In the early morning, long before dawn, the melancholy song from a man and his harmonium floats over the rooftops. He laments the passing souls who came here to shed their last tear of earthly existence and cast off their broken bodies to the funeral pyre. But, he sings, why should we mourn? For they’re set free in the light, while we worldly ones struggle to find our way.
Around 4 am energetic chanting and bell ringing echo from the Chausathi temple. With such exuberance emanating across the alley, it makes it easier for us to arise and do our own morning practice. And just in case we’re not fully awake, shortly after, a cacophony of mosque calls summon the faithful to prayer across the large Muslim section. The haunting sound as one imam leaves off and another begins, dragging the reluctant out of the oblivion of sleep toward the first prayer of a new day. Get up and shake off your drowsiness. Fritter away your time no longer. Pray to God now while there is still breath in your body. I can hear no political jihad, Al Qaeda or ISIS in his voice.
As we get ready for breakfast, the school master leads his students in call and response, his call eagerly returned by the joyous out of tune voices of his young pupils. Listening to all these sounds drifting through the early morning air, we are reminded that while we may have aged, much that is important in Varanasi has not really changed at all.
My mind lingers back toward our arrival in the city eight years ago – that never to be recaptured first impression- an explosion of color and vibrancy. The ancient Ghats descending down to the Ganges, glittering in the morning sunshine. It was India at its most exotic. Intoxicating, but also scary –would I ever find my way through the maze of little lanes if I dared venture out alone? Saffron robed sadhus with painted faces and dreadlocks; others half naked and ash covered. Hustlers touting puja offerings, boat rides, a massage, a hair cut…
Today, the city has not lost its mystery but with familiarity it no longer threatens.With the ebb and flow of pilgrims and tourists, for the short period of time we’re here I now feel part of it.
The 6pm mosque call rings out and the day’s cycle is complete. As the sun sets, a mass of paper kites flutter in the sky, black specs in the fading light, like book pages charred by fire, blowing in the breeze. While we may not be able to capture the wonder of our first arrival, such timeless moments lure us back each year.