The Light Stays with You

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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi
February 19th 2019
Published: October 26th 2019
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Sunrise over the Ganges. That is what everyone was talking about. Even before arriving in India, every video I watched or book I read claimed that waking up early to explore the Ganges was something I simply had to do. I had never really focused on the why before. I just figured it was something I was required to check off my list. The details would fill themselves in later.

However, I simply could not roust myself up at 5am. It wasn’t until 7am that I finally got underway. Eschewing breakfast, I hurried out the hotel door and down toward the river. Descending the steps, I became aware of the surreal light. The air was a soft white and blue. The rays of light were not at all strong given that the sun had not risen yet. The good people of Varanasi were up already and bathing in the sacred river. Yet despite the hum of activity, everything felt noticeably more peaceful and relaxed. I observed monks involved in their morning meditations. It was a wonderful temperature for a gentle morning stroll along the Ganges. I started to walk. It was all so perfect.

Well that is, the conditions were absolutely perfect up until 7:20. Then the sun came out and burned away the soft atmosphere. It soon became uncomfortably hot and I began rapidly shedding my early morning layers of clothing. I determinedly headed for the farthest ghats on the edge of town. Once there, I sat down and took in the surrounding scene. Everything was tranquil and serene again. I was witnessing the birth of another day.

The Indian ragas in my ears kept my soul rising and falling across the water and back again. To my left I could see a large group of girls practicing an elaborate dance routine. I had seen them the day before as well. Maybe, it was for some school celebration or possibly a wedding. Three guys passed by me and said hello. This gave courage to two different guys to finally come up and ask me for a selfie. Up until then these two had been eyeing me from a distance and had settled on shyly standing a short distance behind me.

After the selfie takers left, the other three guys doubled back and asked if they could sit with me. Luckily, they all turned out to be really chilled out cool guys. Hanging out with them just made you feel relaxed. And even better for me two of them spoke perfect English. I eventually discovered one reason for their chillness when they offered me to share in their smoke. I decided smoking marijuana would not be the best thing for getting my head together so I politely declined.

They had just come back from swimming in the Ganges. The guy in a knit hat was using a stick to brush his teeth. We had all been talking for a while when a mob of youngsters, 13-15 years old, descended upon us. They didn’t speak any English but the guys who I was talking with said that the kids wanted to take a picture with me. Soon I found myself posing in the middle of the huge group like some kind of visiting celebrity. It was translated to me that the kids were talking amongst themselves about wanting to invite me back to their village. They however moved on leaving me to once again hangout with my peaceful new friends.

All three guys were super excited because Prime Minister Modi was arriving in Varanasi later that day to open a hospital and give a speech. They said that they were planning to go and that the crowds would be enormous. They went on to say that everyone in Varanasi loved Modi and how he had the ear of everyone from grandmother to child. I said that it sounded like the perfect day for them. First swim in the Ganges, then smoke on the steps, and finally listen to Modi. They laughed and smiled at the thought.

Upon parting they told me that the Indian people will always support me. I was in such a relaxed mood that on my way back I took the wrong turn at one ghat and by mistake wandered into an open-air temple area, from which I was promptly shooed away. I was in a daze when just steps from my hotel someone called out “Hey Sir! Look I have a good cobra.” I looked down. He was right. He did indeed have a good cobra rearing up in front of him.

I was feeling the distinct effects of protein deprivation and I ducked into the hotel to finally have breakfast. I ordered my same breakfast: lemon pancake, muesli with fruit/yogurt, and a pot of chai from the same waiter, Sanjay. I believe that comfortable routines can be a nourishing part of long term travel. I enjoyed looking out over the Ganges scenery once more and afterwards retired to my room for a well-earned rest.

When my nap was over, I took the book I was reading, Nine Lives by Walter Dalrymple, down to a ghat near my hotel. I picked that specific ghat because while it wasn’t very crowded, it still had a convivial atmosphere with small groups of people sitting around enjoying their day. While, sitting there I became transfixed by a small boy keeping himself entertained by playing with a pencil attached to a long string. It was simple pure entertainment, no need for ipads or Xboxes here.

