Varanasi: City of Death and Liberation

After our experience in general seating, a night train in 2AC was blissfully comfortable!  But the “weather disturbance” followed us.  Gerard watched a lightening storm from the window beside his bunk, while I slept soundly above.  Arriving just before 5 am, the now familiar Varanasitrain station was easy to navigate in the dark. Too early to go to our hotel, we waited until light. Gerard adeptly handled the hustling rickshaw drivers and they left us alone.
Standing beside a toothbrush seller, I watched the deaf mute sitting cross legged on a mat, a bundle of branches from the neem tree beside him. His handicap didn’t seem to impair his ability to do his job with great efficiency and ease.  He’d select a branch and with precision chop it into equal lengths and add them to the rapidly growing pile in front of him.  He seemed optimistic…and early morning business was good.  Positioned at the station exit, a steady flow of travelers stopped for a “toothbrush”.  Holding up one finger to indicate the price, he patiently let the discerning customer disrupt his pile of sticks, rifling through to pick exactly the right one.  Women wanted a skinny stick, men a more substantial one.  An old man with softening teeth wanted the edge of the stick shaved.  For an hour I watched in fascination.  The pile of rupees he kept under a piece of newspaper in front of him grew rapidly and became 5R….10R notes as he made change.
A boy with a pile of newspapers came by and gave him several.  He stuffed them away in a bag beside him.  Later another boy dropped off the Times of India in English.  He put that away too…when business slowed down later in the day, I presumed he’d read them When he went off for a few minutes to relieve himself, he put a stone on top of the newspaper covering his rupees, confident no one would take them.  It was now lighter,   and time for us to snap out of our trance and get going…
Entry into our beloved city was rougher than usual. We had never been here during rain nor had we been here when it was cold – and on our arrival it was both. Walking through the muddy lanes at six in the morning to our guesthouse was not the welcome mat that we were hoping for.  Surprisingly even though they refused to take reservations on the phone, we had the “best room” on the fifth floor overlooking the River Ghanges.
My trusty guide/maintenance man set up a washing line, and rewashed the floor…and the “clean” towels …and we settled in. When I think about it, it’s amazing that Gerard can travel in Indiaat all, he’s such a neatnik! Then he proceeded to wash his sneakers…Later in the day as the sun came out, and the sweepers had done their job, the city we remembered began to reappear.
Longing for live classical Indian music we finally had the opportunity our first evening here. It was the last day of a prolonged Holi celebration which included four performing groups on a boat facing the ghat. First the solo instrumentalist played a shenai, and then came a violinist, followed by a young energetic sitar player. The last performer was delayed by another freak thunderstorm. We hustled back to our guesthouse and when it stopped raining we could hear a female vocalist through our open window.  Of course we hope to hear more, but it looks doubtful.
Our fourth time in Varanasi, we find it an easy place to be in.  There’s so much activity on the street that just going to and from wherever we need to go is fascinating. And even in our hotel room, the monkeys entertain us, hanging on the bars in front of the window, sitting with their feet dangling in, talking to us. Even though there are many places to visit, it’s not a necessity. Gerard says that staying in Varanasireminds him of the three months he spent in Marrakech one winter.  It wasn’t so much about what to do; it was much more about just being there.    On the other hand, I feel I should be doing something; still learning that you don’t have to make things happen….sometimes they happen of their own accord.
It’s easy to be social here – most of the shopkeepers are more than happy to enter into conversation with the tourists. Both of us are amazed that merchants remember us – even from several years ago.  “Hello, I remember you from two years ago, you bought the blue bedspread!” The CD shopkeeper smiles and says, “And when did you return?”   
But as in any city the exploiters are lurking, looking for an opportunity. I’m well aware that you’re not supposed to take pictures at the Burning Ghat, where the cremations take place, but I go ahead and do it anyway.  And this time I got caught! Three men pounced on us. They ranted and raved about how illegal it was to take pictures at the cremation site and what a big mistake we’d made.  “The police will demand a large fine and destroy your camera. But….we all can a big hassle with the police if you make a donation to the hospice or buy kilos of firewood.”  “How much?” Gerard asked.  “3000 rupees!”  Greed had once again foiled their plot!  If they’d asked for 300 R they might have gotten it.  But 3,000?!  Gerard said, “Forget it, we’re going to the police,” and started to walk off.  Two of the three saw the futility of their ploy, and didn’t follow.  The third, with breath smelling of alcohol, persisted. “But sir, we can avoid big problems with the police if you make a donation.”   Again, Gerard says, “How much?”  And now it’s 500 rupees!  He confronted the man, “Have you been drinking?”  Denying it, the drunkard shrank away.  Once again the tour guide comes through; he’s good at deflecting difficult people and situations.
Our friend from Agonda, Johnny, showed up for a couple of days and one of the things he really wanted to do was see the cremation site at the Burning Ghat.  Making our way through the back alleys, we came on to the back side through the mountains of wood.  Young boys approached us wanting to guide us through the ritual – but of course for a “donation” for the hospice. For the most part, we managed to avoid all of that and stood quite close to a funeral pyre. This isn’t something morbid but for the western eyes it’s very sobering to see bodies slowly melt away in the flames. Even if it’s only for a moment, the inevitability of death cannot be denied.  When the skull finally explodes in the heat, the Hindus believe it’s the final release of the soul from its physical entrapment.  All three of us were moved and silent. We left feeling a little more in touch with reality…although I’m sure what we witnessed affected each one of us differently.
People come to Varanasito die; they believe that if they die here their soul will be liberated.  Therefore, one could say that this is a city of death – or liberation!  No matter where you are there’s funeral processions making their way to the cremation ground. Somewhat similar to the funeral processions in New Orleans, there is a joyous character to it all.  We even met an English father and son, who had brought the grandfather’s ashes to put in the Gangesat his wish.   So other than all of the other fascinating aspects of this city, it really is renowned for death and liberation, making it necessary to go and see the Burning Ghat at least once.
Both of us have had a long standing interest in the Muslim saint, Kabir, who lived in Varanasi.  So with that in mind we thought we would go out to visit his birthplace.  As it turned out it was a long dusty rickshaw ride and the very large memorial/meeting hall was more about the person who did the fundraising than it was about Kabir. Close by we stopped in at a Kabir Sahib Ashram where a young man spoke good English and tried to explain to us the lineage of which they follow. All in all interesting, but not really worth the hike out there.
50154  Coincidentally, there’s a temple immediately next door to our guest house and we noticed over the door the name, Shibendu Lahiri.  Curious we went inside in the evening and there was a mass of pictures of the swami order of Kriya Yoga, of whom the most famous in the west is Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiograhpy of a Yogi).  His Master’s Master was Lahiri Mahasaya. Here it was a strange blend of Hindu lingam, marble statues and pictures of several past yogis…and Einstein!  But their devotion still seemed very Hindu based, including waving incense, conch blowing and bell ringing.  Not exactly, what I understand the practice of Kriya Yoga to be!  But we still like to sit there and experience the intensity of the sound for a moment overwhelming the oscillations of our busy minds. 

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