Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Visit to Varanasi : experience in timeless intensity

So, dear friends, we return now to this series describing our recent trip to India. (This blog is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, so be forewarned.)

We left off leaving the Ananda Community in Pune to return to Delhi where the Southgate Hotel (near the south Delhi Ananda Center) is our hub. The ashram would store our larger luggage piece as we went out on shorter trips to various places. So now we returned after a ten-day jaunt that included Puri, Kolkata and Pune to re-group, re-pack our travel cases, store any gifts we had purchased, have laundry done and so on. That was Monday, March 11.

Tuesday morning, March 12, we returned to the Delhi airport (domestic terminal) for our flight to Varanasi. The flight was on time and happily uneventful. Varanasi airport was modern and clean and offered nothing worth mentioning. Out in the parking lot in front we readily found our three small vans who were ready and waiting for us. (We need smaller transportation because the streets of Varanasi are generally very narrow. Now mind, you, I am referring to streets where cars move around. The real "streets" of "old" Varanasi are but narrow lanes where one or two persons can sometimes walk side-by-side, or where a pedestrian is  pushed aside by a motorcycle noisily wending its way through, its sound threateningly amplified by the buildings which rise straight up.)

The day was hot and humid and deceptively quiet at first. Almost unnoticed, the road from airport blended into the city precincts and soon the streets began to twist and turn. With each block it got more jammed and crowded. Progress toward the riverbank slowed to a crawl. Our van's air conditioner pooped out and we had to open windows to let in the intense noise (shouting, honking, braying, blaring, etc.) and a steady flow of dust, dirt, and Lord knows what else. I can't speak for the other vans, but by the time our van, one of three, reached the Ganges Palace Hotel we, its occupants, were over-heated, drenched by perspiration in our own clothes, and exhausted just mentally fending off the sensory assaults (trying not to breathe deeply and hold the mind inward and steady) while bouncing and jerking in our seats as the van tumbled through the streets.

We literally fell out of our vans, snatched our luggage, fought our way through the local beggars (presumably assigned to our hotel entrance by the local union) only to trudge up a steep flight of stairs to the one desk, one person lobby. 35 people and luggage soon overfilled the adjacent hallway. Rooms weren't ready yet (it was still early afternoon). People were tired and frazzled and the hallways were superheated.

Fortunately, arrangements had been made to serve us lunch upon our arrival, so after a spell of confusion which included sitting and waiting, we were ushered downstairs where it was even hotter and more stuffy. A solitary air conditioning unit in the wall offered half-hearted puffs of tepid air as if in lackluster devotion to some uncool, but relatively minor, Hindu god.

All told, it was not an auspicious beginning. Clearly Varanasi, as we were forewarned, was going to be a challenging adventure. (The spiritual name for Benares is Kashi--see prior blog post.) Whether your sins are forgiven by bathing in the Ganges or you receive other blessings, there's always a price to pay, you see. In the case of bathing in the Ganges, the price may be your life, at least if you are a foreigner, for what you can't see might kill you. Oh, did I mention: don't drink from the Ganges?

The view of the Ganges from our room, was, however, quite lovely. In early March, when there's not been substantial rainfall since the summer-fall monsoon season, the opposite bank turns into a gigantic sand bar. Still, the river is slow and wide at least this time of year. No buildings or city is visible on the opposite bank or even beyond. The river circles the city in such a manner that it is flowing northward as it flows through and past Varanasi. The symbolism is obvious to a yogi: the northward flowing current of energy in the spine flows toward the highest chakra(s) in its journey toward "moksha," liberation (enlightenment). The Ganges, among other things, symbolizes the river of grace and energy that leads to salvation. Hence the symbolism of bathing in the Ganges to cleanse one's "sins."

Mid-afternoon, we assembled to walk along the bathing ghats northward toward the center of town (but a relatively short distance) to visit and meditate at an ashram built by devotees of the woman saint, Ananda Moyi Ma. Ma didn't necessarily live anywhere specific for long periods of time but she certainly did stay there sometimes. It is a steep series of steps up from the river and into the ashram, but the ashram is clean and tidy, if austere. There, in front of a room filled with relics and artifacts of Ma's life, and an altar, we meditated in the mid-afternoon heat. Challenging to settle in, certainly, but well worth it. I won't attempt to recount Ma's life: Yogananda has an entire chapter on her in his autobiography. She's well known and was a remarkable person: a mixture of orthodox and unorthodox! Swami Kriyananda spent much time with her and was greatly touched by her kindness and spiritual power.

