Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges, is seen as the spiritual capital for India. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known for its many ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform puja, ritual washings or cremation of loved ones. Since it is the monsoon season the river is flooded and so I could not see the steps. Due to a large Hindu festival the city was heaving but it was hard for me to work out why. There were crowds of people around the river (like the Thames on a clear Summer evening) but very little evidence of religious observance – my guide, (a convert from Hinduism himself) found it hard to point to any real spiritual symbolism in the things we observed. (That is not to say that it doesn’t happen, just that I didn’t see it.) There were quite a lot of elderly people begging. My guide told me that if parents become a burden some times their children we take them and abandon them on the banks of the Ganges. Equally there are horror stories of cannibals who scavenge for dead bodies after they have been thrown into the river – I had heard that this had stopped but Jonah assured me that it was still true.
Situated on the Indus-Ganga plain, Varanasi has been the spiritual heart heart of India for over a millennium. Even when this area was controlled by Islam, Varanasi remained a pilgrimage site for Hindus. It is therefore hardly surprising that there have been very few Christians here. Equally this is a spiritually strategic place. History shows that the ideas that enter the Ganges here eventually flow through out India.
Which is why I’m staying at Kachhwa (about 20 miles outside Varanasi). The area has the state’s largest concentration of scheduled castes, a poor and marginalized group of people. Over the last 10 years the place has been given a new lease of life – led by new staff. The work here is so exciting. Alongside the medical work there is an awe inspiring church planting programme. In the past, as expected in the heartland of Hinduism, they have faced fierce opposition, including violent attacks. For the past hundred years there have been very few Christians. But in the past 10 years the church work has just exploded. They have embarked on a well planned but ambitious church planting scheme. There are currently over 200 house churches in the area, representing thousands of new Christians! I preached at a Church service this morning (the only time when a bit of roof has collapsed during my sermon … I looked for a lame man but nobody came) and there were about 200 people there – including local teachers and people from the local villages. I get tired just listening to all the work going on!