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Varanasi and Rajasthan, India

February 8-20, 2020

Background story.

The main purpose of this visit to India was to attend a very unusual conference for me:

8th International Translational Cancer Research Conference from February 13-16, 2020, at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India. The theme of the conference was “Inflammation and Immune System for Cancer Prevention and Treatment”.

It was unusual for me because it was mainly a biological basic science meeting. My neighbor, Dr. Bharat Aggarwal told me about this meeting in advance. He was a distinguished investigator at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who retired in San Diego. He is a foremost authority on health effects of Indian spices, especially turmeric and inflammation. I asked him who would be covering the relation of physical activity to cancer, inflammation, and immunity at the conference. His reply was to ask me if I would like to do that. So I received an invitation from conference organizer, Dr. Subash Gupta, to be a featured speaker. It turned out to be an important professional activity for me, as well as a great tourist experience. I am very grateful to the conference organizers for treating me so well and the students who were patient and informative guides.

Note the timing of the conference, which was when the scope of the coronavirus pandemic was just emerging in early 2020. To give my talk, I had to do a lot of homework about physical activity, inflammation, and the immune system. It became clear to me that physical activity had a great deal of relevance to how the body reacts to viral infections, yet I had heard no public health authorities mention that physical activity could potentially help reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections. I considered this a missed opportunity so I adopted a mission of raising awareness of the likely benefits of physical activity. Soon after returning to San Diego on March 7, 2020 (after 2 weeks in Australia) I began these efforts. My first goal was to publish an op-ed in a major US newspaper on the evidence-based benefits of physical activity for viral infections, immune functioning, inflammatory responses, and stress control, co-authored with Dr. Michael Pratt. [https://rbafs.org.br/RBAFS/article/view/14268] We were turned down by 6 newspapers, so we sent the op-ed to about 100 US and world leaders in public health as well as many physical activity colleagues. This distribution produced no responses outside the physical activity community, but the op-ed was posted as a blog on several websites of exercise and physical activity organizations. We then turned the op-ed into a commentary that was later published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Activity and Health. [https://rbafs.org.br/RBAFS/article/view/14268] As the present blog is posted in 2021, there is still virtually no attention being paid to the promise of physical activity by public health leaders in the US, but I understand some countries are explicitly promoting physical activity. Please see a more complete description of my involvement in COVID-19 with links to all my related publications. On my home page, click on Publications by Year and Special Topics [https://drjimsallis.org/publications_byyear.html].

Below are photos from my time in Varanasi. Following that are photos from my visit to Rajasthan state, preceded by a few introductory comments to provide a context for that visit.

I arrived at the airport in Varanasi at night, and the ride to the hotel was about 1.5 hours. Even very common scenes like this are fascinating to a visitor.

The next day a student took me to see the most famous attraction in Varanasi—The Ganges (or “Ganga”). This holy river is beloved. It is relatively quiet in the middle of the day. Entrances to the river edge are called “ghats”. This is Assi Ghat, the 80th gate, which is the last one.

Speaking at the Varansai Conference. I love the attention to aesthetics common in conferences in India and throughout Asia.

There are many types of boats used along the river. I saw several of this type being built right on the river’s edge. You can see the intensive development along the river into the distance.

There are impressive temples all along the river.

This amazing boat is rented for parties, probably many wedding parties

Bathing in the holy waters is an ancient tradition. It’s more about cleaning yourself spiritually than cleaning your body.

A colorful temple. There are steps all along the river. They provide access in all seasons because the river’s level varies dramatically.

This is one of the most important points on the river. This is a crematorium, and there are queues of family members waiting for their turn to cremate a relative 24 hours a day. Notice the smoke stacks.

This photo gives an idea of the amount of wood used in the cremations.

A cremation fire right on the river bank. I was told that fires on this spot have burned continuously for millenia. People travel from all over India so they die and be cremated in Varanasi.

To commemorate Shemi’s death and provide a blessing, I bought this little boat with flowers and a candle and sent it on its way down the Ganges.

A very busy street near the River. The buildings on both sides have entrances to elaborate mazes of small alleyways. When the shelter-at-home orders came a few weeks after my visit, I wondered how they would ever achieve enough physical distance to slow the spread of the virus.

This couple is part of a wedding party.

It was easy to find a good selection of fruits and veggies in the city.

Water towers serve a higher purpose by being painted with religious figures.

Spiritual seekers.

Everybody’s welcome in the bazaars.

I love the colors that are everywhere in India.

Some colleagues from the conference.

Part of a palace complex on the other side of the Ganges from the main city of Varanasi.

They are at home around the palace.

Subash Gupta and his wife gave me this beautiful kirtan.

On my last night in Varanasi I was grateful that Subash took me to a “Ganga Aarthi”, a nightly Hindu ceremony on the banks of the Ganga. There are also morning aarthis. Please see the videos I posted on my “Smiles Here” youtube channel (in youtube you can search for drjimsallis).

A photo with students after my talk at Central University of Rajasthan.

One of the best designed places for walking that I saw on this trip. Note the statues of animals along the lakefront path.

My host, Hemanth Naik spent a day touring me around some of the sights of Rajastan.

Part of the extensive markets around a temple complex in Pushkar, Rajastan.

I had a quick but wonderful visit to Jaipur, Rajastan. It is known for impressive architecture.


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