As the afternoon's heat broke, we boarded a hired boat to go downstream. The Ganges boats are very large rowboats, equipped in the center with a small engine in order to go upstream (as well as downstream). Going downstream they are steered and rowed relatively easily by one person, even when filled with over thirty people. We floated and rowed gently along the ghats, enjoying the incredible sight of the Varanasi (Kashi) skyline at the riverbanks. The ghats are entirely covered in cement and stone down into the water--so ancient is this city (the world's oldest continuously occupied city). The buildings along the shore rise vertically many stories high along the surrounding cliffs (no longer visible). Steep stairs, therefore, rise from the shore up to the land above, which, once climbed, is level as you enter the heart of the city beyond.

The visual effect is akin to seeing medieval castle walls lining the western bank for at least a mile or so. Some are very old and decrepit, others more up to date and maintained. Some colorful; others, drab. Antiquity and tradition stream outward from every rock and brick. Nonetheless, over centuries, the Ganges in flood has torn away many a riverside building or ghat, so the riverbank is forever re-inventing itself. No bridge exists here. One could be dimly seen a mile or two upstream. None of the buildings can be, themselves, all that old for the simple fact that man-made buildings of any kind, even stone, can only last so long before falling apart or otherwise becoming unfit for habitation. But even a merely medieval impact suggests an aura of timelessness and of fixed tradition.

The activities along the ghat, themselves, would seem to have been going on since time immemorial: bathing, worshipping, conducting rituals, plying one's various trades. Swamis, sadhus (including the famous "naga" or naked (literally, "sky-clad" sadhus) encamp along certain of the ghats in tents surrounded by smoke-filled smouldering fires used for cooking, washing, and conducting various rites and rituals. The haze and smoke that infest the place add to the surreal timelessness as do the clothing, dress, and activities of those assembled there in a never-ending parade of humanity.

We floated downstream to the largest and most famous burning ghat (there are actually several) ("Manikarnika") where it is said that a flame has been kept burning for five thousand years. You could see the flame inside a small building at the edge of the ghat. The flame is specifically used to light the wood-fueled funeral pyres that line the beach there, attended to by a special class (caste) of "morticians". Sometimes you can see an actual body in flames, but just as often only the wood pyre. Pictures are discouraged as a sign of respect but it seems this injunction is honored in the breach. Large pieces of timber are piled up for the non-stop, year-round functions of an outdoor crematorium. We never saw any dead bodies floating downstream and although that is not the correct disposition of the dead, it does in fact sometimes happen, whether for lack of funds or lack of care.

Eventually, we turned around, fired up the engine (which seemed as ancient as the ghats), and putt-putt'ed our way back to the main ghat ("Dasaswamedha") for the daily dusk "arati" ceremony. A hundred or more boats like ours filled the waterfront area just off the ghat, bobbing and butting one another, as tourists and pilgrims and their oarsmen jockeyed for position and assembled for the nightly "light show." Yes, it certainly was an entertainment: I believe 7 pujaris (priests) stood on a row of raised circular platforms lining the bank and like chorus girls (sorry for the image) conducted, in synchronization, a lengthy and elaborate ritual to the sound and beat of loud mantras and chants performed by a live mini-orchestra. It was entrancing and beautiful. The mantras have been chanted here for untold centuries and the effect was not lost upon us.

Boats bumped each others; hawkers of postcards and plastic religious items jumped from boat to boat hawking their wares with the annoying persistence appropriate to their trade no doubt since the dawn of time.

The priests used all sorts of ritual objects in their choreography but the most spectacular of them are these mini-Christmas tree shaped candelabra that they swung up and down and in all directions to the tune and beat of the chants. Incense, drums, bells, WOW.....beautiful to be sure. One vacillates between imagining you are in Los Vegas at a floor show and being in Kashi, mesmerized by the power of these mantras and rituals and transported into a timeless region of high vibration. And, sometimes one just pauses to look around, watching the people in the various boats and making silent observations of a more mundane type--you know, people who write blogs about things like this!

Still, one can hardly be indifferent to the spectacular and intense sights and sounds. Smoke fills the air everywhere here--which means one's eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Mosquitoes and moths have a feeding frenzy. One's individuality threatens to lose its tentative grip upon the body and is invited to merge into the haze of smoke, flashing lights, dark shadows, silhouetted forms, and pounding beat of mantric vibrations that fill and overtake every lesser reality. Though this may sound like a description of a rock concert and although the comparison is inevitable because so superficially similar, all comparisons end because the arati has at least the potential to lift you towards a transcendent state while the typical rock concert invites you hypnotically toward a gyrating, snakelike orgy of tribal subconsciousness.