I had just taken a shower and put on a fresh shirt as I reclined all 6’6 of me out across the steps. I was reading such evocative sentences like “The light stays with you all the way through the performance. You become the deity. You lose all fear. Even your voice changes. The god comes alive and takes over. You are just the vehicle, the medium. In the trance it is God who speaks.” Being a westerner of such considerable size, I knew I stood out like a sore thumb here, lounging and reading deeply. It did not phase me a bit.

All during my time in India I had been asked for selfies, but only by males. That was about to change. Up from the bottom of the steps strode this beautiful girl in tight blue jeans. She was completely confident as she immediately locked eyes with me and did not glance away for a second. She was with two of her girlfriends. Initially, she asked if I would take a picture with her friends. I said sure and her friends sat on either side of me to take the picture. Then it was her turn and her friends got up so she could sit next to me. She snuggled up quite close, leaving practically no space between us.

Then her friends walked farther up the steps, but she remained behind to talk to me. It turned out she was a university student, but was home on holidays. She kept going on about how happy she was to be here talking to me. We kept talking and she mentioned about how she felt God was a child. I couldn’t believe how bold she was, especially for an Indian girl. If I thought I was drawing attention to myself before, now the two of us definitely were. A huge westerner and a stunning local girl sharing a moment on the ghats of Varanasi.

By now many people were just sitting and looking at us. Including a group of about ten or so Indian guys in their 20s. She didn’t care though and we went on talking, our faces not more than a foot apart. It was all I could do to remain calm and keep any creeping social anxiety at bay. You become the deity. You lose all fear. I was enraptured. And then seemingly in mid-sentence she quickly said goodbye and hurried further up the steps.

When I turned around the group of ten guys were all around me, happily smiling. I guess being seen by everyone talking with me was one thing, being surrounded by local guys her own age and having to explain herself was another. The guys were friendly though and I swear I wound up taking selfies with each and every one of them. When the lads had all left and were walking back down along the Ganges I turned around to see if the girl was still there. Alas, she was not. Easy come, easy go. I resolved then to read on these steps on future afternoons too.

I went back to the hotel and changed out of my clean clothes to the clothes that I was wearing the day before. I was returning to the cremation ghats and didn’t want to infuse another shirt with the pungent smoke and haze. On my way there a wild eyed man began following me. First he asked me if I wanted a boat. Then he descended into offering hash, opium, and lsd. No thanks dude. As I rounded the corner I was presented with a problem. A cluster of ornery cows were blocking my progress. I had to gauge my steps carefully and wait for an opening before I could continue on.

Upon my arrival at the burning ghats I got the sense of a tangible bad feeling and a dark foreboding force. There was an elderly Indian holy man with face paint and a shaved head walking around the burning pyre performing funeral rites. He had a mournful faraway look in his eyes. All the while a bare arm of the deceased was reaching out of the pyre.

I was quite disgusted to see a local guy begin to take pictures of the burning pyre. Then a Chinese tourist tried to do the same. He got shouted at for his troubles, but soon protested that the Indian guy had been allowed to take photos. However, the Chinese backed down in the face of the shouts that were being hurled at him. I looked back to the funeral pyre to see that the shroud had burned away. All of a sudden the dead woman’s face appeared. The image was shocking and unsettling.

I forced myself to look at it though, thinking that I might get something from the experience. For example, some Buddhists monks meditate upon dead bodies in order to get a further appreciation of the transitory nature of life. And to remind themselves that our bodies are just temporary fleeting vessels. As I looked on, the woman’s head burst into flames. With each passing minute her face became more and more unrecognizable. On an upper ledge, four cows stood sentinel over the bleak scene of muck and death. This was not a good place. I would not need to return here again.

At the Aarti that night I procured myself an excellent spot right in the middle that had an uninterrupted view of the ceremonial stage. I stayed there for the entire ceremony. All throughout I could smell a faint odor of noxious gas. My head was swimming. The colors swirled. The chants of devotion were once again offered up in fire to the dark night sky. I was left with a final singular thought...Do not resist India or it will run you OVER!!


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