Sunday, September 25, 2011

Loving Varanasi: Part 3 (and last!!)

(I have been blowing off steam lately, so sorry about the delay)

My Korean-American friend Jayoung has heard from a friend that The Blue Lassi is a fantastic place. The name sounds to me like a shady bar with dull lights, but alcohol isn’t too freely sold in the holy city of Varanasi, so I know it’s just my wild imagination. Like I mention, all the local people are incredibly helpful with directions, so we have no problems getting to a tiny little shop that has a single blue door and a lot of pictures.

Turns out The Blue Lassi is a very popular place with Korean tourists; the walls are covered with touristy shots, messages in Korean and a lot of little masks, stickers and knick knacks left behind by visitors. Wait till you drink the freshly made, very thick lassis served in small or large mud pots! There come in flavours I didn’t even imagine could be made!! There is chocolate, banana, apple, pineapple, many more and something unpronounceable that we don’t try. What we have is the banana flavour and it is beyond incredible. I don’t think Lonely Planet lists this place, so you won’t find many foreigners there. Keep it quiet now, The Blue Lassi might be one of the last places you can hang out and not be elbowed out by the firangs.

Jayoung wants to get lost in the lanes, but I am not sure we can let her do that. I tend to get protective about people I like, so we walk with her to the burning ghats again. Manikarnika is where the ghats are open to burn bodies all year around, I hear for 24 hours a day. There is a queue of bodies waiting for their turn. A smaller burning ghat on the other side of town has an electric crematorium, but I can understand why there is a beeline here instead. It is believed that Lord Shiva himself, who lives in graveyards with as much ease as he does in palaces, stands guard over the burning body and keeps himself warm in the winter nights by smearing ashes on his body. You cannot shake off such an old belief system that easily, now matter how shiny the electric machine looks.

The monsoons have swallowed the ghats here too and there is only a platform where the bodies are prodded and burnt. There is a business like atmosphere around there. The tiny lanes leading up to the ghat are filled with shops and tea stalls. While relatives wait for their turn to do the last rites, they catch up on small talk, drink a cup of chai or just look around. There is no place here in the business of death for the drama of emotions. No one is crying, though they all adopt a solemn look to fit the occasion. Like elsewhere, women do not participate in the last rites. Stupid, if you ask me, when it is a woman responsible for bring a man into the world.

The place is too crowded and congested to ponder over any thoughts about death. But death, when you watch it from a vantage point, feels like another incident, nothing to fear, nothing to dread. Perhaps this is where religion helps, by giving you an answer as to what does or doesn’t happen when you die in Varanasi. There are several tons of wood and someone constantly chopping them down. A run down building gives you a vantage point view of the burning platform. On the way to the top you pass by people resting in corners, eating, sleeping. There is an old woman on a charpoy, her clothes bundled near her feet, her world possessions of a steel box and a plastic bottle under the cot. No doubt waiting to die.

It is easy to find your way to the burning ghat, a man chewing paan tells us. We are to follow a particular type of tile laid out on the lane. “As long as you are walking on the lane with these tiles, you won’t lose your way,” he assures us. Turns out he is right, but of course.

Somewhere in between these walks and sweating it out on the guest house balcony, we visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, almost the epicenter of Hindu faith in India. This is the place we have grown up listening to stories of. This is the holiest of all places, irrespective of whether families worship Rama or any of the other avatars. We go early in the morning, the temple is just a five minute walk away from the guest house. Security is super tight and we are allowed only a purse/wallet inside. There is a small crowd already and some jostling. But it’s what I would call a very democratic temple. There are no special darshans for those who can spare the money and everyone gets to touch the Shiva linga, offer flowers, milk or holy Ganga water. That’s what I most appreciated; there aren’t any visible moneybags hovering around to bribe their way into a shorter queue.

The next morning, we are up even earlier to go perform a puja at the temple. We figure we might as well, now that we are there. We opt for a small ritual and the priest mutters many mantras in a hurry (they all are always in a hurry). Then we are made to sit in front of the Shiva linga for at least a good ten minutes and made to perform various rituals, pouring milk, smearing ghee and kum-kum, etc. To me, it is a very overwhelming experience, being so close to a place that is almost at the very root of faith. Kashi is where most of Hindu religion springs from, and this temple is from where millions of the pious derive their strength from and dream of going to one day. I am not particularly religious on the best of days, but even to me, years of those stories and the remnants of faith and belief adds to bring up something that is very overwhelming.

We go the whole mile and even take a full dip in the Ganga, to ‘wash off all our sins’!! I know for sure that for both of us, something changed that day. We did not magically get unshakable faith, at least I didn’t. But there was something about doing these things that strikes a chord even in the coldest, most cynical of hearts. Perhaps it is the collective faith that rubs off you a little. I would prefer not to speculate and instead marvel at the sheer miracle of that city. I spot a full rainbow one evening, I haven’t seen one in years. It adds to the magic.

The rest of our time is alternated between the German Bakery, the guest house, walking the lanes, trying to take in as much of the atmosphere as possible and marveling at how affecting the city is. We meet a Couch Surfer friend who learns the violin there, a super funny woman who becomes an instant favourite by taking us to a fantastic eating joint. I make friends with Ashutosh, a shop owner who aspired to be a journalist too. We have long conversations about politics, my disdain for it. He tells me he is a descendent of Ravana, from the Ramayana (Ravana was a very pious Shiva devotee and not all that bad). I now flaunt him as my friend with the Ravana genes!!! I catch up with an old friend who also happens to be there and we find we have a lot in common. We chat with a Spanish couple who tell us the funniest stories of trying to ship a bike to Seville. The guy invites us to stay in his place if we ever are in Spain.
It is time to go ahead with the second part of our trip, but we already miss Varanasi. 

Everyone we meet is surprised that we speak such good Hindi. No, there is no hint of arrogance when they say so; it is just plain surprise.

On one of the evenings sitting on the balcony, I realize that there are two Varanasis and two kinds of Varanasians. One that is timeless, where life is conducted as it must have been thousands of years ago. The other that is hurrying into urbanity with branded stores that have glass doors, call centres and English learning centres.
Then there are the pilgrims, some that walk hundreds of miles, just like their ancestors centuries ago, stand in line for hours, all for a glimpse of the Shiva linga for a few seconds! That to me is unshakeable faith, that they believe these few seconds will redeem their lives, this a journey for which they would save for years before they can scrap through enough for a second class train ticket. Then there are the hippies, rechristened backpackers, in search of quick nirvana, yoga in 3 days and cheap ganja; those ‘doing’ Varanasi before going on to get a tan in Goa or pose before the Taj Mahal.

Somewhere in the lanes, these two Varanasis, these two kinds of Varanasians meet and pass by each other, not always acknowledging, but accepting the presence of the other. They are each part of the tourist attraction for the other. There is place for both, without each infringing on the space and sentiments of the other. Varanasi is also a tourist destination. Note the ‘also’. But yet it retains its aura of faith, of piety, of sentiments nurtured and fed since time started. Or so they say.

This has been a very long account of just one city. But then I realize I can’t stop writing about Varanasi. Everyone who has been there will know what I mean when I say that there is something mystical, magical about that city. It overwhelms you, changes you, moves you, and affects you. May not all be in a nice way. There is something there that makes you, urges you to go back, like you have left something behind, and you have to go retrieve it. Or leave more of you behind.

There isn’t an iota of doubt that Varanasi is one place I will keep going back to, again and again and again.


Bhargavi said...

I relived the life in Varanasi and I miss it terribly. It indeed has changed me and makes me long for more of it.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Absolutely same here too Bharg.