Finally, and before it was completely ended lest a boat-jam take place, we motored back to our ghat, near to the hotel, and then ascended to the hotel rooftop for a dining buffet experience under the hazy stars. The air now was at least cool if not clear and it was a gentle and fitting end to a long day.

The ancient motor in the giant rowboat is housed in a wooden box at the center of the boat. There's no battery to start it. The "boy" opens a panel and inserts a heavy, steel crank; sets the spark and the mix; and cranks as hard as he can, jumping back lest it rip his arm off when it fires up! Though it sounds diesel-like, I think it uses petrol (gasoline). It might even be one cylinder and it sounds like it is wide diameter piston and long of neck cylinder: each oscillation is distinct and throaty. While going downriver with silent rowing, we could chant with our harmonium, there was no hope of chanting with the putt-putt thing happening. It was, if not deafening, anathema to any conversation except it the most intimate one-to-one shouting!

Early the next morning, about dawn, we walked back to Ma's ashram for meditation. Just as a few of us sat cross-legged on the marble floor (or upon our portable three-legged stools), two rows of young women marched up and sat behind us and began full-throttle mantras and chants, unaccompanied. It was lovely if a little disconcerting. We didn't know if it would go on for two hours; if we were supposed to move out of their way; whether we were intruding upon their ancient daily ritual, but finally they stopped and trooped away as soundlessly as they had appeared. We chanted a bit and then meditated.

The morning sun, rising across the eastern shore of the Ganges, was now beginning to heat the air. We stayed because invited one at a time to enter Ma's tiny, austere bedroom. Her bed was not quite made of nails, but it was simply a wooden, low-slung platform. Her tiny shoes were placed at the foot. We took turns entering and touching the shoes, pronaming and being in silence for a brief meditation.

Back then we went for hotel breakfast. By mid-morning the sun was awake and ready and beating fiercely. Once again we boarded our open rowboat to head back downstream to the main ghat. There we exited the boat and climbed steps into the labyrinth of alleyways, Kashi's heart, in order to find the shrine to Lahiri Mahasaya, created, I believe, by Shidendu Lahiri, great grandson of Lahiri (?). The boat ride was hot and therefore we were silent, most of us hiding from the blaze of the sun with whatever objects of cloth, sunglasses, hats we were perspicacious enough to have brought with us.

The walk into "town" and along the incredibly narrow (and filthy) lanes, being continually harassed by deep-throated motorcycles pushing their way through the narrow passageways, was an adventure to say the least. You could disappear into any number of alleys or doorways and never be heard from again. It's that easy.
You'd have to be a Houdini to know "who dunnit: the butler or the cook."

But find it we did. It was very clean and beautifully done. It included a side-shrine with a portion of Lahiri's ashes and a museum that included some books and items for sale. We stayed a good bit, left some donations, and had a nice meditation there.

Then out into the narrow and dark lanes we went again looking from the wooden front door to Lahiri's own house. Find it we did, but we could only gaze upon it or press our forehead against the door in prayerful obeisance to the guru who started it all in this tiny house in the heart of Kashi in 1861. The family who occupies the home doesn't welcome devotees though we were told that once a year in late September, around the time of Lahiri's mahasamadhi date, the door is open. But even in past years when Ananda devotees could go in, mostly all they could do was look. Even meditating was "forbidden." Such is maya.

I believe the preceptors of this path want no particular interest expressed in them as individuals and the mundane details of their personal biographies. I think they would prefer we emulate and assimilate God-consciousness into our daily lives through kriya yoga and with their inner guidance. End of lecture.

The day, however, was far from over. Some of us were on the hunt for some special gifts (see wedding below) and most still had enough verve to want to venture out even more. By special arrangements by our tour guide, Bijaya, we were to be given the opportunity to get close to the otherwise forbidden Vishnu Temple at the center of Kashi (Vishwanath Temple). The walk there was very long through narrow lanes that seemed to get narrower and narrower as we approached what was presumably the temple but the lanes are so narrow you can barely see your feet what to mention anything around you. Throngs of pilgrims, hawkers and shoppers pressed on all sides and in both directions. Keeping an eye on the placement of your feet was essential to avoid landing in holy cow shit, or worse, perhaps. The tiny stalls often were fascinating but the pushing crowd gave little opportunity for window shopping and the merchants within would have grabbed and kidnapped you for a private "showing" even if you did. Still it was all very intriguing if harrowing at the same time. The perfect tourist and pilgrim's "You wouldn't believe what we did" story.

