Saturday, January 12, 2008

India: Day Ten (Varanasi)

The way, according to our guide book, to properly see Varanasi, is by boat during sunrise. This city, for which we had spent 19 hours the previous day cramped into the backseat of a compact car in dusty traffic, is the holiest of Hindu sites, a city on the Ganges where it is believed, if you die and are cremated on its shores, your soul is completely purified and you need not come back in any further incarnations. The history of Varanasi reaches into the period Before Christ, but the town, as it is, is comprised of structures 500-200 years old (they look, though, much older, as everything here in India seems to). Although the Lonely Planet, and every person we had asked, said that the sunrise boat ride was a must, we decided that this would be the first day we did not wake before sunrise, since we were so haggard from the journey there. We slept in until 7, had breakfast (more as-you-like omelets, apparently a breakfast staple, hash browns, toast, plus Indian breakfast foods including deep fried vegetable cutlets, deep fried lentil cakes with a curried broth for dipping, and fresh lassi. And so, I ate two breakfasts, took some bananas for the road, and we went to meet Jasvir and our guide, whose name was Sambhu.

To my delight, as soon as Sambhu had directed Jasvir into the center of town, he had him park the car, and we got out to walk; this was a double boon, since it meant not only would I be able to stretch my aching limbs, but also that I would be able to take pictures. We walked through a short make-shift alley, a vegetable market where all of the stunningly bright carrots and greens and chilies where laid out on the floor, around the old Indians, who squat amidst their wares all day long (I’ve been wondering whether what we consider “meditation” in the West is simply an internalized way of life in India, where people just sit, for hours, in the most absurd position, without moving at all). I took a gazillion pictures and we hadn’t even walked 20 feet. At the end of the alley, the tarp coverings gave way to a gorgeous view: a wide expanse of sand-pink cement steps leading down to the banks of the Ganga (as the Indians call it). The sun, already a bit high in the sky, although there was still a morning chill, lit the view like a dream, painted boats gently knocking against the shore, toothless beggars wrapped in white cloths sitting in the sun, people of all ages and body types standing in the water up to the waist, and dipping up handfuls of it to pour on their heads. I was taking pictures non-stop, portraits mostly, while my mom purchased some cups lined with marigolds and with tiny candles inside, which were to be floated on the river as offerings. Sambhu took us down the stairs and into a boat, and as we pushed off, told us what I’ve just told you about how the Hindu people feel about the Ganga, which they also call their mother.

The staircase we had walked down is called a ghat, and the town of Varanasi has nearly 90 ghats (basically, the entire shore is lined with stairs, all in different colors, and all for different occasions). Many of the ghats, like the one we had just descended, are bathing ghats, but some are washing ghats (for laundry), and others are cremation ghats, where dead bodies, wrapped in a shroud (red for women, marigold for holy men, white for youths) are dipped in the Ganga and then set on a pyre made from banyan wood (sandalwood is preferable, but costly, so often banyan wood is used instead, and sandalwood incense is scattered across the body) and burned. Ashes and the remnants of the hip bone are dropped into the Ganga. If a child dies before the age of ten, or a pregnant woman dies, or a cripple dies, the body is dropped into the Ganga without being burned (hardly sanitary, though the fact that the city’s three major sewers empty into the Ganga is probably much worse). Our boatman paddled us up the shore, where we lit our candles and made our offerings (“Make a wish,” Sambhu said, and my mom said, “Do you mean a prayer?” to which Sambhu replied, “As you like.”) The water was peaceful and quiet, and the light on the city rising up from the shore was pink. Our boatman paddles us down the shore, where we could see fires just being lit on the cremation ghat, and then our boatman paddled us down a bit more, pulled up to the shore, and helped us out. Sambhu led us up the steps, all the while explaining the details of the cremation process. People (and the smell of feces, and a million flies) were all around me, and I didn’t stop taking pictures. A barber was shaving a man’s head, a goat was meandering up the road, men were carrying logs on their heads, the air was filled with smoke, children were dragging sacks of something, women were shopping, and we were gaping. We were asked not to take any photos of the actual cremation, although the image of a foot sticking out of a burning pile of logs is set on my mind’s eye, probably forever.

