18 The Virtue of Incense

Varanasi Station. The signboard reads “Ladies Waiting Room for first class, second class and sleeper ACC”. It must have been quite a beautiful room in its time. The station itself is quite a nice structure in the colonial style. The room is half full. It has plastic chairs, and a couple of coffee tables being used by ladies as day beds. 2 other ladies spread an old sari out on the dirty floor, and curl up. Next to them a pair of once white men’s underwear inexplicably spread out on a suitcase. Some one is eating grapes and dropping the peel and stems onto the floor. An elderly lady chews paan. The lovely old tiled fireplace has been sealed. A slight reek wafts from the adjoining toilet. Hanging off the high ceiling are 4 dangerously wobbly fans spinning at alarming speeds. This reminds me fondly of the fan in my borrowed room in Bodhgaya. It had 2 speeds – “ready for take off” and “dead in the water”. An Indian man and a small boy wander in. May be they are lost?

Varanasi has been amazing – teeming, overwhelming, bursting at the seams, yet so much history, culture, spirituality. That river, I can’t really do it justice. It is beyond my competence of expression to describe. To appreciate India, one needs to perceive without prejudice, with fresh eyes free of fear, with more than the physical senses. India is a journey into your psyche. She’s the best guru if you let her be.

A sweeper drags a foul smelling broom around. I begin to see the function of incense. I light one. 

A couple with a small bare-bottomed baby come in. “5 months old”, says the proud father. 

“For your kind attention, train number …. Is now running late…” The only white guy on the platform had asked me for clarification. He had a Germanic accent. On striking up a conversation we find out that we were both going to McLeod Ganj. Thus Thomas and I decided to meet up at the end of the trip, i.e., at Chakki Bank and share a taxi to McLeod Ganj. The train journey of over 1000 kilometers across northern India.

I come back to Ladies Waiting room to see the 5-month old being dangled, over the coffee table, now technically a “public convenience”. I light another stick of incense 

17 Ganga Morning

The river Ganges or Ganga winds 1560 miles from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, supporting nearly half a billion people as she meanders through the great wide plains. The river is revered as a goddess who grants purity and aids the dead towards heaven. It is said that a single drop of Ganges water washes away a lifetime of sin. 

The pock-marked rickshaw wallah picked me up at 5.15 to get to the river. The streets were beginning to wake. Bus loads of tourists pass us. When the rickshaw wallah pulled over, I followed a group of western tourists to the boats. There were many boatmen and not as many tourists so I got away with paying only 50 rupees for an hour’s ride, 50 rupees being the government price. The city is built on the west bank of the river. The east side seems to be only sand banks. At the last moment an Indian chap holding a small stick, which turned out to be his tooth brush jumped in as well. He was going to one of the ghats north of Dasaswmehd. We pass a series of ghats including the main ‘burning’ ghat. “Here burning place, no picture. Fine (something we Singaporeans are familiar with)”. There were piles of wood and a couple of what looked like starter fires but no sign of a funeral. May be it was too early in the morning. The boatman asked if I was married and had children. He also suggested that I should tip him.

As it got brighter, I scrutinized the river but could not see visible signs of pollution, or other large floating objects. I soon forgot the danger of having a half cremated corpse bob up next to my boat. There was some debris (plastic bottles, flowers, slippers, scum) at places along the water’s edge. There were lots of yellow, gold and red flowers from offerings floating around. Little candle and flower offerings bob on the surface. The water at the bathing places also looked reasonable. Still I was not tempted to stick even a finger into what the 2003 edition of the Lonely Planet guide said had no dissolved oxygen and 1.5M faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Boats full of souvenirs, light offerings and fish (to be set free?) compete for the tourists’ attention. A band of monkeys invade a couple of buildings and a man on the roof terrace waves a large stick threateningly. The monkeys screech and move on. 

On the banks, saddhus, yogis, mere mortals bathe and meditate. As the sum came up and photography became possible, spectacle of Indian life materialized. I watch a few women expertly manoeuvre their change of saris after their bath. That means working with 2 x 5 metres of fabric. The saddhus adjust their loin-cloths, a piece of fabric of opposite size to the sari. Along the ghats, all sorts of businesses open shop: masseurs, palm readers, hair dressers, child barbers, people who anoint (or decorate) your forehead (these were particularly plentiful), sellers of paan and chai and everything imaginable. They all sit on little platforms; some have large umbrellas, their wares in front of them. Touts bother tourists. Tourists ignore touts; ditto for beggars, newspaper & other vendors. The usual cast of dogs, goats, cows and the odd buffalo add to the melee. The resident population go about their business of bathing and dressing in public, a practice I thought completely contrary to the normal Indian sense of modesty. 