Bijaya guided us to a tiny shop and we all pressed in, removing our shoes and backpacks there in the store for pre-arranged safekeeping (with the promise of "rich" American pilgrims shopping afterward, of course). Then out into the lane, shoeless, we went a short distance and then entered an even darker and more narrow alley guarded by men and women in army uniforms with machine guns and an X-ray machine. Women are always "handled" separately but I certainly was searched and patted down (and up) and then cleared.

Evidently, the Temple is adjacent to a mosque and there's been a centuries old festering wound around their relationship. A history not worth researching. But a year or so ago a bomb went off and hence security is rather tight. The tiny lane that we entered was one of several passageways into or at least toward the Temple. My understanding is that this entrance was especially for foreigners. We scooted along the alley, passing shops selling the various items that devotee Hindus typically bring as gifts to the deity. It was all very confusing but in the end all that happened to me was that I was told to walk up a few steps on a side alley so I could view the somewhat smallish but definitely beautiful and gold plated Temple dome. Yup: that was it.

Later I heard some people may have gotten a sneak peak into the temple inner sanctum through an ancient wooden door but in the hubbub I guess I missed an important cue or maybe I was suppose to miss it. Though it was all very dramatic and all very anti-climatic, I wouldn't have missed for anything! (I got to write this story, right?)

Well, the tension was broken and it was announced we were off (by pre-scouting pre-arrangement) to a nearby restaurant appropriate for the likes of us. We followed the lanes back in reverse order and gradually they widened and we reached something of a main thoroughfare where vehicles actually went. We eventually and magically happened upon an upstairs restaurant, somewhat large, where all of us managed to find tables and actually enjoyed a delicious and relaxing meal together. We took our time as we were fairly wrung out on all levels.

But, finished we were not. That magic hunting expedition for that special gift for that special someone hung over us like a black cloud, like a hangover on a sunny morning. (Well, ok, for those of us who couldn't find a gift if it were thrust at us, shopping in a strange, elusive, slightly forbidden place like Kashi is like searching for a "needle in a haystack of nettles." In short, daunting.)

Somehow our cultural attache, Murali Venkatrao, was up for the hunt and began to lead us down the main street of town. Soon he had outpaced us as the traffic began to snarl and massive lockdown took place. Some of us stood around and began dialing our cell phones in frustration and confusion. Eventually we all met up and to escape the lockdown (all cars, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians had been frozen by a coagulation of objects so complete as to leave everyone in shock and in paralysis). We found a side alley that headed in the direction of the river and made our escape--not having the scantiest idea where the labyrinth would lead this time. Murali had never been to Kashi before, either.

As God and guru and their grace would have it, after dodging innumerable cow pies, their former owners, and alleys that threatened to leave us blinded with dead-ended numbness, we actually found ourselves walking past Lahiri's front door! Ah! Revelation! We "knew" where we were. We would be safe!

In time, the shoppers found a cloth shop they announced was the real thing. Well, for me fatigue and confusion was the more real thing. I, and a bunch of others, were finished. We knew more or less the direction to the river and we could walk the ghat all the way to hotel. The afternoon sun would no longer be beating on the ghat and it could be pleasant enough. (Earlier, after lunch, my personal instinct had been to hire an auto rickshaw and hi-tail it back to our hotel, near the Assi Ghat. I was to kick myself later for not following my own travel instinct.)

Yes, the walk was pleasant enough but it was also rather long. As we walked (Gita, Badri and I, and many others, in a random, somewhat dazed, disorder), the smoke from small fires and the tent cities of the naga sadhus and others began increasingly to fill the still air. My eyes begun to water profusely. I couldn't see well; uncontrollable sneezing and dripping would force me to stop every minute or two using up my rapidly dwindling supply of paper tissues. I thought I'd never make it. I could hardly breathe.

Well, as you might have guessed, I did make it. But from this point to the rest of the trip and after home, I was blessed with a sinus cold and sore throat. It was light-duty, but omnipresent and a constant, if dull, damper upon my vitality and state of mind.

