I have been walking for almost an hour now – I am all drenched in sweat, my water bottle is empty. I do not feel tired… Far in the east, the sun is about to rise – the sky is a bright, beautiful shade of pink and blue. A temple bell sounds somewhere and I draw my eyes back to the world. There is a flight of stairs at my feet and below them after a thin expanse of sand, Ganga is flowing nonchalantly.
I stand alone – the lonely backpacker in this fair of foreigner tourists. This is their east, this is the cradle of human civilization. Here in Varanasi, even the air smells 5000 years old…
The river is an unending, mighty serpent around the city or has the city cozily snuggled to the Ganga? It is hard to say, but as I see people bathing in the water, offering the water to the sun, I once again understand – why, Ganga is our mother. It does but offer itself to us, in all its entirety, in all its chastity.
I sit by a sage on Meer ghat. He is wearing saffron like most others in this city – tattered in places. There is a multitude of beads around his neck and wrist. Their fake pearls are shining on his sun kissed flash. I look at him only to find him looking back at me. There’s a frightening tranquility in his eyes. It is invading my mind – his peace – calming down the questions of curiosity with a simple wave of hand.
I offer him Bisleri, and he smiles pointing out to the river stretching majestically in front of us. I laugh, my kindness dwarfed in its entirety.
“What is it like, to be a sage?” I ask.
“But that is not why you are here, son…”
“I…” (More silence follows)
The sun is peaking over my head. I rush to the shade of a banyan tree in a temple compound. The temple itself is small and lonely but for the kids playing around in the compound. There are Sita-Ram-Laxmana idols inside. Varanasi has temples like this as a wall has colors splashed over it on the day of holi.
An old man walks to me asking if I want a ride in the boat. I thank him saying that I’ve had enough for a life time. Brushing the sweat off my eyebrow, I see the famous Manikarnika ghat in a distance. A burning pyre is emanating smoke.
The ghat is surrounded by numerous wood shops, sit-on-the-ground-eat-in-the-pattal kind of eateries and surprisingly some stalls selling mineral water, tea and biscuits. There’s business in death too.
Cremation at this place, they say, is bound to give one freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. They also say that there has never been a day since time immemorial when a corpse was not burnt on this ghat.
I do not care for the ‘truths’ they have faith in or the ‘lies’ they spread. This is not the first cremation that I am descrying nor shall it be the last, but in this moment, I’ve understood the human endeavor of fighting death with life. The answer to the fears of our faith is in welcoming it with our arms wide open and embracing it like a long lost brother. It’ll be perhaps in this gesture that the faithful shall be granted nirvana.
Around a 1000 strong crowd has gathered to see what is a daily ritual but is as powerful and enchanting as it must have been a 1000 years ago. The spiritual seekers have loaded the boats – some to get a better view, some for better pictures and some for their beliefs – an adventure of a lifetime. The head priest is crying hoarse asking people to sit down calmly – all the skills of a masterful showman.
So much for the lonely moksha… (sigh)
Beneath the 7 symbolic hollowed umbrellas, the priests have gathered. The conch shell has filled the air with its echoes and they start ringing the bells. The bhajans are getting played on the loudspeakers, loudly. Gods are to hear the prayers, if not by heart, then certainly by decibels. Some people in the boats are floating glowing lighted up earthen lamps in leaves on the river. To the Gods, Ganga must be a galaxy filled with stars right now.
And while I was looking away, the crowd has swelled to multiple 1000s!
Out of nowhere, a priest has fired up all the lamps. They are mountains of fire in the hands of culture. I wonder how mystique, awe-inspiring it must have looked 40 years earlier with no electricity around.
The hands of the priests move in slow melancholic rounds with the patience, perseverance and deftness of thousands of years. I am wondering if the priest hood is restricted to certain – ‘pious’, ‘high-born’ families. How do they induct their sons, apprentices – reciting the Sanskrit shlokas flawlessly? They must have read and learnt the Ramayana or may be Ramcharitmanas(some relaxation of rules over centuries), by heart.
Do they know 40 different versions of Ramayana, like I do? Will they be Ram – eating the berries tasted by Shabri or will they be Rama dejecting their lawfully wedded wife for a washer man had questioned the sanctity of her holiness.
The night has grown darker but I don’t feel like going to my bed. I have returned to the ghats once again. The steps are lonely but for the young boy pestering two western girls for buying his beads. They are uneasy trying to shoo him away with their SLR cameras. The boy seems stubborn.
I half expect them to look towards me for help. She does, not for help, just throwing a casual glance at me while walking over near me with her friend. I look back into my travel – journal; words have their meanings, worlds, meanwhile, are lost.
“Are you a writer?” she asks in thick, accented English, as I look up from my journal.
I place the accent from somewhere in middle-east, south-east Europe. “I wish I were, but I am not” I reply. Her friend has walked closer to the river to meet a boy.
“Is that why you are writing?”
“Are you a visitor here, too? In Varanasi?”
“Yes, just like you.”
“But, you are an Indian.”
“Believe me, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
“What has brought you here? I mean, here, to Varanasi?” I quip.
“I don’t know, err… maybe I am looking for the wisdom of the east…” she replies.
I look to Ganga. There’s a lone boat wading across the water. The splashing sounds of the waves can be heard in the quietness of the night.
“You know, according to Lonely Planet, Varanasi is one of the best cities in world to get lost in the streets…” I try to kick start the conversation again.
“But YOU can’t get lost here, for heaven’s sake, you are an Indian!” She laughs.
In the playful reflection from the river, I realize how beautiful her eyes are…
The ghats are lined up with ancient high-rising walls. Most of them have been built by kings in their prime. Some of them still belong to them. Their fort like structure is very visible with gazebos and small openings on the walls, stones presumably brought from Rajasthan. They are homes to parakeets, pigeons and even monkeys. Banyan and peepul trees sprout of the walls at numerous places. They look as old as the city culture.
But for the graffiti, the walls are all deserted. I’ve never seen better wall paintings in india (Bhimbetka doesn’t count). There’s a Shiva in yogic mudra, one for saving girl child and a BSNL advertisement.
The city belongs to Shiva. He’s everywhere – outside the ladies’ changing room on ghats, behind the shady corners occupied by the naga babas, on the ground under the hurried steps of the local guides.
I’ve left last two turns deliberately, in an attempt to get lost in the streets of the city. The sun light can barely reach the pavement. This is indeed a labyrinth, I am loving it. I keep walking, ignorant of time and curious about what lies around the next turn. There are kids playing, they remind me of the games of the childhood. The streets give an impression of being here since the beginning of civilization on the banks of the Ganga. There are dark corners, a reminder of our own shadows.
It is early morning still. The sun is not hot yet; I have stead fasted my backpack as I turn to take a last fleeting look at the river and its cast yonder. It still amazes me, it will always do…
I feel feather like touch of a hand on my shoulder. Black hair and beard are flowing freely from his radiant face. His eyes are fixed on Ganga but I can feel him watching me. His body is covered with beads of various types and smeared with what appears to be ash. There’s a vertical scar on his forehead and a trident in his other hand.
I recognize him, but I am afraid that it’s really him. I am numb with thoughts while a smile breaks on his face… And then it feels as if my mind has been filled with his overwhelming presence, presence of a calm yet potent ocean.
“I can understand…
You can understand… You know what to do…
Everything else is immaterial… Yes, even the answers. They are inside you only, inside your dilemmas… You’ll find them eventually.”