Today I saw pretty much every important and touristy location in Varanasi.
First I went to Godowlia at around 8:00 AM to meet Giridhar Mahodaya (if you will remember, he was one of my teachers at the Samvaadashaalaa in Delhi in January) because he was going to meet me there to be my tour guide around the city. We made our way first towards the Sanskrit College, called Sampoornaananda Vishvavidyaalaya (that’s not how it’s spelled, but that’s how it’s pronounced… which I think is more important). We had called a rickshaw driver, and on our way we stopped to pay our respects at a mandir. As we were walking inside, I learned that it was Gayatri Mandir, the temple dedicated to the Goddess Gayatri, and the Sun (the famous Gayatri Mantra is made to pay respects to these deitites). After receiving prasaad, or food blessed by divine presence, we headed out. We gave some prasaad to the rickshaw driver as well, and were off to Sampoornaanand.
A little funny note about prasaad: it’s quite interesting to see different people’s reactions to the fact that any bit of food is prasaad. Usually it is something sweet, and many old people’s reactions to sweet things is “No!” but as soon as you tell them that it is prasaad, they take it quite willingly. It is obvious that secretly, from the start, they were wishing they could eat it, but due to their apparent diabetes or whatever the case may be, they don’t take the sweets initially. But then they are given the reassurance that it has been divinely blessed/purified, and they gladly take it without further thought. Such is our faith! If it’s prasaad, I’ll eat it. The same thing goes for people who don’t like whatever it is you are offering them. Tell them it is prasaad, and they put aside all their distaste and dislike; after all, it’s divinely blessed – there’s really no way of saying no to that. Prasaad is such a wonderful concept.
We found ourselves at Sampoornaananda University next. It is a huge campus, similar to BHU’s but not on such a grand scale. It is beautiful; there are trees everywhere, and everything is written in Sanskrit (all the boards, etc.) because, well, it’s the Sanskrit University. People go there to become scholars in Sanskrit, so it would only make sense that their campus is full of it. As we were walking through the campus, we passed a really old looking chap with a baseball cap on and a walking stick, and really worn out pretty much everything. Giridhar Mahodaya informed me, after passing him, that he had just read about this man in the paper, with his picture and everything matching exactly this guy’s profile. He told me that this man had walked 55,000 kilometers (yeah, I know, that’s fifty-five THOUSAND kilometers) all the way from his native place, Maharashtra. After trying really really hard but not being able to resist talking to him, we walked up to him and asked him where he was from. He said “Maharashtra” and we looked at each other with crazy expressions like 3-year-olds finding some secret buried treasure in a sandbox. This was insane! A guy who walked 55,000 km across the country starting 18 months ago, and here he was in front of us, with no pomp or anything! He asked us how we knew about him, and Giridhar Mahodaya told him that he had read about him in the paper. This man, apparently, was not free from vanity. He told us he had been looking for that same newspaper all day, and while we were talking to him would not stop asking us where the local/good newspaper stands were, and why there weren’t any proper newspaper stores in this city. We had to detach ourselves from him after a while; it was time to go. He called out after us to make sure one final time we didn’t know of any good newspaper stands nearby that he hadn’t already checked out. (I really love India – the people are just so… unique). We were still amazed though; 55,000 kilometers… that’s a whole heck of a lot of kilometers. And he traveled it all by foot!! (Later, when we got back to Godowlia, we saw one of our friends reading that same newspaper, and silently laughed to ourselves).
Our next stop was the Bhaarat Mata Mandir. This is a sanctuary dedicated to the ancient land of Bhaarat, fittingly located in its oldest lived-in city. The reason it is called Bhaarat Mata is because its inhabitants worship their land as their mother; it is this soil that gave them (and humanity in general) life, and they give it proper respect. Bhaarat, of course, was way bigger than what is modern-day India. It was spread out all across modern-day China, Nepal, Bengal, Malaysia and Singapore to the east, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Sri Lanka to the south. It included all of the mighty Himalayan Mountains and great river Ganga; it stretched from ice to tropics. It was the most fertile land, teeming with resources, and the cradle of an ancient, complex civilization that figured out facts of the world and life through introspection and contemplation that modern-day science is still struggling to understand. In the last few hundred years, she has been stripped of her original glory and beauty due to invasions from the north… I’ll stop here for fear of getting passionate and angry. It is my motherland, after all.