More tourists are around now. I wonder what the locals think about us, gawking and photographing their daily routine. It must be very annoying. A very wet child runs past me up the steps, snapping his wet towel. Thus I was anointed by the holy river. 

 

Footnote: 

In 1985, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan, which was devised to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries that pollute. Almost 20 years later, the plan has been largely unsuccessful. The Western-style treatment plants simply did not meet the needs of the region. Such treatment facilities are designed for use in countries where the supply of electricity is stable, there’s no season of overwhelming monsoon rains, and the population doesn’t drink directly from the water source. With a dual identity as Hindu priest and civil engineer, the citizen-based Sankrat Mochan Foundation organization’s founder, Veer Bhadra Mishra, has proposed an alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that is compatible with the climate and conditions of India. The advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system would store sewage in a series of ponds and use bacteria and algae to break down waste and purify the water, so it wouldn’t need electricity. According to Mishra’s view, to tell a Hindu that Ganga, goddess and mother, is “polluted” or “dirty” is an insult; it suggests that she is no longer sacred. Rather, the approach must acknowledge that human action, not the holy river herself, is responsible: “We are allowing our mother to be defiled.” This approach has stimulated grassroots involvement in the clean-up effort, and is transforming the work for environmental preservation into a model for cultural and religious preservation as well. – www.Sacredland.org 

16 City of Learning and Burning

Varanasi, the ex-Benares and ex-Kashi is older than history, older than legend, older than mythology, and older than all three put together, so said Mark Twain. It has been a centre for Indian philosophy and learning for millenniums. Besides the river, Varanasi silk brocades are also world famous. No rich and respectable Indian woman would marry without a wedding sari of brocade silk from Varanasi. Varanasi silk is supposed to be the softest silk around, and made from wild silk worm cocoons, vs. the Chinese’s farmed variety. My guide, Dubai “like the country” said Varanasi was a place of learning and of burning. It’s a good place to die. He tries to drive and explain Varanasi and its connection to the Hindu god Shiva. “Shiva smokes ganja, so Shiva worshippers little bit crazy”. The French ladies keep up their chatter and pay absolutely no attention to our Brahmin. So far I’ve heard only 2 people have announced their caste, both Brahmins. This guy bathes in the Ganges everyday before the sunrise and then meditates for 20 minutes (20 minutes is chicken feed, I thought, especially if one is a Brahmin). Only Brahmins and saddhus bathe before sunrise, I guess it’s an elite thing. Brahmins are strict vegetarians, i.e., no eggs, no buffalo milk (only cow milk), No intoxicants, no caffeine, no ganja. Dubai walks around with a pack of herbal tea in his pocket. No regular chai for our Brahmin. He looks like everybody else except for a little lock of longish hair sticking out of the back of his head, a sign of his high caste.

As we make our way into the heavy dust and chaos, with the windows closed, no air-conditioning in hot weather, I learn that it is very big trouble to hit a cow on the street. For penalty, one would have to compensate the family, fast for 10 days, sleep on the floor, and then feed your Brahmin friends a big banquet in atonement. 

Dubai takes us to the little town of Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first started to teach the middle way. There is a ruined monestary, a museum and huge stupa built by the emperor Ashoka, later sacked by the moguls. The significance of the stupa is that it was topped by a statue of 4 lions, which is the symbol of India today. Also in the stupa are some bits and pieces of the buddha’s mortal remains. What is it with humans that we like to have pieces of some one’s corpse close at hand? Communist leaders are embalmed and displayed. Buddhist leaders are cremated and distributed. Catholics bite off the toes of their deceased saints, at least in Goa they did. I can see having the ashes of some one in your family in an urn, but having a bit of ear or teeth or toe of someone else is a bit morbid.

There was also a smallish museum with tons of whole or broken Buddhist and Hindu statues. One looked pretty much like another at this point. We then also saw a Jain temple “near about 200 years old” and then a Tibetan temple “very new one”. Dubai didn’t know that the Tibetan temple was founded by the Kagyu master Trungku Rinpoche, who is tutor to the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu tradition. The shrine room was beautiful and appropriately ornate without being too extravagant. Everything seemed hand painted and hand carved. There was a huge portrait of the Dalai Lama and one of the Karmapa. “That is the ninth Dalai Lama” said Dubai. “That is the fourteenth Dalai Lama”, said I. Dubai was distraught. “I am Brahmin, a holy man, the highest caste”, said he, in case we’ve forgotten. “Now I am feeling very bad, because I tell many people wrong thing. When I am wrong, then everybody is wrong.” He wanted to know which the current incarnation of the Karmapa is. We were then taken to the usual big carpet and sari store.