Varanasi looks the way I expected India to look. Not until we arrived here did I see the marvelous colors I had expected, the legions of holy men with tangled beards and wild eyes, the narrow streets with tiny hidden temples every five or six paces (I do not exaggerate). The city is some combination of a medieval Italian city, like Sienna, or better still, Venice (since the streets are too narrow for cars, and everyone walks or rides a scooter or motorbike), a boardwalk (with the attendant beggars, shamans, peanut salesmen, white hippies, and local druggies (chewing beetle is the thing here, and I saw many squirts of red on the ground that I thought were bloodstains until I saw that all the young men had red spotted teeth, and put it all together)), and a church, where families have come to part with the dead, and where the local people baptize themselves daily on the river’s shores (often with soap). And so, I took a gazillion pictures.

We walked for hours, just following Sambhu, who was born and raised in Varanasi and knows all of its tiny, twisting streets. I took photos of people and the colors painted on the walls, and my mom peeked into all of the tiny temples dedicated to different gods (although Shiva is the major god celebrated in Varanasi). When we came to the Golden Temple, the biggest one in Varanasi, into which one isn’t allowed to bring a bag, a camera, a mobile phone, or anything other than a wallet I decided to remain outside with all of our collected items, and let my mom have her spiritual experience on her own; I had peeked into enough Indian temples to know that they are not really to my aesthetic taste, and since a spiritual experience is the last thing I expect to find in a temple (and probably the last thing I wanted at the moment anyway), I had no qualms about passing it up in order to stay outside where I could take pictures of people. I was doing this when a guard shouted at me “No cameras!” and I half-heartedly whimpered, “but I’m not in the temple,” before slunking into a corner where I wouldn’t be noticed. I watched the cows and motorcycles pushing through the crowds of people trying to get into the temple (the road here, and in most of “old” Varanasi, is about as wide as the hallway in an average American home). A man a foot away from me was dressing an altar with flowers and incense (the altar was no more than a three-inch deep recess in the wall) and chanting in Sanskrit. Eventually (it took a long time), my mom emerged with a glowing smile on her face, a glowing red spot and a gold mark on her forehead, and a long chain of yellow and red marigolds around her neck. She had paid INR 20 and done a pooja, which I imagine is some sort of blessing.

Next, Sambhu took us to a silk factory (remember that no guide shows a tourist anything in India without taking that tourist to a place to spend money), where he works weaving silks in monsoon season, when there are no tourists. We were led to a white mattress to sit amongst walls of fabrics, and were brought chai. Since we had already spent so much money on this trip, my mom had made me promise not to let her buy anything in Varanasi, and since she doesn’t get excited about fabric the way she does about jewelry, I didn’t imagine this would be a problem. However, the proprietor, a nice, fat man with a big smile, had 101 silks rolled out, and dressed my mom up in a sari, and had me take pictures. Just as she was falling in love with it, he revealed the price to be something around $500 American, and so she quickly snapped out of it (if she had even been snapped into it in the first place, which I doubt). I do think, though, that she felt obligated to buy something, even as did I, and so she asked again and again for cheaper things—maybe just a scarf, maybe just a chiffon one instead of heavy silk. Meanwhile, I played bad cop to her good (a natural pattern we fall into that works fairly well when bargaining—it wasn’t an act at first, but now, at least for me, it is) and told her that she couldn’t spend anything more than the INR 500 (barely over ten dollars) I had given her that morning, when we had fought over money (she wanted some for something or another. . . pooja, or a beggar, and I wouldn’t give it her, since I had no small bills; Sambhu had paid the INR 20 for her pooja at the Golden Temple). The proprietor laughed that 500 would buy her nothing, and that the filmy gold and purple scarf she was currently fingering would cost her INR 2500. I mock-yielded, and told her that she had 500 already, and that I would give her another 500, but that was it. Miraculously, after much time passed in conversation, tea-drinking, and scarf-trying-on, the proprietor yielded as well, and told her to take the darned thing for INR 1,000 (still about $25, and more than she would pay for a scarf at home, which I told her, in front of the proprietor, as part of the bargaining). He tried still to get her to buy more, but she told him (for once, with some relief, I think), that she couldn’t, because I had all the money, and was clearly not giving it up.

