burners, but about 75 percent of the residents of Varanasi benefit from the dead. And of the living. Millions of pilgrims populate the city every year - and they encounter religious service providers.

Corpse incinerator in Varanasi (J├╝rgen Webermann)

For example barbers who sit exactly where everyone has to go - on the steps that lead to the river bank. The barbers have special blades for funeral shaving and others for a moderate haircut that allows pilgrims to go back to the office after their bath in the water, pomadized and neatly shaved.

The deceased and their relatives are also employers of the boatmen who have positioned themselves on the shore. They bring the corpses of the poor, who cannot afford to be cremated, further out onto the river and there dump them into the water. They do the same with the "five special kind of people", as the cremator calls them - those five groups of people who are not cremated - for traditional reasons, since time immemorial:

"When saints die or pregnant women, people with smallpox, children under seven years of age and victims of a snakebite, the corpses are weighed down with a stone and released into the water. The cremation has the purpose of purifying the soul of the deceased People are considered pure by us, they don't have to be burned. "

In India it is customary to wrap the dead in a white cloth and then to burn them.

Only early in the morning and in the evening the ferrymen have no time for these dead. When the first rays of sun light up the river and just before the sun goes down, their boats are bursting with life. Then the time has come for the tourists, their chance to drive past the cremation sites in the best light and zoom in as close as possible to priests, relatives, the cremation staff and of course the corpses.

Hindus on the Ganges (Nishita Desai / Flickr)

When the visitors from all over the world dive back into the maze of alleys richer by a few impressions and many dollars poorer, they have the opportunity to look over the shoulders of the "gods-tailors". These ritual specialists dress the deities, who are put on new clothes every day in the temples. They come from families in which the fathers have always passed on their knowledge to their sons. From morning to evening, the men who specialize in divine wardrobes cut the fabrics for the statues and step on the pedals of their sewing machines. The finished products are picked up by temple messengers and delivered to the priest.

His job is to wake these statues in the morning to the sound of bells. Then he bathes his gods, wets them with rose water and puts on their day dress for them. Only then are the pilgrims allowed to bow to the gods and ask them for their blessings.

"What I do doesn't matter. I'm a pundit, a religious scholar who tries to bring believers closer to God. I'm just doing my duty. It's nothing. Really: nothing."

What Pandit Prem calls "nothing" can result in hours, sometimes even days, in a Hindu ritual. This does not make the priests rich, but they also do not work for God's wages. Above all, some of the higher Brahmin priests have a reputation for singing their litanies empathically and for hours at a premium.

Spiritual enlightenment obscured by shadows

Neither the priest Pandit Prem nor the Indologist Manjiri Bhalerao want to deny that the places of spiritual enlightenment are repeatedly darkened by shadows. And it is not just greedy Brahmins who tarnish the impression of the "holy idyll". But also the haggling of the corpse burners for the price of wood, or tourists and their lust for sensation at the corpse cremations, or the beggars who stick a needle in the bottom of their babies so that they scream and arouse pity.

However, none of this detracts from the constant influx of believers. On the contrary: Due to the increasing mobility of the Indians, the many pilgrims can hardly find a place to stay at large festivals.

"Twice a year we celebrate particularly big festivals for our river goddess Ganga. Countless candles then light up the edge of the bank. And millions of people come here to enjoy it," said the priest Pandit Prem.

And: No, say the priest and the Indologist. Even a cremator who poses for a "last photo with the corpse" in front of tourists' lenses in the evening for money does not diminish the importance of such a place of pilgrimage for Hindus. Not even the rude demeanor of the workers who, in the middle of the night, sweep up the ashes of the dead from the last 24 hours and beat anyone who wants to secure a piece of cloth, a log or a piece of smoldering coal from the ashes.

The pilgrimage to holy places remains central for Hindus. Despite all contradictions. And although all the hardship is actually not necessary, the Indologist Manjiri Bhalerao explains:

"In India we say: 'God and I - we are one and the same'. God is in our house altar. And the image at home is no different from that in the temple. So why do we go on these pilgrimages anyway? Because it is us fulfilled, because it makes us happy! And: Because our ancestors have already made pilgrimages to these temples and places. It is and remains a tradition in our families to visit a certain temple or place on certain days because our ancestors have already visited this place and declared it to be the origin of our family. "