Anyways, this mandir is a quiet-zone where there is a HUGE 3D model of the ancient Bhaarat. In it, even every mountain in the Himalayan range is labeled. It is such a fascinating thing to observe. Let me be a little more specific. It’s like a 20-feet-by-30-feet clay-cast model of India and surrounding land, all plaster-colored, specific down to each and every geographic detail, set on the floor. I don’t know how they did it but they did. This model is surrounded by about a 2-foot gap, with a railing that goes all around the model, from behind which you can view it (what people do is walk in a clock-wise fashion around the railing). It’s similar to a museum. There are stairs leading up and dowstairs, but the upstairs ones were closed, so we checked out the downstairs ones. These led to a tiny viewing window that was set at the very tip of Mother India, at exactly eye-level. So you could see the model, observing each geographic detail, at eye-level! And the interesting thing was, it was set at the base of the landmass, representing the feet of Mother India. We offered our prayers (it was like a temple after all) and paid our respects to the motherland. I was deeply touched by this experience, and anyone coming to Varanasi absolutely must come visit this temple. I didn’t want to leave, but Giridhar Mahodaya said it was time to move on, or we wouldn’t finish our tour of the city.
Our next destination was Varanasi’s train station, called Kant Station (I don’t know if it’s spelled Kant or Kent or Cant or what, because it’s not written anywhere at the station, but it’s pronounced “can’t” … I assume it’s spelled “Kant”). We reached the station and it is HUGE! It’s bigger than the airport in this city! I believe that is because the rail system is much more developed in smaller cities than the air system. This station is packed with parked cars, booths to buy tickets, booths to buy food/drink items, buses that bring travelers to different parts of the city, rickshaws entering and exiting with their passangers, and people! Everything is visible from outside, which is cool, because we didn’t have to go all the way inside to check it out (I needed to see it because this is where I’m going to be leaving Varanasi from, and I didn’t want to be lost on the day I leave).
After seeing Kant Station, we were debating whether to go to Ram Nagar or not (the city opposite the Ganga to Varanasi, where there is a fort and other touristy things to see), but decided against it as we were too tired and it was way too hot outside. Instead, we went back to Godowlia and parted ways there, probably only to meet each other in another year or two… But friends made in India are friends made for life, without any expectations. This is one thing I have learned to appreciate about Indian culture.
A little note about the weather here, it’s getting HOT. I don’t know the exact temperature, as I don’t get the newspaper and don’t watch TV, but it feels like 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And the local people tell me it only gets hotter… In May, temperatures reach up to 45 degrees Celsius! That means around 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit, and with heat index (it’s dry heat over here, not humid), it probably feels like 140. What that means is, it’s impossible to go outside… if you do, you will literally start to evaporate. Now, imagine this – there are people who live in little tents outside. And I don’t mean a few, here and there, I mean a LOT of people. How do they survive the summer? I am told that a lot of them don’t. This is the state of our beloved oldest city in the world. What are we doing? We are the ones causing this upsurge in heat, by polluting our land and water and air. Just by telling everyone to stop polluting, the polluting does not stop! A good deal of the people contributing are illiterate or uneducated, and don’t understand the harmful effects of polluting the land. I talked to a guy who came from Switzerland 18 years ago, and has been living here ever since, and he told me that in his 18 years here the weather and atmosphere of Varanasi has changed drastically. He is worried about the pollution in the air, and despite his strong body and serious love for this city, does not feel that he can stay much longer due to the adverse changes in the atmosphere.
In the olden days, I read, Varanasi was a woodland, full of greenery and lakes and rivers and was the perfect haven for the spiritual seeker. But now it is reduced to what will soon become a wasteland if people don’t start caring about their environment. The only way I can see this being done is by using the police force, ensuring that people do not litter, instating garbage cans all over the city, and pretty much redesigning the infrastructure. Now, if only the police force wasn’t so corrupt… If they catch you doing something bad, you just have to give them a few rupees and they let you go. I have learned that many policemen stop you with the expectation that you will give them some money; it is their way of earning daily bread and butter. But such is the way of the world, I guess.
All I know is, during the day, my room turns into a toaster. And it’s beginning to get uncomfortable, because I happen to be the toast.