15 Varanasi has Broadband

My 300 rupees (US$7.25) fan-cooled room overlooked the lawn. There’s a nice balcony. There’s the usual not quite right feel as with almost everything else here. The bed is a double made up with 2 single grey-white sheets. The tap drips terribly. The floor though not quite clean, is marble. I’ve noticed that in general people move dirt around spreading it evenly rather than actually clean it up. Nevertheless, the Hotel Surya and its garden is a haven from the insanity and chocking fumes of Varanasi. I could not keep my eyes open in traffic for the dust flying into them.

Human nature is such that one appreciates “having” best when one  is “not having”. Not having broadband in Bodhgaya was necessary for me to enjoy broadband here at the oasis of hotel Surya in Varanasi. The tranquility of breakfast on the lawn is a refuge from the craziness outside the gates. Surrounded by the exuberance of lush dahlias bursting with colour, and the bougainvillea heavy with blossoms, the India train station madness and bumper car traffic seems very far away. I reflect on the concepts of duality and polarity. Where is left if there is no right? How do you appreciate non-toothache if you’ve never had a root canal?

The elderly waiter brings the menu and nods approvingly at my breakfast order – paratha and India chai. “You buddhist, madam?” I think the Lonely Planet is dead right about women wearing the Salwar Kameez. It’s a badge of respectability. Many evil and badly dressed western women venture into Varanasi alone it seems.

At the next table the raucous bunch of English students discuss the previous evening’s activities and congratulate one another on having done the sunrise tour of the river Ganges this morning. The main character, taking up way too much air-time, appears to be the ungainly chap in orange travel pants and  non-matching strip shirt who proclaims that he shall spend all of his 200 pounds . Their Indian friend, who’s wearing a pair of white terry-cloth bedroom slippers (on the lawn)  look worried.

Varanasi was old when Rome was founded, but most of it’s buildings are only a couple of hundred years old. The Mughals and other infidels had sacked much of it’s old glory. Tomorrow or thereafter I shall bravely venture out to the famous river at dawn and do my tourist’s duty.

14 Leaving Bodhgaya

A very flustered Japanese man with a small towel slung round his neck came to ask if I was “nihonjin-deska?” I said “sorry, no” and he nodded apologetically and strode off. He went up, down and across the platform several times, his face getting redder. The Japanese tourists I mused, as I stand there with Amrish  guarding me, are so abused. In India there are always 4 price levels: an Indian price, Isreali price, western price and Japanese price. Even in Singapore there is a special Japanese price at tourist places. In Bodhgaya I was routinely asked by young men in the streets if I was Japanese. By my lack of politeness, they get that I’m not. “Korean? Taiwanese” They would ask. 

All in all I spent 10 days in Bodhgaya with very good memories of the kids, and a few ideas of what I can do for them. Something with craft, folk art, fund raising, sponsorship…. But whatever it is, they gave me more than I could ever give them.

The train was late so Amrish and I chatted sparsely about the India-Pakistan cricket matches and his family. Amrish was a taxi driver in Patna before he came to drive for the Maitreya Project in Bodhgaya in 1997. His English is surprisingly good. He’s a medium built guy with olive skin and enigmatic eyes. Blue-jeaned,  ear-ringed and a George Cloony haircut, he would look at home from London to La Pas. The Indian ethnicity is really quite varied. The cook who is a Sherpa from Darjeeling, even though technically there are no Sherpas from Darjeeling, Dick tells me, looks Chinese. He serenades us with Hindi songs when he’s working in the kitchen.

The Gaya station is not a very nice place. A number of beggars approach us, but not quite as many as if I were to be standing here alone. Ahead, a man is waving a red kerchief at a cow that’s gotten on to the tracks. She’s serenely eating the garbage that’s been tossed down. I watch her swallow 2 plastic bags. She missed the papaya peel that the papaya-wallah had just thrown, stupid cow. At 4.50pm the impossibly long train pulls in and there was a general scramble. My coach was of course at the other end. 

Amrish finds my seat and evicts the portly chap who was occupying it. The train begins to pull away. Who but the flustered Japanese should have the seat next to mine? He too was going to stay at the Hotel Surya. I decided to adopt him. It later transpired that it was his third trip to Varanasi and he was the one adopting me. We managed to pay only 10 rupees (US 25 cents) to the auto-rickshaw wallah to get to the hotel. I am pretty sure that that was the Indian price.