For the entire time of our stay in Kashi, Padma was bedridden. Bronchitis, asthma, and barrage of heavy-duty meds prescribed a few days earlier by a doctor called to the Delhi hotel room, had taken their toll. Late into the night after this long day, she was on the verge of calling a doctor (which would have probably meant, imagine the great story, being admitted into a Varanasi hospital--probably adjacent to the burning ghat, I was guessing). Well that horror show abated, in part because I wasn't going to permit it -- for I did sincerely feel that despite her multiple agonies, that she was in no great danger. I've had my share of travel troubles and you always think you are certain to die any minute, but, usually, you don't. There was enough drama going on amongst the pilgrims to want to shift the drama onto us on center stage. Not my usual schtick. "Boss say no." After this, and upon returning to Delhi, Padma dropped out of the journey to rest in Delhi. She returned home in better health than many of us. The story had a happy ending.

So, you think this story is over! Finished we are not!

Thursday, March 14, we arose well before dawn and met at the nearby ghat: chanting and/or energizing in the pre-dawn twilight. We boarded our boat and made our way downstream edging ever closer to the opposite (sand bar) bank. We chanted the Gayatri and Mahamitryajaya mantras as the sun rose, large and reddish. We docked opposite the river-skyline of Kashi and set up the simple accoutrements to conduct a previously arranged but secret wedding ceremony for Kelly and Mona Williams. Because Padma could not attend, my daughter Gita was my assistant. We conducted the entire Ananda wedding (sans most of the music) right there at the shore end of the large rowboat. The couple and myself faced the city of Varanasi standing in mute testimony to this tiny drama of human life as it has witnessed the birth, life, and death of countless millions down through the ages! all I can say. This morning was definitely a highlight of our Kashi experience. At the same time, it was intimate and, let's face it, personal! We had laughs; we had tears; it was joyful. A few feet away, locals, who seem to emerge from the invisible ether or from beneath the sands, gathered to watch the odd spectacle. (In India, you are never alone except, if you are lucky, in the squatter toilet, and then, only briefly, as it is likely that if you tarry, a persistent and impatient knocking sound commences.)

Then we motored downstream past the burning ghat and docked so we could walk up the steep stairs and find the ashram of a famous 19th century sadhu, contemporary of Lahiri Mahasaya, Trailanga Swami. (See Yogananda's autobiography for the details of this unusual Swami.) We had a good meditation there. It contains an enormous Shiva lingam, many photographs and an underground room where Trailanga left his body in the great samadhi of death.

We returned to hotel in time for breakfast, motoring quietly upstream past the main Kashi ghats, now coming alive in the morning sun with bathers and worshippers. We were tired but happy. Tired and inspired.

Mid-afternoon, we boarded our convoy of vans to visit Sarnath a few miles away: a beautiful collection of properties and shrines located where Lord Buddha, incarnation of Vishnu, gave his first "sermon" after his enlightenment. What a beautiful place; its serenity is a contrast with most Hindu shrines and temples; so, too, is its cleanliness. Not a few pilgrims wondered, at this point, whether they perhaps ought to have been Buddhists, instead! So, wonderful and refreshing (even the air was clean) was the experience. We meditated on the spacious lawns for about an hour (no locals or hawkers disturbed us) and visited several elaborate and beautiful shrines, including a brand new one with a thirty or forty foot high statue of the great Lord himself. It was all free, by the way.

As dusk quickly turned to inky black, we stopped at the Clark Hotel (on our way back to the Assi Ghat and our hotel) for a sumptuous banquet held and given to us by the newly married couple. They had made all the arrangements from America beforehand. The food is beyond the limits of my observational and descriptive powers but suffice to say, "it was really good." We had personal musicians who, it turned out, are part of the Benares School of Music and the Mishra family, some of whom have played at the Bothell Temple and are coming again this June to Seattle!

At the dinner, the happy couple displayed their newly made 9-stone wedding rings. The rings had been hand crafted the day a shop just below our hotel by a man whose family for nine (?) generations have been jewelers in Kashi. One enormous mural behind the buffet tables showed an Indian couple where the groom has positioned the wedding ring ready to place onto his bride's finger. The happy couple stood in front, in the exact same position, as we chanted and blessed them and their very special rings.

Hours later, when we exited the Clark Hotel to jump in the vans we realized that the cooling but dark, water-laden thunderheads we had observed at Sarnath, had emptied their contents in a furious downpour that would no doubt have cleansed Kashi of so much of its dirt and dust! Thus we returned cool and clean, so to speak, to our hotel.

Friday, March 15, back to Delhi. Whew! Kashi: what an intense experience. In the prior blog I alluded to the spiritual significance and power of Kashi. That I won't repeat here but it was worth it, even though we returned to Delhi a bit travel weary and various degrees of unwellness. Overall, I think most of us are very glad we went, though, "Would you go again?" might have a mixed response.

Enough a-ready, finished we are. "Finnish" we are not. Fin-e.