24 Jun Varanasi, Part 2: Ghats and Gumptis
Written by Katelyn Zaremba and Sarah Norman, 2014 India: Gender & Religion.
After working and living in the village of Mehidi Ganj, the OG India: Gender and Religion team returned to Varanasi to continue our work with World Literacy Canada, learning about Gumpti Libraries, literacy programs, and spending our last couple days by the Ganga (Ganges) River. An interesting part of WLC’s work is the Gumpti libraries. A Gumpti is essentially an accessible little square box roughly 4x5x5 ft, filled with books and propped two feet off the ground. These tiny resources have definitely been well utilized! Each of these libraries has over 300 members of all ages and since their establishment, have lent over 4000 books to its members. The libraries support the whole community in literacy skills, but in particular provide access to the resources necessary for individuals in the Balwari Programe (A free year of education access for young children to encourage enrollment in government schools) and Adult Literacy Classes.
In Trans Ganga next to the library is a Gumpti shop which was funded by a loan from the Mahila Mandal. A Mahila Mandal is a women’s self help group that meets weekly and has meaningful discussions surrounding topics such as politics, personal issues and any other community concerns. This group offers support by collecting a small amount monthly from the members (1~2 dollars each) and using this fund to offer low interest loans strictly to the members. The loans can be for anything from starting a business to a family emergency that may arise. The women also used the money gained from interest rates to purchase cooking instruments available for the entire group. We also paid a visit to a women’s Adult Literacy Class, which teaches local women how to read and write in an accessible space within their communities. It is a free of charge service for all women and girls who are illiterate and it is usually a year long course. These experiences were very informative and gave us a new insight into the value and appreciation of education, as well the incredible amount that can be achieved with minimal resources, WLC’s model relies on careful and well-thought-out community engagement, rather than huge funds to invest.
During our free time we were able to explore the majestic and spiritual city. Many of us took our free time to wander along the ghats (miles of inter-connected concrete steps and temples and walkways) down by the Ganga. People, around the world and India, dream of being able to stand in this city and it was a surreal realization we had that we were lucky enough to experience this. It was apparent through the beautiful ancient architecture that this is the oldest inhabited city in Central Asia, but it was contrasted with all the modern graffitied street art lining the ghats.
The steps leading down to the Ganga were crowded with people, cow manure and barking dogs, yet they emphasized the life, death and communal space the Ganga provides for everyone. Everything happens near or in the river. The river is used for bathing, swimming, washing clothes, brushing teeth, washing cattle and countless other everyday uses. It is also a place of worship and prayer. Cups of flowers and candles were lit and sent into the Ganga for good karma and for a good, healthy family. Other than everyday uses, the Ganga is an extremely spiritual and holy place. The funeral pyres that are located in the older part of Varanasi are a place for deceased Hindi people to be cremated and their ashes offered to Mother Ganga, the single most auspicious place for your soul to leave the earthly realm, with a particular significance in the complicated process of Samsara (re-incarnation cycles). We ventured to the pyres one day and a man shared his knowledge and wealth of experiences surrounding the funeral pyres and the Hindu religious practices. We learnt that the fire used to cremate the deceased had been continuously burning since the wife of the legendary Krishna was cremated thousands of years ago. We realized the Ganga was the epitome of the circle of life and the culture reflected therein.
Our last night in Varanasi was an amazing finale to our time in one of the holiest cities in India. We took a fleet of cycle rickshaws to the main ghat for Aarti at sunset. Thousands of people crowded the steps to behold the ancient Hindu traditions. There were multiple ceremonies from different temples happening all at once, and each one had their own ways of showing their devotion. There were bells chiming, drums beating, peacock feathers waving, conches blown and heat coming from the fiery torches and rows of candles. Everywhere we looked there was constantly a sight to see, if it wasn’t a temple’s devotional practices it was someone trying to sell us flutes, postcards, bindis, henna ink, or the chance to pet a cobra in a basket. During this ceremony, which revolves around putting the river to sleep, hundreds of people take this opportunity to float candles with flowers in the Ganga. Soon Mother Ganga reflected the night sky, she looked like she was covered with twinkling stars. It was truly a magical scene (like something from a Bollywood movie). After Aarti we took a reflective boat ride back to our temporary home, Tiwari Lodge in Assi Ghat where we ate a quick dinner and prepared for the next leg of our adventure on the OG Gender and Religion program.