Sunday, March 16, 2008

Adventure 10: Varanasi, the City

A few days ago a brahmachaari came from Mumbai to visit Shayur and attend the completion of his purascharanam, which is a long, elaborate ritual at the end of which you have to feed some Brahmins… I don’t know too much about it, so I won’t try to explain. Anyways this brahmachaari’s name is Brahmachaari Samvid Chaitanya, so we call him Samvidji. I had never met him before, but when Shayur and I went to receive him at the entrance to the Krishnamurti Foundation I met him and we talked for an hour or so. Imagine a guy with a shaved head except for a little shikha in the back, which is just a little tail of hair in the back of the head, who laughs all the time, and pretty much resembles the Laughing Buddha (clothes and all). And speaks Sanskrit. That’s Samvidji. He’s hilarious, and is also always laughing himself. He was Shayur’s Sanskrit aachaarya (Sanskrit teacher) at the two-year brahmachaari course Shayur took that ended last September.

 

Today Shayur, Samvidji, and I made our way into the city for it was the end of Shayur’s purascharanam. We started by going to Kedar Ghat, which is on the other side of the city (as always), did some rituals in the Ganga, and went into Kedareshwar mandir. There we did some more rituals, offered our prayers, and left. After that we made our way to the Siddhi Vinayak Temple, which is located a little inside the city from Manikarnika Ghat, the funeral ghat. It is said that here, a cremation fire is burning 24/7. This is the traditional cremation grounds for Hindu families, because it is believed that it is most auspicious to cremate the dead at Manikarnika Ghat. And if one cannot cremate one’s dead here, it is said that even to bring the dead’s ashes here after cremation is enough to be very auspicious for the soul of the deceased. Interestingly, it is said that it is also most auspicious to bathe in the Ganga at Manikarnika.

 

We made our way to the Siddhi Vinayak Temple, for it was here that Shayur’s final ritual would take place. We said some incantations, and then he was ready. However, all 25 Brahmins had not arrived. One can always count on Indian Standard Time (IST, or sometimes DST for Desi Standard Time) when waiting for someone. Accordingly, all 25 finally showed up. However, the food had not arrived! How ironic. While we were waiting for the food, Shayur got a call from Kalpana saying that she, Chellam Aunty, and Josephine had arrived at Manikarnika Ghat with the help of Rita Didi in a boat, and they needed to know where to go. I was given the task of going down to the boat, retrieving them, and bringing them back up to the place… so I did. After bringing them over, Josephine started to feel a little uncomfortable, because being one of three women there, and the only white woman, she was not particularly prepared for the occasion. Josephine then left us for her hotel, where she was staying for 3 days before returning to Raj Ghat.

 

Finally the food came, and Kalpana and I helped Shayur serve the Brahmins, while Samvidji chanted some mantras. It was pretty awesome, actually. There isn’t much more to say about the food aspect of it – the people ate, they left, we cleaned up and then we left. Afterwards, Kalpana and Chellam Aunty sat in the shade a little distance from the river, while Samvidji, Shayur, and I made our way to the Ganga. We were at Manikarnika Ghat. I thought we were just going to go take a picture or something, and then be done with it, but Samvidji caught me by surprise when he said we were taking a full bath in the Ganga at Manikarnika Ghat!! So we stripped down to our boxers, and literally jumped into the river… and it was COLD. But once I was in, I didn’t want to get out, because a) I hadn’t swam in years, and b) it felt really, really good. Anyways we got out, and over our dripping boxers put back on our clothes. Both Shayur and I used our undershirts to dry ourselves a little first, which we then put on. It was so hot outside that this actually felt amazing. What an adventure! AND we all bathed at Manikarnika Ghat!!!! My clothes dried up pretty fast in the sun, and it was a great feeling to have bathed in the Ganga. I actually felt extremely clean.

 

We then walked back up to where Kalpana and Chellam Aunty were sitting. From there, all five of us made our way through the streets of Varanasi as we were really hungry. We stopped on the way for an orange juice from a street vendor. Let me tell you something about orange juice from street vendors. They’re AMAZING. Why? Because after putting 5 or 6 whole oranges into a metal machine that turns and juices the oranges into a big pot, they put a spoonful of masalas (spices) into each cup (for everyone who wants it), and then pour the orange juice from the pot into the cups. And then you drink it. And it’s just the best orange juice I have ever had, and since it was hot, it felt really good. Aftwerwards, we found a place to eat nearby, where Samvidji asked me to pick the food we ate, so I did. I picked some traditionally rich dishes, and we ate them, and were stuffed beyond compare. It was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, or maybe I was just extremely hungry. One can never know.

 

Anyways, Samvidji basically told us that we all had to try paan. And I was totally game. But before paan, I bought a couple of laddoos, which are round, Indian sweets that are just scrumptious. I can’t explain how good those laddoos were. We all shared them and then moved on to the main street where we found a paan vendor. Paan is a combination of spices, and some other ingredients that resemble jelly but taste like sweet heaven, wrapped in a special leaf called a Paan Leaf. Also, it has digestive power, so people usually eat it after eating food. Now, Paan in Banaras is the most famous paan in the world. So famous, in fact, that there are songs about it. It is made with a special leaf that is smaller than normal paan leaves, and so fits easier in the mouth, and almost every man in Banaras (it seems) is chewing paan. Of course, their paan has tobacco in it usually, and other dirty-ish ingredients, so they not only get high, their mouths are always red in color, and they are always spitting red liquid out of their mouths, much like baseball players do in the west (though baseball players’ spit is not red, it comes from tobacco). What happens is, you chew paan for so long, and lots of spit accumulates in your mouth, and for the ones with tobacco in them, it is not the safest thing to be drinking that all the time, so they spit it out as often as needed. But everyone talks with what seems like a mouthful, and sometimes it gets annoying, but nobody seems to notice or care because everyone does it. So, we got a paan for each of us (without tobacco, of course). We enjoyed it very much (at least I did).

