I wait for the train to Varanasi. The sun is up. Lots of people have gathered on the platform. There is talk running around that Intercity is delayed. I have no idea what this is but it does pass by Varanasi. Someone is smoking a beedi. Workers load a trolley with boxes of little yellow chicks. One of the box topples from the trolley. The box opens. Chicks rush out helter skelter on to the platform. Workers get busy trying to collect them all back into the box.
I hear a constant tapping sound. It does not sound like a woodpecker; and a railway platform is hardly the place for a woodpecker. I turn around to notice a man priming his paan supari. Some of it taken out of a little box. A little lime paste is taken out of the other end of the same box. These two are mixed in the cup of his palm. With the thumb of the other palm he grinds them. It is a routine that he has mastered over the years. It does make the mixture to a fine powder but I think it is also a good massage for the palm. When he has done enough grinding, he taps the palm with the other palm. This is perhaps to separate the fine grains from the coarse ones and remove any unwanted ones. The entire procedure of grinding and tapping is repeated a few times, the sound of his constant taps adding to the scene on the platform.
On the train to Varanasi I have a decent rest. I chat up with a retired army soldier. He had been almost called to action to Sri Lanka in the 1980s when Indian troops were there fighting the Tamil Tigers. He gets a decent pension these days of Rs. 1275 and Rs. 43,000 as retirement gratuity. He has some years ago turned Buddhist.
‘I have given up my beliefs of all these Hindu gods and rituals. My family is also following me,’ he says with thoughtful satisfaction.
He offers me some biscuits but I refuse them despite his repeated requests. He is much upset by my refusals and he clearly knows what I am thinking. Others sitting in that compartment witness this scene with interest – will I accept or not?
An old city as Varanasi is bound to be congested, dirty and not an ideal place to stay. I considered staying at Sarnath instead, a town only 10 kms away. As I got out of the train station – I just arrived by a much delayed train from Sasaram but the train itself was fast, the Buddha Poornima that goes up to Sarnath – I found an excellent room in Hotel Mansarovar.
The room is spacious and clean. The sheets are impeccably clean and white. There is piped hot water to be had at any time of the day. There is a television and the remote actually works. They also give you soap, clean towel and a newspaper for the morning. On the second floor, I am far from the noise and the mad rush of traffic below. At only Rs. 225 a night, I quite like it here. I am going to stay at Varanasi instead.
Kasi Viswanath Temple
In the evening I head out to the Kasi Viswanath Temple, passing along the way incredible scenes of the Indian bazaar. Silk sarees and dress material occupy centerstage. Benares, as it is often called by locals, has its own signature silk weaves and designs. The rest of the bazaar is a heady mix of colour and lights. The sights and smells of Varanasi are truly Indian. I am overwhelmed by the experience. It is a sensory overload. It is India that you will not find anywhere else. In one case, a cow is sitting inside on the marble floor of a cloth shop. The shop owner probably considers this a blessing. The customers are not annoyed by this bovine presence.
On the way to the temple, I pass a crossing. At the center is a kiosk where a traffic policeman is standing. He is looking blankly at the scene around him. Traffic is at a deadlock. Everyone is trying to get ahead of the guy next to him. There are no rules here. Get ahead and leave the world to fend for itself. The mess is not yours. The traffic policeman knows that the situation is hopeless. He has given up all attempts to bring order. He leaves the monkeys on vehicles to sort out the problem that they themselves have created.
I don’t see the temple from a distance. It is not in a large open courtyard. It is too crowded around by buildings that have been here for years. The entrance gateway on the main road is small and unimpressive. It is certainly a modest appearance for a temple of such renown. The approach is through narrow lanes or stone cobbled alleys lined with shops selling all sorts of things. Rudraksha beads and rosaries made of such beads are popular items on sale. It occurs to me that many of these shops cater to only pilgrims and that too of the women kind. Much of world economy would be in a perpetual slump if not for women.
There are no free facilities here. I buy some flowers at a shop for Rs. 10. In return he keeps my bag in the locker and my boots on the floor. The temple itself is under heavy security. I am bodily frisked many times. As I enter, the first thing I notice is a mosque. Impossible. Right in the neighbourhood of one of India’s most important temples is a mosque. It is not tolerance or respect but simply a hotbed for religious tension and trouble.
I visit the temple and see the main linga. The linga is within a square sanctum that can be entered from all four sides. It is more like a small mandapa. It is unlike any other shrine I have seen elsewhere. I offer some flowers but others do more. They offer garlands, perform milk abhishek and recite slokas. I visit other shrines in the complex. I admire something of the art and architecture of the place but I am more interested in the ambience of the place.
I visit a couple of other temples in the area – Annapurna temple and Sri Brahmeshwara temple. The latter has excellent sculptural reliefs. I am particularly impressed by the reliefs of miniature shikaras on pillars of the mandapa. Interestingly, reliefs on the outside of many temples here have few reliefs of deities.
In the Ram Mandir are a number of quotes and poems of a spiritual nature. One such poem is a series of couplets that finally ends with this line:
Paise se moorthi kareedh sakte hai, bhagwan nahi
Evening Arati @ Dashashwamedh Ghat
I come out of the temple and walk to the ghats. It is just after sunset. I have not planned this at all but it appears that I am in the right place at the right time. It is the time of arati at the most important ghat of Varanasi, the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Arati is not for any god or goddess but to the river Ganges. But to the priests and pilgrims it is not just a river. It is divinity on earth, a material manifestation of what is not seen. To them goddess Ganga is real and the river is just a manifestation. I rather think the opposite – it is just a river and goddess Ganga is a personification of the river. Either way, the life giving river is important and there is no harm in performing an arati.
