Featured Poet: Yajushi (Vinodh Marella)
I felt it, the moment I stepped onto the crowded platform. A sense of
belonging. This is where I'm going to commence my journey.
Life after death starts here. Benares is a life terminus. My
brother-in-law too must be feeling something akin. After all, we've
come here to immerse his father's ashes in the holy Ganga. We
are on a yatra millions have done before us, and millions more will do:
Prayaga (Allahabad), Kashi (Benares) and Gaya.
We set off for Pandit Mishra's house. A fine old home. Dark
beams supporting the ceiling, niches occupied by clay statues of Gods,
and sepia photographs hanging on the walls. Pandit is eighty years old,
a vigorous and knowledgeable man. He looked at our tonsured heads and
said, "Munde, Dundhe aur phir Pinde". He was referring to the well known
mantra used to attain salvation:
Prayaga Munde (by tonsure)
Kashi Dundhe (by searching through the by-lanes of Benares)
Gaya Puinde (by offering rice balls to one's ancestors)
Early in the morning, we set off for the Ganga. Outside, swaddled in
blankets, smoking beedis, the Rickshaw drivers waited. I'd spent my
childhood in Calcutta, now Kolkata, and never did think it right
that one man should pull another.
walking to Ganga
a convoy of rickshaws
a pall of smoke
*The great cremation ghat
The Ganga foreshore marked by footprints and crushed marigold
flowers...the footprints come back, the marigolds stay. We add more
footprints and more marigolds. Down the steps of one of the many
Ghats we walk...into the Ganga...three ritual 'dubkis'...I come up for
air, and watch the ferry boats disappear into the eye of a great glaring
fireball . . . shining through the fog. Towards an invisible shore in boats
the colour of old bones, they live here where others come to die!
lining the steps . . .
hands fluttering like leaves
crossing the Ganga
crossing the Stryx
The Benares Priest . . . Death is both his livelihood and addiction. He
most often has a nearly irresistible compulsion to fleece the near and
dear of the dead. It's the same with the boatmen, and the railway
porters, and the agents, touts, rickshaw pullers, hotel owners, and
prostitutes. A law of nature: preying on the vulnerable. Death
is essential for their life. I had learned just enough of Sanskrit
in school to be able to comprehend something of what the Brahmin
Priest was chanting.
colour of old bones
On the way up the steps
In the early morning light, above the mist, from out of the water,
Benares . . . a great golden crescent of temples, spires, mosques,
minarets, and ashrams suspended and fading away in either direction.
A few paper kites push up the sky...clouds of pigeons wheel over the
temples...I can make out the steep steps of the many ghats leading
down to the edge of Ganga. The sun rises.
bathing at panchtirth*
*The five most sacred ghats - Assi, Dasashamedh, Manikarnika,
Panchganga and Adi Kesava ghats, bathing at any one of which assures
you a place in Heaven! There are more than seventy ghats at Benares -
each with its own history.
I discard the wet attire I was in and put on jeans, T-shirt, and suede
shoes, which immediately attract attention and an entourage.
My brother-in-law, in more traditional dress, smiles knowingly.
Climbing up the steps, it occurs to me that the temples, mosques,
spires, minarets, dwellings, the university, shops, ghats, rickshaws,
and people, all are a backdrop to the enactment of a ritual, incessantly
performed...seemingly as necessary as the air we breathe, and the water
we drink. Bathing...bathing in Ganga. The river is the faith, and the city
the prayer. . . . Easy to touch, difficult to capture.
the Ganga ghats#. . .
# Some of the bathing ghats are centuries old, if not all
Tulsi Ghat**. . .
a piece of wood
**In honour of the poet Tulsi Das - author of Ramayan (story of
Rama). In Hindi, the piece of wood is supposedly the one on which
he crossed the river Ganges.
A well known French physician, Dr. D. Herelle, observed some of the
floating corpses of men who died from dysentery and cholera, and was
surprised to find that only a few feet below the bodies, where one
would expect to find millions of germs, there were no germs at all. He
then grew germs from patients having the disease, and to these
cultures, added those from the Ganges. When he incubated the mixture
for a period, much to his surprise, the germs were completely destroyed!
