When I arrived in Banaras, I had no clue where I was going. I had very little to go on. I was very uneducated about the country of India, so- no surprise that I was clueless about the beauty and awe I was about to experience. As we came across the very long bridge that crosses the river Ganga (Ganges) I caught a glimpse of the old city. You could see ancient stupas tipping into the river, and set after set after set of one or two city block wide steps leading into the river.
Jon, my heart brother and guide, thought it smart to avoid the bus station and instead, get off on the edge of town, not far from the bridge. His plan was to walk down through the less populated area to the hotel he was accustomed to staying in. It was deep in the old part of the city. Jon led me, his friend John, his girlfriend Erika, and their mutual friend Charlie (all of whom had become my family as well) to our destination with confidence, and he had not told us that the walk would be two miles long.
Banares (the Hindi/Urdu name for the city) is one of the oldest cities in the world, and certainly in India. From the well traveled streets I landed on, you would have no idea how old the city really is.
The street, closest to where we were let out, ran parallel to the river’s edge. And we walked on it for a couple of miles. Not quite dirt road, not quite bustling city street, it felt strangely like an old western film. I still can’t put a finger on it twenty years later but it felt abandoned though people stood in the doorways of their shops and the occasional patron stopped to discuss the wares. I suppose it felt that way because it was clearly once an inhabited area, or at least built to be so. Just beyond the doorways of restaurants were padded walls upholstered in red velvet, with lots of gold and gilt chandeliers. Mirrors on every wall. In it’s heyday, this was a swingin’ part of town. It felt oddly familiar. Like a boulevard in Hollywood might have looked in 1936.
I had been on a train for most of the day, and it is pretty much impossible to pee on an Indian train. Sure I had done it, but I held out for the last hour of the ride in an effort to avoid the sloshing hole in the floor experience. Now I was even more strapped for a place to pee, and I was finally going to join the ranks of some of the locals and take a pee in the street. It was rare but more common than seen on NYC streets. Normally public elimination was spotted behind (or not) three and a half to four foot walls considered public toilets.
Or the more common convenience station; what we called “shit fields. In the mornings locals were seen heading out to the field with their pot of water for morning constitution the same way you might see a suburban American dad heading off to the bathroom with the sports section.
It wasn’t the first time I cursed the stupid decision to buy that army duffel bag, nor a new experience to wish I hadn’t shoved so much stuff into it- but it was the first time I was going to pull my pants down in the middle of the streets and take a pee.
Thank god for the suggestion and desire to blend in. I loved my Salwar Kameez and wore it proudly with my fake chinese Chuck Taylors with the tire re-purposed rubber souls that I bought on Pahar Ganj — heavy suckers. The dress that is worn over the pants covers one’s butt cheeks well when squatting between two stoops in the streets of this beautiful and infamous town where people come to die. Maybe it was the relief that marked those two stoops so clear in my memory but it was liberating, and not just the pee. You have to let go of an ingrained inhibition about bodily fluids and privacy that would otherwise not be an issue. “Otherwise” as in if you weren’t raised in the western world. Call it barbaric (I don’t) but babies are potty trained days after they are born. They don’t wear diapers, they just pee on their mama’s back, when the trickle happens, Mama’s response is to make a little ssssssssssss sound. And soon the babies make the ssss sound and mom holds them over the ditch like everyone else.
I felt free peeing in the street while my pals waited for my release.
When we left the safe-haven of Mcleod Ganj the Tibetan settled hill station,
Jon told me stories of Banaras. It was the New York City of India; music everywhere and universities, It was rich with opportunity to study with masters of instrument and voice, poetry, artists, thinkers… It was the city not far from Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first teaching. It was the holiest city in the world for Hindus. The Ganges River which runs past its banks is the same river that flows from the head of Shiva, the creator and destroyer of all things.
Hindus come from all over the world to bathe in the river Ganga before they die. It is like going to Mecca for the Islamic people. Because of this… many people, walk, crawl, or are carried to the edge of the water for one last dip before death, and for most Hindus it is their first as well. Many just don’t make it til the very end. To bathe in the Ganges is to cleanse the toxins of karma
collected over lifetimes and packed into the years spent in the bardo of this life, and so they make the pilgrimage despite the possibility of making it no farther than the train station.
Death is a sort of theme in Banaras. The bus stations and train yards are littered with stretchers and elders hunched over from the weight of hard Indian lifetimes. It seemed like, from every train car- a family was carrying their sixty pound mother to the landing. On the waters edge, the same, lowering her for one last dip beside Shivite aesthetics.
I was pretty excited to be heading into the old city. After the last saloon, on my imaginary wild-west-Indian-ghost-town-street-fantasy-starring-me-as-an-Indian-Mae West, we were suddenly deeper in India than I had been in my 3 months having been there.
