My train from Kolkata was two hours late. But no matter, I thought. I’m here. Though I had little idea what “here” meant. It was dark. I found my way out of the train station, knowing I would encounter enterprising taxi drivers offering me a ride. Sure enough, I land a tuk-tuk and tell him where I’m going. He knows the place, but says we will not be able to go all the way there. He says I’ll have to walk some. I ask how far? 100, 200 meters? He says 800. I am wondering what I have done. Committed myself to staying in a place that’s 800 meters from a road?
But no. It turns out to be more like 400 meters. But to get there, he is dragging my suitcase behind hm as we trek through darkened narrow winding alleys, taking so many turns I could not possibly remember where I’ve come from, dodging puddles, mud and cow dung, bumping over potholes, passing hole-in-the-wall shops, motorbikes, cows and people. The aromas are, shall we say, earthy.
I reach my destination, check in and discover that I am staying in a fourth floor walk-up. This is a mistake, I’m thinking. I won’t go into detail about the room or the night I spent or how much sleep I actually got. Let’s just skip to the part where I move to another hotel in the morning that’s more my style.
I settle in. I venture forth, walking the alleyways, finding the river, meandering through the streets. Unfortunately, this is as I pictured it: impossible traffic with no rules, dust, fumes, the incessant honking of drivers, every moment a narrow brush with death as people, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, rickshaws and carts weave and dodge in an omni-directional dance.
Occasionally there is true gridlock here because virtually everyone is loath to yield to anyone else except under the most obvious death-defying moments. Drivers play chicken here to make a macho statement. So there may be no movement whatsoever, but everyone is honking because it’s someone else’s fault, someone else must move to effect the breakthrough.
Varanasi is known as the city of learning and burning. It is a center of higher education. There are billboards everywhere touting programs, schools, test prep. Today, as part of my daylong tour I passed through a vast campus, the Banares Hindu University, with dozens of identically-styled colonial buildings housing university departments. It is the city of burning because one could spend 24 hours of any day attending (being careful–as a foreigner–to maintain a respectful distance) the cremation ceremonies along the banks of the Ganges. People come from all over India at the end of life to be cremated here on the banks of the Mother Ganges.
To my great surprise, after a couple of days, and by the smallest of increments, I notice I am acclimating to the impossible cacophony of Varanasi, where the sacred rises from the filth. I think what better place to experience the dissolution of edges than here. It’s not a place I would wish to occupy on a permanent basis, but it’s a good reminder that the comparative sterility of the developed world (even the Indian developed world) is a combination of sophisticated technological masking and (as we well know) the illusion of being able to banish the costs of that development. Our shit is getting in our way. Here, that truth is literal.
My tour started about 9:30 in the morning, going first to Sarnath, the place of Buddha’s first teaching, the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and the location of a small but impressive museum housing the archeological remnants of Buddhist culture that existed before the Muslim invasion about 1000 years ago. The museum is only 100 years old, holding a collection of Buddhist statuary dating from the 4th to the 10th century. It’s impressive. I stayed long enough to cool off.
The rest of the day was spent visiting a collection of the most important temples in Varanasi. It was a Sunday, so the streets were thankfully much less crowded than they would be on a weekday, but it is also a Shiva festival time this month, so there were big crowds at the temples.
Photography is not permitted inside, but I visited a beautiful Durga temple in which women make offerings to the goddess Durga,
a monkey temple of Hanuman that was even more crowded than either of the first two, monkeys roaming the grounds fed daily with offerings of beans and bananas, and in which hoards, I mean ten deep, men and women separately, pushing and shoving to get to the altar and touch their clutch of flowers (marigolds and roses) and leaves to the stone so they can return home with blessings to share.
The best and last temple was a thoroughly modern chamber of coolness. I mean literally, the entryway was an arch-covered stairway with fans spraying cooling water. At the top, one enters a chamber filled with flowered decorations on the walls and ceiling.
The centerpiece was a shallow rectangular pool with fountains around the inside perimeter. The walkways, the central pool and the displays on the periphery are bordered by blocks of ice. The floor is awash with an inch of chilly water from the melting. There are chandeliers made with flowers and rolled currency, wall decorations made with flowers and more rolled currency, ceiling decorations made with, you guessed it, flowers and…money. It is seriously hot out, like 90, with high humidity, so this was the most refreshing, aromatic and, well, also the most seriously crowded “temple” of all. A special occasion. Hinduism with a touch of Disney.
Neighborhood shrines?…Or London phone booths? You decide.
Note: many photos from my first week in India, especially the tour day, were lost when my computer crashed.