4. GANGA YOGI (March15 – 21, 2000)
I have not yet been able to “lose myself”. I must escape from the Punjabi ambiance. It took me four days to disentangle myself from affairs in Chandigarh. I cannot forget my bus journey from Ludhiana, my first this time and the worst. Almost every piece in the bus rattled. The loudest was the engine. It did not seem to have a clutch. The whole bus shuddered out of the bus station and halted ten metres away. The hefty Sikh driver raced the engine and pushed into some gear ratio with great difficulty making discomforting crunchy metallic noise. The bus shuddered again and launched forward grudgingly in prolonged jerks until the clutch plate found the engine. Absolutely sure that the bus would break down in no time, in my mind I drew pictures of the transmission strapped not bolted to the engine, while all other passengers appeared unbothered. I was entertained with series of jerk-starts every time the bus stopped or had to be put in the first gear. I reached Chandigarh only half an hour late.
I flew away from Delhi to Varanasi, popularly known as Benares on Monday morning of 20 March. From the dusty airport a rusty Ambassador driven by a Muslim chauffeur accompanied by his 14-year son took me to Hotel Barahdari. Just about that time President Clinton had landed in New Delhi. I checked in and a serious looking man led me to my room. He informed me that for some reason all incoming phone calls came to my room. “That is normal”, I retorted “I expect a call from President Clinton any moment. Put the receiver back on the phone”. That cheered him up and my story humoured others at the reception counter.
It was lunchtime. I quickly descended to the eating room. Some young white travellers occupied three separate tables. At least one of them did not look too well: “Indian jelly-belly”! This backpackers’ medium comfort hotel is advertised as “Two star hotel with 5 star facilities”! Looking at the rather unhygienic atmosphere of the dinning room I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to undertake such a trip. “If they can, why not me?” To be on the safe side, I ordered fried eggs and toast for lunch. The waiter’s white clothes were as grey as the well-greased napkin he was using to clean tabletops, cheap-metal cutlery and cracked crockery. What should I expect for US$12.- for a room with AC? Later during the trip I discovered that even that can be luxury.
I did not wait for Clinton’s phone call! Equipped with a bottle of mineral water and a tourist map I braved into the crowded street in Kotwali and headed towards the sacred Ganga Ghats, Varanasi’s famous attraction. Many shops were closed. People were celebrating the spring festival of Holy, the day when people spray coloured water or powder on each other. I crossed some groups of youngsters carrying loaded plastic pumps. Either they did not find me to be an attractive target or they had expended all their ammunition in the morning.
An inconspicuous signboard pointing to Vishwanath Temple led me into a metre-wide lane. Inevitably the sacred mother cow and dogs shared it. The lane taking me to the holiest and the purest spiritual focal point of Hindus is far from those attributes. I walked around a fire in the centre of almost every street crossing fuming out nauseating smoke. Some one tries to burn rubbish so that more could be dumped soon after! Small temples on each side of the street offer solutions to different types of physical and spiritual malfunctions. On my left I hardly noticed the obscure entrance to Vishwanath Temple. It was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore dedicated to Shiva, the lord of the universe. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab had donated gold to plate its domes. Was it left-over from Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar!
The temple is small. Its shining golden domes are hidden between the street and the Great Mosque behind it. It is pointless to question why a Mosque had to be built over bigger and older temple. The place must be sacred! The space between the small temple and the derelict mosque is just enough to accommodate policemen and a steel barrier.
The head policeman advised me not to photograph this farcical human folly and insanity. I could not help laughing: one type of spirituality strangling another type as if it were not one. Fragrance of incense emanating from the temple merged with urine and dog shit stench in the narrow alley between two symbols of religion.
One sees this antithesis in almost every city in India. A few years ago I saw it in Lahore (Pakistan). My agitated mind soared to Jerusalem the pinnacle of spiritual stupidity epitomized in symbolic claims for remnants of walls, domes and cradles bereft of human and spiritual values. Imagine how exciting it would have been if symbols of Greek phallus and Shiva “lingum” were also there!
A little further eastward I found myself looking at the sacred River Ganges just south of Manikarnika Ghat. Seven main Ghats are north of this point and the other ninety in the south. At this time of the year the river level is low. I walked over two kilometres southwards along the bank up to the last main Ghat of Asi. I saw and photographed people bathing, buffaloes taking their afternoon nap in the warm sand and of course some sadhus.
One body had just been cremated and a Pandit flung an earthen pot over his head thus sending the soul to paradise. Cremation of the next one was being negotiated. His destination to hell or heaven was in question. I walked over concrete platforms, zigzagged around bank structures and jumped over smelly feeders from the city. Every niche in the Ghat walls is an open urinal producing a stench, which nullifies holiness, and the purifying capability of the place.
I have no doubt about the spiritual and psychological comfort that people attain by bathing in the river. However I decided not to follow their example because I thought that I would pollute it. I do not know how much spiritual muck I am carrying.
ghats is indeed spectacular and soothing. What made this site sacred? What attracted the Maharajas and their Maharanis to build their palatial Ghats here? There is the Rana Ghat, Jai Singh Ghat, Scindia Ghat, Raja Man Singh Looking back northwards the view of riverbank with its boats and dilapidating Ghat and Ahalya Bai Ghat to name a few. These are old versions of modern hotels for rich tourists who now clog beaches of Goa in India and numerous others in the world.
Climbing to the road that runs behind the ghats I headed north. A number of cycle rikshawalas offered to take me wherever I wanted. They seemed to wonder why I was walking. I absorbed the old town scenario. A mentally retarded gesticulating women, stark naked, failed to engage anybody’s attention. A young rikshawala decided to give me company when I declined to hire him. He rode while we talked about his family, education and his daily income. “If you don’t hire me how can I earn more?” he said politely and paddled off and left me struggling with the question: “What makes Ganges so sacred at Varanasi?”
My mind trekked to primeval times when the raised green wooded west bank still in virgin state. I see no huts; only holiness manifested in natural beauty of the site. I imagine myself looking across the apex of the gentle river curve. Wide-mouthed I watch the Sun rising and pouring out a flood of gold across the glittering almost still river water. I would not have looked for paradise elsewhere. No wonder naked yogis replaced the heavenly green patches of soft grass with shacks. They planted signposts inviting the living and the dead to be taken to heaven. Since then Varanasi has been irrevocably emptied of its godliness.
Before dawn next day, I took a taxi to Mughal Sarai railway station, aspiring to see on the way the pristine glory of sunrise. I thought the vision would erase my souvenir of acrid smell of urine along the ghats. Alas, all I saw was a sickly sun having great difficulty to emit its radiance through a cloud of polluted fog hanging over the river. Looking backwards from the bridge I saw only a hazy outline of the Ganges and the ghats which looked so picturesque the day before.
I saw a few yogies and sadhus. My opaque soul did not receive any holy signals from them. May be they were tired after having poured out all their spirituality to the needy during the Holi festival. There was one that drew my attention and left a permanent imprint on my mind. His neck was delicately doused with pink and blue Holi colour. He has dug a grotto in the sandbank just big enough to give him shade and shelter. He sat comfortably in perfect posture of meditation, eyes closed softly as if another sphere. I took my camera close to his nose to preset the light inside the grotto, yet he remained absolutely composed, undisturbed by worldly tourist antics. He projected an air bliss that many of us seek. I am talking too much. My words cannot depict the serenity that the picture of the Ganga Yogi portrays.
If I were prepared to receive bliss, this Ganga Yogi would not tire of giving , that too, without baksheesh or alms!