Sri Swami Sivananda: Mother Ganges
Back home, Pandit Mishra regales us with some wonderful stories about
the miraculous properties of the Ganga's waters. The waters of
'Burhiganga', a tributary which flows into an old bed of the Ganga at
Soron, a town in UP, for example, is said to dissolve the bones of
the dead within three days of being deposited in it! The great
shenai maestro, Pandit Bimillah Khan, lives here, surrounded with
servants and a large progeny. He must be over ninety. Something in
the waters of Ganga!
According to Hindu legend, it is said that Ganga's descent from the
heavens, at the request of king Bhagiratha, to purify the souls of
his ancestors, would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed
her torrent by tying it into his ash smeared locks!! Too many
legends! Too many stories! Too many Ghats! Too many cows!
Too many bodies!
This is Benares. Also known for its Paan, silks, sweets, brass,
copperware, and religious objects . . . and in the Narial Bazaar, lights
begin to glow behind the curtains on the balconies of the brothels
on the upper floor . . .
village women . . .
slapping with gay abandon
the holy cow!
Back at Pandit Mishra's house, I bathe once more. The habit must be
contagious! In an enormous bath tub with clawed feet and a
curling rim . . . the head of the shower curled over it, like a flower
drooping on a wilted stem. Back to the Ganga for a boat ride. I
haggled with the boatman who operates at an inflation rate of 100%, and
finally got onto the river. The boatman was in mid-section, turning
from left to right as he dipped his oars alternately on either side of
the boat. Even though there was no wind, the water's surface was
densely marked with ripples and eddies.
floating along the Ganga
at its pace . . .
a marigold garland#
#The dead bodies are invariably garlanded and due to the rush, half
burnt dead bodies are consigned to Ganga. Some of these garlands
detach . . .
Dusk . . . the labyrinthine alleys, relatively less crowded. Down here,
darkness comes while the sky overhead is still blue.
Pigeons cease wheeling over the spires; the kites hauled
down, their long, pink streamers stretch over the fading sky.
The walls exude dampness. Sewage trickles down between the
houses to the river. The smells are more pronounced now.
Shops are doing business, and cows! Cows are everywhere,
making the ground more slippery than it was, with their dung and urine. Cows
in the forecourts of temples, tethered in the yards of houses, free . . .
suddenly looming up . . . never hesitating, they seemingly sail on . . .
it's for us to get out of the way! Chosen animals, sacred animals . . .
and they know it! The cows of Benares will die only of old age or disease,
and right beside the holy Ganga! It's time for the daily 'Arti Puja' - offering
the light of five branched candelabra.
chilly evening . . .
Holy cows coming at me
cruising along the Ganga
the full moon . . .
at its pace
No visit to Benares is complete without an encounter with an
Aghori / Tantrik. Some of them claim to be able to suck up liquids
with their penis. Some claim a special kiss between the thighs of
barren women; still others claim to be masters of 'kumari puja' - i.e.,
Virgin Puja, with whom he will have intercourse without an orgasm . . .
thus she will remain a virgin. Some worship Sarveshwari, the Goddess of the
Universe, "Mother", performing certain pujas - Chakra Puja and Gopya
Puja (secret worship), as per age old tantrik rituals.
Most, if not all, of these Aghoras / Tantriks / Babas / Gurus / Swamis /
and Sadhus are fake charlatans, who fleece money from the helpless
people in need of help. Benares attracts them all; to live and die by the Ganga
Mayya - "mother Ganga", the all forgiving Goddess!
Manikarnika Ghat . . .
**It is common practice to tightly tie down the corpse to, for want
of a better word, a 'stretcher', with grass ropes. The stretcher is
carried by four people - usually the nearest and dearest, who cries,
"Ram naam satya hai.," "Rama is the true one."
glowing from within
**the full moon day is called 'paurnami' and the new moon day,
What do I remember? The widows, the cows, the sadhus, the steep
stairways, the washermen, the 'thandai' (drink made of Canabis indica),
and, of course, the Ganga flowing south to north at Benares. It's a
place to come back to.
The Ganga has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and
civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet, ever the same
Ganga has 108 names. A few:
Bindusaras -- River made of water drops
Ramya --- Delightful, beautiful
Jangama --- Moving, alive
Puta --- Pure
Purna -- Full
Ananta -- Eternal
Sughosa -- Melodious
Avyaya -- Imperishable
Sighra-ga ---Swift flowing
Atula -- Peerless
Punya -- Auspicious
Japa -- Muttering, Whispering