Friday, February 04, 2011

Varanasi, known as Kashi, the City of Life

It has been said that India is not a contradiction in terms, but sets the terms for all contradictions, and this is especially true in Varanasi. I give a few rupees to a beggar and an Indian man next to me says “good karma”. Later I read in the India Times that the American Bill Gates is urging Indian billionaires to be more charitable. Indeed in India there are many billionaires and countless living in poverty.

Just before arriving, on the perfectly smooth four-lane expressway cows wandered and not unexpectedly trucks and cars travel in the wrong lanes, as everywhere in India. At the city’s periphery there are gleaming modern Toyota and Ford car dealerships next the tent cities and mud dwellings and women making paddies from cow droppings and artfully arranging them by the road side. The pavement stops and suddenly it’s a mud track due to construction and traffic is at a standstill. Throughout the congested narrow lanes of Old Varanasi, where a cow can barely pass, one always needs to be on the look-out for speeding motorcycles.

But it’s along the Ganges, locally the Ganga, one of the most holy of rivers to Hindus, in this City of Life, where life and death stand in stand in dark contrast. Pilgrims come to pray and the sick and elderly come to die. By all accounts one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet by the thousands healthy-looking people pray at, swim in and drink the water of the Ganges along the dozens of ghats. There are colourful and very moving puja ceremonies before sunrise and at sunset. Amongst the ghats are several special “burning ghats” for cremation, bodies wrapped in white, placed on piles of wood, surrounded by family and ; most have their ashes scattered in the holy water. But even here there is a class divide: one ghat for the untouchables and the rest positioned such the wealthier are closest to the water. Unlike the healthy, in seeming contradiction most of the ill and dead animals are not cremated but are weighed down by stones and sent into the Ganges.

The celebrations of life and death seem almost equally serene as the prevailing belief is in reincarnation. The “puja”, meaning respect incorporate elements of most religious and folk art/dance traditions that I have seen. There is the constant chanting, ringing of bells, use of water, flowers, incense, candles and lights. The blowing of a conch sounding just like the shofar, the use of smoke and candles as in Eastern Orthodoxy and the delicate hand and body movements of the dancers of Thailand and Indonesia. All this in a setting where huge crowds gather; cows, goats, dogs roam freely. The crowd is mostly women in multi-coloured saris, men in their woollens, often covered with thick blankets to ward off the chill of the dawn or dusk, children selling small offerings of flower pedals with a candle to be floated down the river, holy men in pure white or deep orange robes and thankfully, not that many foreign tourists, who seem to arrive by the busload and head straight for larger boats to observe the ceremonies are far enough off shore such that only their ineffectual flashing cameras indicate their presence. Most independent travelers appear as mesmerized by the fusion of activities and only an occasional oriental stands out as he or she makes grotesque faces in contorted positions, for the benefit of the camera.

Beyond the river there is a maze of streets to wander in the old city, a number of temples, a vibrant university set along landscaped boulevards and several major arterials full of all the modern conveniences of a city of about two million. We have been here three days but decided to stay an extra night, having found several restaurants and street vendors to our liking, one special one being the Aum Café, run by a spiritual ex-Californian woman with simple, healthy food and she is proud of using only fresh ingredients and for not having a can opener, and free wi-fi is an additional bonus.

On Thursday night as we are strolling after dinner, the unmistakable figure of a man with a large black hat, black suit and white shirt, a Chabad Rabbi appears. He is putting up posters in Hebrew, having only arrived the day before that Chabad House is open and we will be having a Sabbath service and meal with him this evening.

What is the chance of such a Sangam, the confluence of events, in this case two tourists, who had planned to move on the day before, meeting a Rabbi, who had just arrived in town the day before, on aminor side street at the south end of Varanasi: only in India, the land of contradictions and conjunctions?

Namaste and Shabbat Shalom


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