Wednesday, August 7, 2013
On the Ganges' Shore
With even the most detailed directions, we could never have found our guesthouse on the Ganges’ shore by ourselves. A young worker from the Sita Guesthouse on the Chausadi Ghat where we had booked a room met us on the nearest street large enough to accommodate traffic other than on foot or hoof. (Plenty of motorbikes zoom through the narrow lanes, but they don’t really belong there.) We moved rapidly through one turning after another, passing a variety of little shrines, many Shaivite, with fresh offerings around the lingams. In a short time I gave up trying to set mnemonic markers so I could find my way back and simply followed my guide to the banks of the slow, dark, impassive Ganges.
When we met the proprietor of the Sita, he proudly informed us that his late father had been a distinguished astrologer who boasted among his clients the actress Goldy Hawn. He ran off to fetch a scrapbook with photos confirming this connection to celebrity before showing us to our room. When we pointed out a few small insects in the bedding, he enthusiastically declared, “No problem, no problem at all!” and shouted orders at one of his workers who presently appeared with a spray can of insecticide which he applied liberally enough to create a noxious poisonous cloud. “There! Okay, now, no?” he confidently asked.
Whether wisely or not, we accepted the room. It had a balcony over the river and a side view facing a dormitory for some faction of holy men. We were to see them at all hours doing domestic chores like washing clothes and cooking. It mattered little that our modern sink simply drained onto the floor, thus teaching the hand-washer to lean well forward in an effort to avoid splashing one’s trousers.
Varanasi is without doubt a spiritual center of Hinduism, but I learned that does not necessarily lend to its appeal as a holiday destination. “Why would you go there?” an Indian-American friend had asked, “You go to Varanasi when it’s time to die.” The fact is that the burning ghats where cremations are performed leave most visitors surprised not to be more disturbed. Perhaps even the visiting skeptic is influenced by the general spectacle of religiosity, played out at all hours on every side. The constant crowds of saddhus, devotees bathing in and drinking the murky water, masseurs, yogis, both for hire and self-absorbed, diviners of various stripes (some sheltered in permanent little shaded seats to receive hopeful customers), pilgrims, musicians and chanters, apes and cattle, all create an otherworldly atmosphere in which any manifestation of mortality short of a ravening Kali with a girdle of skulls is likely to seem digestible, even one’s own poor vulnerability. Then there are the touts and beggars. Now and then a haunting flute melody would rise from the path along the river’s side. There was no telling whether the tune arose from an enlightened ascetic who had trekked down from the mountains or a hustler hoping to gather a few coins by selling cheap pipes.
Even apart from the constant scene along the river’s edge, there was no lack of action. The rhesus macaques whom I had previously associated primarily with their beneficent role in the polio research of my childhood leaped from building to building seeking freshly offered edibles at the many shrines or a bit of tasty trash. On the rooftop restaurant of the Sita one worker stood by at all times with a stick to prevent the animals from snatching the dinners from in front of guests. After dark, we heard them thrashing around on our balcony.
The tourist and the devotee alike can experience an epitome of the Ganges’ symbolic potential every evening at the Dasaswamedh Ghat where an elaborate ceremony is held, lasting perhaps an hour and a half, and featuring fire, incense, bells, juggling, chanting, a row of seven simultaneous officiants, and music in various tempos. In this spot Brahma himself is said to have performed the archaic ten horse sacrifice detailed in the Vedas and described in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The present-day ceremony, called the Ganga Aarti (Ganges Perfect Love) is a full-blown spectacle. As mendicants and holy men circulate, congregants clap their hands with the music; they pray; at times they raise their hands, fingers wide, and wave, looking like nothing so much as a Pentecostal service. People place votive candles in small boats of folded paper and set them floating in the river, so that, after a time, a veritable flood of luminous desire illuminates the water’s path downstream. Praise of Agni, the god of fire and twin of Indra, opens the first hymn of the Rig Veda. His transformative flames were considered to transmit sacrifices to the divine world, and the use of fire as a route to god flourishes here nightly.
After a time the casual visitor to Varanasi may find the powerful odors of the city -- incense, cremation, excrement, cooking, sharp chemical scents and soft floral ones, charcoal and rot – to be too much, particularly in concert with the incessant cries, shouts, songs, and chants. Our own remedy was to catch a pedicab to Sarnath, on the city’s outskirts, the Deer Park which was the site of Buddha’s first sermon to the five bhikkhus. The pandaemonium of Varanasi vanishes in this airy and quiet area frequented only by monks and pilgrims. The visitor notices, though, that the hovels of the destitute still line the approaches to the temples, monasteries, and colleges, most of which are walled off and set back from the road, surrounded by green lawns and gardens. The fabulous mythology of the Hindu pantheon, the phantasmagoric sights of the holy city, the most potent of sights, sounds, and smells, all can seem in memory a lurid dream, though a dream dreamt only yesterday.