After this, Sambhu asked what we wanted to do, and my mom reminded him that he had promised to take us to see an astrologer (he had mentioned it on the boat ride, and I had naysayed, clearly to no avail). We walked through more twisting alleyways, whose broken cobblestones were stained with the shit, both freshly steaming and dry and dusty, of the thousands of bulls, cows, goats, sheep, and dogs that roam freely. We came to a small dead-end street, took off our shoes, and climbed three stairs into Guruji’s little lair, where he sat, a fat man with a beard to rival his belly and a white-painted forehead, on a white mattress on the floor. He invited us to join him. I think that I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in his services, as clear as my mom made it that she was (announcing, as the case was, that it was her birthday), but I took the proffered chai nonetheless, and it was the best one I’ve had in India. Guruji spoke and spoke and spoke and I only half listened, in a way that doesn’t necessarily behoove recollection. He was introducing himself (in excellent English), and showed us his book in which all of his previous clients had written notes in myriad languages next to the astrological chart he had filled out. I bowed out rather quickly, after he said that what he would tell each of us was private, not to be told to anyone, not even each other, saying that it was only for her, that I wasn’t interested, thank you, and that I would step outside and wait there, even though he promised to tell me things about my life that no one knew, and about my past lives, and about the future, since he had known, since he was six, that he could see things, that god spoke to him, and that he had therefore chosen that path of Sadhu (or holy man), not marrying, and only working for charity (hmm. . .) In the boat that morning, my mom had asked Sambhu how much the astrologer would charge, and our guide had said it was by donation. I asked my mom how much money she wanted on my way out, and gave her the requested rupees (a semi-paltry sum).

Outside, I sat on a ledge in the sun; Sambhu had gone for a walk, so I took out the Lonely Planet and began to read the section on India’s history. Soon, I noticed a few baby monkeys running along the rooftops, and I watched them for awhile. A mama monkey appeared, and kept grabbing at one baby, who was insistently climbing up the window of an adjacent building. After the baby’s third or fourth attempt, she grabbed him by the tail, yanked him down, and pulled him into her arms, where she held him close to her and he began to breastfeed. I took out my camera, but as I was zooming in for the picture, she turned away, hiding her baby from me, as if she knew my intentions. All this time, I could hear the voices of mom and Guruji, but not what they were saying. Sambhu returned and asked whether I wanted to go for a walk, but I declined, needing the rest. When my mom finally came out (and requested extra rupees, which I gave her silently, while she shiningly handed them to Guruji), I expressed my hunger, and Sambhu took us to a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant, where Jasvir joined us for lunch. The food was amazing, and when I saw a mouse on the floor, I kept mum (just as I hadn’t told mom about the roach I had seen at Le Meridien’s Club Lounge, where we breakfasted every morning, which, when I pointed it out to a waiter, had been swept up into a dustbin rather than smashed the way it would have been in New York). After the meal, when we were all drinking chai (except mom, who hates it, and was having hot water with fresh lemons), Sambhu pointed at the floor and said, “look, a mouse,” but it didn’t worry her at all. I tried to remember what Woody Allen movie refers to “tandoori mouse,” but could not.

After eating, Sambhu again asked us what we wanted to do. Guruji had, apparently, promised my mom some kind of deeper reading, or greater blessing, or something, if she gave more money; she was trying to decided whether she wanted to get this “talisman” as she called it (though he kept telling her not to call it that)—there were actually two that she could get—the smaller power (for—you got it—a smaller sum) and the larger power—for more than three times the already egregious (in my opinion) price, so she was still turning the idea of returning to him around in her head. He suggested maybe returning to our hotel for a rest, since at 6:30 (it was nearing 3:00 then), the holy ceremony for the sunset would take place on the ghats. We decided though, that since the hotel was a long drive through traffic, that we would rather not return there (particularly since it wasn’t anywhere near as nice as we had expected it would be), and instead drove to the university, where a number of the conference attendees had attended or were teaching (it’s a holy-kind of university, I suppose). Here, we went to a big temple (shoes off, no photos allowed inside) with marble floors and columns, and ceilings painted in the Rajasthani style. I was surprised at how Occidental the architecture was—rectangular atria, columns, and airy ceilings with three-foot deep moldings. The walls were all marble, inlaid with Sanskrit quotations from the Upanishads, as well as primitive renderings of some gods. Everywhere you turned was another little nook with a statue of a god inside—Hanuman the monkey, Ganesh the elephant, etc.—with a tray for donation. The greater gods, like Shiva, had attendants at their nooks, who took money in exchange for making a mark in red, gold, or white paint on the pilgrim’s forehead (it suddenly hit me, seeing all of these marked heads, that this was rather like the Roman Catholic’s Ash Wednesday, when everyone who went to church goes about proclaiming that fact on their face). After a while, we went back to the car and drove back to the old city to take a walk before the ceremony. Somewhere along the way, mom decided that she wanted to go back to Guruji for the small talisman.

