Monday, January 26, 2009

Varanasi, Jan 2009

24 January 2009
Varanasi. On duty. A selection committee meeting at noon.I arrived yesterday after travelling 9 hours, a duration which involved about 3 hours of flying and a 4 hour halt at Delhi airport. Dead beat. Zonked. My head in a whirl. There is a heavy weight on my head. A heaviness and fatigue caused by the boring halt en route, the fact that the alarm didn’t ring when it should have, and the fact that it was Raju's whimpering that woke me -- he needed a change of sheets. I was short of time and had to break all speed barriers to finish all odd jobs and get to the airport on time.
The evening is free, so I hire a boat at the Ganga Ghat – the Assi Ghat is the closest to the campus – and ask the mullah to take me halfway into the river. An urchin on the shore persuades me to buy a diya decorated with champak flowers in a bowl made of leaves. What do I do with it? I ask. He tells me to light it, say a prayer and leave it afloat in the Ganges.

I light the little diya, say a silent prayer and leave it in the water. bobs a bit to one side as I let go. The diya floats along with it for a while and then I see another diya floating towards it. Heading towards the great beyond. Becoming an indistinguishable part of the Ganga. Of the elements. Of the cosmos from whence they first came. A part of the Ganga. A part of the eternal world. A part of the cosmos.

The Daswamedh Ghat, next morning at sunrise. 5.15 am. The alarm beeps. I press the Snooze button and turn to the other side. Five minutes later it beeps again. I press Snooze a second time, pull the pillow over my head, and roll over. The third time it beeps I know I must get up.
Where am I? O, yes, still in Varanasi. I wish to go to the Ganga Ghat. This time not to Assi Ghat (where I have already been) but Dashvamedha (or Rajendra Prasad) Ghat at Gadhaulia. I wish to see the sun rise over the Ganges and the newspapers say that sunrise is at 6.44. The Ghat is some distance away, so I set out from the guest house at 5.45, walk to the campus gate to hire a tempo. A swirling grey mist wafts through the campus bye-lanes. The streetlights have a luminous halo around them. I can see vague shapes of early-morning joggers, breathing out clouds of mist as they huff and puff down the road. In the distance somewhere I can hear the cry of peacocks. The world is beginning to wake up.
The tempo takes me on a jolting ride down winding alleys which are still more or less empty. I am dropped close to the Ghat from where I must now walk.
The street here is busy. Dhabas by the roadside have started their business. Beggars are at their post already. As I walk on I hear a voice calling out. A self-styled guide flashes his I-card and offers to take me to Vishwanath Temple. I am in two minds. Temples are not really my thing. My mind seems to close when I have to visit one. Sure, I like going to some of them – the Mansa Devi, for example, where it is neat and clean, where the ambience is peaceful, serene, and picturesque.
But, would it be right – coming to Banaras and not going to the main temple? Perhaps I should. So, reluctantly I agree to be ushered into the temple. Herded, I should say. It is hardly a religious or spiritual experience. There are already crowds thronging the narrow alleys, the doorways, and the little cells where statues of Gods and Goddesses are kept. I am warned that I beware of pickpockets and hang on to my money bag.
The floors are slushy. I have removed my shoes at the main entrance but kept my socks on. They are now soaked. I am most uncomfortable. Plus the mind is rebelling, asking me what the hell I am doing there? Is it giving me any peace of mind? If not, then why am I there?

I cut short the round of the various altars and rush out, the guide following me. Quickening my pace through the paan-stained streets, I try shaking him off but he is determined to stick on. Finally I approach the security guards and request them to shoo him away.
Finally on my own, I walk to the Ghat. It is 6.50 but there is no sign of the sun. A thick misty veil hangs over the Ganga. I realize that even if the sun rises I will not be able to see it through the haze. So let me just make the best of what I can see.
The Ganga stretches out, disappearing into the horizon. Steps leading down to the banks are all paan-stained. There are people swarming all over. Most of them are shraddhalus, devotees come to pay homage to the river. Boatmen lined up, waiting for customers. A line of boats along the quay. Boats of all shapes and sizes. Big boats and small boats. Sail boats and row boats. The sound of temple bells reverberates in the air. Pandits along the banks begin their round of mantras, singing and chanting as they offer incense to the elements, bowing and praying. Several groups move together, singing praise of Ganga Maiyya, the Ganga as the Great Mother. Tourists with cameras in action. The devout preparing to take a bath in the waters. The beggars lined up by the walkways, waiting for philanthropists to give alms.
As I take in all this I can’t help noticing how filthy the place is. Why can’t they clean it up? If they really have so much faith in the Ganga, why can’t they keep its embankments clean?
Looking out into the river, the misty haze thinning out, I realize why the river inspires respect and awe. It is huge, a vast expanse that flows on undisturbed. Indifferent to the prayers that are chanted on its banks. Heedless of the tears and sorrows that afflict mankind. Impervious to the transient joys of the material world, its highs and lows, its hopes and aspirations. The Ganga is immortal, a part of the eternal cosmos that does not live or die. It simply is and always will be.

This is the realization that strikes one on the banks of the great river. So even the non-believer goes back a sober, chastened person. Goes back convinced that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.

Sarnath has been an added treat on this trip. I would probably not have gone there if Sudhir had not advised me -- prior to my departure from Chd -- that Imust take time out for the spot. And if Sushila had not organized a vehicle to drive us there -- the two of us with another subject expert from Allahabad. A short distance away, it still takes a whole hour to drive down because of the traffic on the streets. But the destination is worth the trip -- the stupas, the statues of the Budhha, the monuments commemorating his sermon to the first 5 disciples, the tall palm trees and the deer park. All very serene, exuding an ambience that one can only experience and not describe in words.

[Hey, it wasn't all sightseeing and boating! Did some work, too. Grilled 6 candidates who appeared for promotion interviews under the Career Advancement Scheme.]

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