There are so many reasons why we find ourselves back in Varanasi for the fifth time. It’s not only because its one of the oldest living cities in the world, and a center for classical Hindustani music, or the constant flow of pilgrims coming to bathe in the Holy Ganges, or even the grand architecture along the ghat that attracts us. Of course it’s all of that and more – Varanasi is now so familiar and welcoming! We feel quite at home wandering the ghats in the morning and evening and hiding in the lanes from the heat during the day. And the fact that so many recognized and warmly greeted us during our first few hours here, made us feel even more connected – restaurant owners; waiters; chai sellers; CD vendors, the curd seller with his white handle-bar moustache. A gentle faced man who supplies mineral water from a stall that is merely a crack in the wall, greets us, then does a double take as his face lights up with recognition. Gerard has asked, “How can you remember us amongst the thousands of tourists that pass through here on a yearly basis?” Nobody gives a satisfactory response; they just seem to remember.
The streets are more crowded than usual. Shivarati has just finished and just five hours upstream in Allahabad, the two-month long Kumbh Mela has drawn to a close. Scores of sadhus have come to Varanasi to while away a little more time before going back to their ashrams or jungle retreats. Some are colorful in their orange robes, others more shocking, especially the “Naga” who are naked, their bodies besmeared with ashes, their hair matted in long dreadlocks. There is the Naga sadhu who meditates on one leg, his other leg supported on a swing! Groups of sadhus have set up in tents along the river and invite passersby to sit down and discourse, meditate, or share a chillum – there’s a lot of chillum! It all seems a little bizarre.
The newspaper reports an Italian tourist who accepted the invitation to sit with one of these sadhus. He told her he would teach her meditation, but first they would take intoxicants. What on earth was she thinking? Night came, and he invited her to sleep in the tent. (Are you joking?) During the night, when she refused his sexual advances, he beat her repeatedly. Finally she escaped, went to the police and gave them a photo she’d managed to take of the so-called sadhu. So much for the noble tradition of renunciation and brahmcharya – and the naiveté of tourists.
Varanasi, the MOST religious city in India, has a surprisingly large Moslem community and our guesthouse sits on the edge of one of their quarters. There seems to be no precise moment for beginning the call to prayer, and among the many mosques in the area, one very close to us is the first. The muezzin’s voice is clear and resounding until others join in and the individual calls become less distinct, creating a cacophony of sound. As those in the foreground conclude, the ones in the distance all merge in a melancholy melody that pulls us across the rooftops to the edge of the horizon itself. Even though this happens five times a day, it’s the early morning call at 4.45 that seems to be the most haunting. This brings back so many memories of our early years in North Africa when our relationship with Islam was relatively simple – merely a slightly different way to worship God and with many principles that we Christians could learn from. But now the line has been drawn in the sand with the Mujahideen and Jihadists on one side and the neo-colonialists with their drones on the other. It’s all so complicated and we’ve fallen into the trap of fear and misunderstanding. So easy to happen when you’re bombarded with only one point of view. Hearing the call to prayer here has reminded us of what we felt long before 9/11 and other acts of terror which want to harden us against all that is Islam.
Our trekking around India is a combination of visiting familiar and new places. As our time here draws to an end, Gerard laments, “Leaving Varanasi I feel like I’ve never had enough time here and look forward to returning.” Very similar to leaving NYC – two cities that he really loves!