And so, we went back. I was invited in again, and was offered another chai, but declined to demonstrate my distaste for what was taking place. Guruji launched immediately into a kind of lecture about the curtain over my heart, that he knows me, even though he didn’t know my birth date, because he knows about me because he knows about my mother. He told me that I needed to make a change, so that I could be happy. He told me that it would cost X for a ten minute conversation, a sum exorbitant, and almost ten times the charge he had given to my mother for her initial forty minute talk (as if that would better convince me?!) I tried to keep the conversation on her, and asked about her two options, and their costs. He explained that the “small power” meant that at the temple, someone (him?) would make pooja for her for 21 days, and for the “large power,” pooja would be made for 60 days. I pointed out that it made more sense to buy three small powers, for 63 days of pooja, and at a lower cost than the 60-day power. He tried to distract me by giving me sums—adding the numbers of my mother’s birthday in a way to come to two one-digit numbers that—somehow—inspired his choice (or not-choice, as I suppose he was attempting to prove) of cost, although this exercise proved nothing except that I can do simple sums in my head. He warned me that it is not good to be too clever. I handed my mom a stack of rupees (there was again a skirmish over the cost—he offered her two new prices for the smaller power, and I waited for her to choose one; she chose the lower) and made my way outside. I said to Sambhu immediately, “That man is very proud,” and he replied, “he has studied for many years,” either misunderstanding my reproach, or choosing to ignore it. He and I then went for a long walk in comfortable silence; he bought peanuts, and I took pictures. I saw more white people here, surprisingly, than I had seen anywhere else in India; they were all young hippy-types, growing beards and wearing orange clothes with sandals, and chatting philosophically with wizened Indians. Because the city is beautiful, and manages to retain a sense of peace despite all of the questionable activities happening within it, I was able to easily fight my disdain, although here, writing about it all, that is harder. In any case, I felt as though we had been gone for a long time, so we went back to fetch my mom, who was still talking with Guruji. I sat back on my perch, and an attendant brought me chai. Soon, the two emerged, chatting happily. Guruji asked me if I would like my turn and I told him “No, I don’t like to pay for my inspiration.” He ceased to address me then, and if anything, I was grateful that he wasn’t like the salesmen of the street, who lower and lower their prices to a revolting pittance rather than let you get away. I took a picture of him with my mom, he told me to try to come back to see him within the next three years (calling me daughter), and we left.

The ceremony wasn’t ready to start because the sky was still twinkling twilight, so we took another stroll to the cremation ghats, and came back to the ghat were the ceremony would be. I was bloody tired and wanted to go back to the hotel and catch up on the blog, but my mom, who was having the most blessed of birthdays she had ever had, wanted to see the ceremony, and so I exercised patience, fought my yawns, and waiting, listening to the chanting and harmonium being played over the loudspeaker; it was like a festival, but the ceremony isn’t particularly special—it takes place every night. “A lot of work,” I said to Sambhu, gesturing to the seven tables with seven matching sets of peacock fans, incense pots, white feathers, rings of flowers, candles, etc., all set up like dinner time, and Sambhu pointed out that I go to work every day—the Brahmin similarly perform this ritual daily; it is their work, and they are paid to do it. Soon, the group of seven holy men, dressed in rich saris of burgundy and egg-white silk, gathered at a central microphone and chanted for a while. Then, they each went to their own place, picked up a stack of burning incense sticks, and slowly, with great ceremony, circled the sticks around and around, twenty or thirty times, facing the water, then facing each other direction. Then, the sticks were placed in pots, and they each picked up big two-tiered metal pots of burning incense (the smoke was immense, and blowing into our faces), and slowly, with great ceremony, circled the pots around and around, twenty or thirty times, in each direction. This was repeated with each of the items on the altars, while bells were rung unceasingly by the members of the audience/congregation lucky enough to have been handed a cord (Sambhu was one of them, and my mom, sitting next to him, rang them for awhile as well). After forty minutes or so, I’d had enough, and my mom yielded to my exhaustion and agreed that we could go back to the hotel; the ceremony wasn’t over, but Sambhu promised it only consisted of more of the same—the slow, ceremonious circles with the flowers, then the feathers, and so on. Back home, she fell asleep immediately, quite contented with her birthday, and I stayed up to write, dreading the fact that I would have to wake up the next morning at 3:30 for the lengthy drive back to Agra, where we would spend our last day in India seeing the Taj Mahal.

See pictures of Varanasi here.

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