 

Then, moving on from eating laddoos and paan, we decided we would go to Kala Bhairava mandir. By rickshaw. So Samvidji and I sat in one rickshaw, and the other three sat in the other one. When we reached Kala Bhairava, we dismounted and prepared to go into the temple. Kala Bhairava is the “Guardian of the City,” a form of Shiva that has huge eyes, signifying his ever-watching state, and also his authority on right and wrong. Keep in mind that this is different from Kashi Vishvanaath, who is simply the ruler/owner of the city. I suppose ruler/owner and guardian are two different responsibilities. Anyways we made it into the temple, paid our respects, and then left. It was a rather awesome experience, because Kala Bhairava has this effect of humbling the devotee, which is a great thing if someone is trying to rid oneself of one’s ego. It feels good to have a huge watching guardian over you, because you feel like you have to act rightly all the time. But that’s a good thing.

 

 After we exited Kala Bhairava mandir, I was craving a lassi, because my experience last time had been amazing. As we made our way out of the web of streets that every temple in the city seems to be hidden within, we found a lassi stall. I hesitated, but then gave in to temptation and craving and asked the man how much a lassi would cost. He said five rupees for a small, and ten for a large. So I said to give me a small. Seeing that I had stopped, Samvidji also came over, followed by everyone else. I told them that they HAD to try a lassi in Varanasi, because it is just the best experience ever, served in an earthen pot and everything. So I had the first sip, and it was just as good as the first lassi I had had at Pehelwaan's. I was completely overwhelmed by good taste and smiles. The rest also tried one each, and they all loved it as much as I did. In fact, Samvidji even had another one. It was great!

 

We walked a little more through the gullies of Varanasi and Shayur and I noticed that every five or ten feet there was a door, not necessarily with its base on the ground, just randomly placed in the walls. We both wondered what was in those doors, or how one got into them. Or why they were even there. We passed one that was actually open, a door that was about three-fourths my height, and I looked into it as we passed. It reminded me of a world completely unexplored by mankind… Just inside it, in front there was a wall… there were two stairways, one leading to the left and one leading to the right, which didn’t seem like they could possibly lead anywhere, judging from the way the wall looked surrounding the door. But one can never know. I tapped Shayur on the shoulder and showed him because he had missed it and apparently he was reminded of the same idea. An unexplored world. He was just as tempted as I was to just jump inside and see where the door lead, but we restrained ourselves. I made a mental note to explore as many of these little doors as I could (no matter how dangerous; they make for excellent adventures) before I left Varanasi.

 

(I don’t know how many of you have played Zelda, but I feel like Link sometimes… I randomly pick up stuff here and there, keep it in my little cloth shoulder bag, and it comes in handy later on. And I carry around a flute everywhere I go… which for now acts as both the Ocarina and the sword… Sometimes my health is down, sometimes it’s up, sometimes I find things – like fruits – that restore it… It’s a strange but wonderful feeling to actually be the character you’ve always played as in video games...)

 

Finally we found our way out of the maze and saw the beautiful river Ganga. It was nearing sunset, so we decided to sit on the banks of the Ganga at a beautiful location on a bench under a big umbrella made of leaves. This umbrella concept is really famous in Varanasi. They are huge umbrellas, like the kind you see in America in peoples’ backyards covering their lawn tables or whatever, but made entirely of leaves. It’s a sweet concept. And they’re sturdy, no less. We discovered that we were sitting at Scindia Ghat. I don’t know the significance of this ghat, and neither did anyone sitting with me there. We talked for a long while, before we spotted Marc randomly walking along the ghats some distance from us.

 

I called out to Marc, and soon learned that he was heading home, by walking. By this time, it was around 5:30 PM, so I decided to go with him. My class would be starting at 6:30 PM, and I could not miss it! The rest of everyone said they would come by boat, so we bid them farewell and started walking. Many things happened on our walk home. One, I noticed how much attention white people receive from onlookers and people that they pass as they walk without actually wanting it. Everyone tries their bit of English, which usually consists of “Hello!” in a really annoying tone, and “Thank you!” and “Money?” (clearly asking for money, because of the ridiculous amount that foreign people have compared to them). Marc was handling the attention well, because I guess he was used to it, but there was a point when a kid from behind ran up to him and jabbed his knee from behind, which caught Marc by surprise (obviously), and then ran away back to his group of friends, making sounds like a dog. I think that was on purpose, just to scare Marc. Marc was relatively unperturbed, though he did mention, “That was strange.”

 

Another interesting thing that happened on the way back was our conversation. I learned that there are more people in the world who are interested in adventuring and such. He’s doing the same, but his motive is to write something about the city. He wants to write about the relation of the people to the Ganga, which I think is one of the deepest topics I’ve ever heard of. And I know he will do it justice, or at least come close. I was awed and inspired by his tale and his goal.

 

We exchanged pleasantries at the gate of the Krishnamurti Foundation Guest House, from which he went to his room, and I went to Swamiji’s class, right on time.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Varun, this is my favorite post yet!! I love hearing about the city, I swear as you're talking I can hear and smell India (i know you understand what I mean) ...I can even taste it a little!

PS ...you think white MEN get attention in India, I was in one of the most westernized cities, and I was followed around like a celebrity!

I miss you tons!! I hope you're well!!

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