The street narrowed, and the wide, brightly lit boulevard turned into a dark and ancient alleyway winding right and then left, and eventually became more of a walkway. I have to use words like walkway and alley, so as not to give someone who had never been there the impression that the streets were wide enough for a car. These were narrow passageways with little light coming through the ceiling of the space between buildings. I had a difficult time believing that Jon knew where he was going, and the three others in our group were following him as though they didn’t care if he actually was lost. He was walking with a confidence that we couldn’t muster if we had been given special gumption juice for breakfast. The feeling was that these ancient passages we were walking on were alive like no other buildings I have ever experienced.
When I was a child I moved onto the property of a woman who had bought it to love it up and bring life back into it. It had been worn down and mistreated, and she touched every square inch of surface in that house. Loving every caress, hammering and demolition. As I grew up, year after year from fifth grade to graduation she spent every summer and fall and spring and even winter working to bring healing to the walls, windows, doors and hearths in that house, and it came to life beautifully. I know the corners in that house so well, I can recall the smell in the front room or hear the sound of the aluminum screen door off the kitchen as it closed behind you. In the summer it slammed, and in the winter it sort of parachuted closed with a little bounce because of the plastic over the screen that acted like a storm window. I love that house so much that ten years after it sold I still drive by hoping for signs of life. All of the loving work, time and effort that went into that house, has left it since being sold. It’s settled into being just another weekend home on the block with the character power sprayed off by a corporate painting company, the current owner having no idea how many hours Eve stood on a ladder painting each pane on every window every couple of years having taken them off to re-glaze them all first. Each year, switching out the heavy storm windows for screens and back to storms for the winter. The house still lives it’s just calling for love as the foundation settles and cracks some more, giving marbles a new direction to roll when they drop.
These streets, these structures had a life that was nothing like that. They had held together through flood and famine to be standing, some thousands of years old. Every ten or fifteen feet in some spots were statues built into the walls that had been rubbed and rained on so many times you can hardly tell which deity is in what shrine. Ganesh’s trunk only merely detectable. Orange paint regularly applied in attempts to preserve the relics. I think the city is held together on prayer.
Periodically as we wound our way through the hallways they would open up to a small park that felt like a courtyard where more light was able to make it through. An ancient tree, possibly some benches, beside a shrine. Most of the parks I had seen were actually shrines and not “parks” as we have come to know parks in American cities. I loved running into the occasional cow and his herder and that being a normal sight.
Amazed at how fast we had gone from the wild west to medieval in a matter of a second and curious as to whether Jon really did know where he was taking us, I asked as we arrived at the Shanti Guest House- if we were ever going to arrive at the Shanti Guest House. We had landed
Once inside the office, Jon was greeted by a jovial Hotel Owner who was perfectly happy to give us one double room for three people. This was almost unheard of in Indian Hotels, where you pretty much have to wear fake wedding rings when you are traveling with a person of the opposite sex. Indian’s are sticklers for the bureaucratic process, so it was a pleasure to check in at the Shanti Guest house. Even with the proprietor being so nice, we accepted the lock he gave us for the room. No need to taint the comfortable exchange by telling him we had our own combination Master Lock to secure our door with rather than the “very secure” one he had provided. Inside the hotel opened up into a courtyard. From the outside of the building, you had no idea how much light was shining just beyond the walls. I like the courtyard theme in Indian Architecture. In the center of the courtyard a man was working on his motorcycle. He had been traveling overland from Europe. Every piece of the engine was laid out on a piece of Canvas beside him while he gently directed a young Indian boy on how to assist him.
After a sponge bath in a shared bathroom with a hot bucket of joy, we were off to explore. I was ready to be taken to Manikarnika Ghat. Otherwise known as the “Burning Ghat.” This was where, if you are a man, and you have enough money, your body can be burned on a private tended pyre. There is said to be a single sacred fire that has been burning for centuries. The caste responsible for tending this fire and all of those cremated at Manikarnika Ghat is one that I admire, the Domes. I often still think about the idea of a fate such as to be born into a caste who spends their life wafting in the scent of burning flesh, keeping the bodies on the fire as they burn. If to be burned at this sacred Ghat means the assurance of transition into Nirvana, and an end to the suffering of Samsara- The cyclic journey from life to sickness to aging and death and back again through the realms that you may have brought yourself to via particular conduct or way of life/behavior of thought- then these men who tend that sacred fire are attainers of vast merit if not their own free pass to Nirvana.
A we got closer to Manikarnika, a strange and eerie song rang through the corridors of streets.
“It takes a total of three hours for a body to burn from start to finish.” Said the man beside me in his thick Hindi accent. “A whole lifetime only to burn in three hours.”
I can continue to tell you about my experience, but I found this blog entry while looking for a photo. It is an INCREDIBLE entry.
I highly suggest you continue by clicking here…
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