Foreigners gather at this ghat to witness this unique spectacle of religious India. Except for their skin colour they are dressed more Indian than I am. In Rome, they do as the Romans. They are dressed in saffron dhotis or pyjamas. They wear ochre red shawls around their shoulders. They carry cotton satchels in earth warm colours. Some of these carry images of Shiva. They kurtas are marked with Om and Swastika symbols. Some wear a red tilak on their foreheads. Regardless of their religious beliefs, they are here to let go and experience India to the full. It might not bring transformation but they are willing to try.
Arati is like a well-rehearsed ritual. There are many wooden platforms on the ghat at its stepped banks. Giant oil lamps are lit and shown to the river. Flowers are offered. Slokas are recited. Music fulls the background. When everything is done, the paraphernalia is put away. The carpets and blankets are folded. The loose petals still fresh from the recent offerings are swept out to the river. Oil lamps are cleaned and taken to their nightly store.
Arati ends at about 8 pm. Bathers strip and dip in holy waters. Then they give custom to the many vendors, buy oil lamps and offer them to the river. These little flames dip and dance of the gentle drifts.
Beggars and self-proclaimed holy men line the steps for alms. A tourist garlands a calf. The calf contorts its neck and begins to eat the same. Local children accost foreign tourists for a handshake. This is gently refused and a namaste is done in exchange. Tourists are quite aware of the real risk of H1N1.
Morning Walk Along the Ghats
I hire an auto-rickshaw to get me to the ghats before sunrise. It is too early in the day to get a shared ride. The river is flowly quietly but it looks like it can never be surprised. It is as much a part of Varanasi as it is a passing flow. It is ready for morning action.
Visiting pilgrims are coming down to the ghats in small numbers to take a holy dip. To them it is a holy dip but for me it is just a bath. The river is a scene of both ordinary and extraordinary depending on how you look at it. Dhobis are everywhere washing clothes. Fact is that the banks are packed with hotels. Other than daily clothes, hotel sheets, towels and curtains end up at the Ganges in the early hours for washing. The sun is just peeping out on the other side of the river. Pujas have begun on this side, the western bank of the river. Some tourists have taken to boat rides along the river to view the scenes on the bank. I am happy to walk along the bank with a view of the rising sun in the background and the ghat scenes silhouetted in the foreground. Little girls have already begun their day selling flowers and oil lamps as offerings to the holy river. A man has just squatted a few paces from me and is pissing into a half open manhole. I wonder if it drains directly into the river which is just a few steps below.
It occurs to me that everything about Varanasi is wonderful. It is a microcosm of India. It is a multi-sensory experience that can be at times be overwhelming. The colours, smells and sounds are all to be experienced. Varanasi is also about belief and non-belief. One does not exist without the other. Pilgrims and tourists will look at Varanasi differently but both are true reflections of the city because everything we perceive belongs to the world of illusion.
The river is not as bad as I had imagined. I then pass Harishchandra Ghat. Logs of wood are piled up in neat stacks. Embers are burning on the banks. I see no death rituals as I pass. No families have gathered anywhere. No dead bodies are lying covered up for their turn. It is a quiet morning for death. Perhaps, such rituals have their propitious times and this is not the time for them. Death at this ghat is not just for humans but also for the trees. Scales taller than six feet stand to weigh logs of wood on the funeral pyre.
The architecture of some of the buildings at the ghats is interesting. One of them appears to be a palace built by a certain king of Rajasthan. Its got a beautiful facade of jharokhas and arches. I guess I will see more of them when I am in Rajasthan.
Benares Hindu University
After the morning walk, I head to the univeristy that is often called BHU. The campus is laid out in a semi-circle. The buildings are beautiful and uniformly painted in a cream coloured with highlights in red. Most of the facades and architectural elements reflect architecture of Hindu temples and palaces – shikaras, jharokhas, jali screens, motifs, canopies, chhatris, chajjas and brackets. It does make me wonder if some of these are really architectural gimmicks if there is no real use for them in a university building. For example, small balconies in the Central Library are probably only to complete the facade but don’t serve any purpose.
Within the campus is a temple that has a beautiful shikara.
From the BHU gate I take a shared tempo which takes me across the river by an old bridge for light vehicles. I see the fort walls and buildings on the river bank. As I enter through the main arched gateway, I bump into a crowd of Sri Lankan tourists. They are obviously on a Buddhist tourist circuit and the fort is just a passing curiosity for their visit.
This crowd of tourists make things slow. I lose my interest to visit the palace in this crowd. I admire the gateway and its facade. I look at the uninteresting quadrangle within.
I walk to the Ramanagar market place just a few minutes down the road. People are busy selling stuff for Holi. Colourful powders are place in piles. One of the vendors wants me to take a picture. I oblige. Another vendor is sitting down with his powders and pistons. A prostitute walks up to him and demands money. He refuses. She lifts up her saree causing the guy some embarassment. He pays up. This is India.