Holy, Crazy City!
Renowned Indophile, Mark Twain, proclaimed the greatness of Varanasi as follows, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
I first visited Varanasi, located in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in the spring of 2012. It was one of my first ventures to the North after studying at the well-traversed Ashtangi spot, the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, located in Mysore. I returned again this year and plan to return next year. And the year after that. Such is the magnetism of a place like Varanasi. It compels you to take another look, and another, closer still.
The people you meet make Varanasi charismatic and vibrant, spiritually charged and heady. Its magnetism is generated by the surge of humanity that congregates at this śakti pītḥa—place of spiritual power—to bathe in and worship the Ganges River. To be cremated here is to overcome saṃsāra, the “endless cycle not only of death and birth, but also of attachment and illness, or social and material suffering,” and thus attain moksa, eternal liberation from the dualities of nature and existence.
Varanasi is also a terrific assault to the senses. It’s loud, dusty, downright dirty. The sound of ice cream bells on bicycle rickshaws rings from every possible direction, alongside the noise of motorcycles, cars, scooters and trucks. One must side-step animal and human waste, fruit and vegetable refuse, as well as one-time-use claypots from which you drink, only to smash onto the roadside, thus avoiding intercaste “contamination.” Cows, goats, dogs, horses, several types of vehicles and humans of every age and size all jockey for street space. It’s pretty messy. You have to psyche yourself up to walk along the main road.
History Reinvents Itself
Also known as Kashi and Benares, Varanasi is said to be the oldest inhabited city in India. The name possibly comes from a combination of two rivers still flowing in Varanasi: the Varuna and the Assi. It is also a revered place of “ancient historic, cultural and religious heritage” and is considered to be “the most holy of the seven sacred cities, sapta puri, of Hinduism.”
Legions of lay pilgrims and visitors from different parts of Central India come to pay respects to the holy place and gain religious merit. You see the odd Western or far Eastern face of a spiritual tourist on occasion, mirroring your feelings—ranging from mild and dazed confusion to complete and utter discord. To meet someone’s gaze is to unwittingly invite unsolicited offers for rickshaw rides, invitations to “come and see my shop” and get a good price discount and promises of the best silk sarees in town.
The majority of men habitually chew paan—a stimulating mixture of betel leaves and cured tobacco—leaving them with menacing red teeth and talking out the sides of their mouths. You have to watch where the next trajectory of red spittle will land.
People on the streets here are gritty and tough, much like the environment in which they live. Not as steely, I would imagine, as the folks cut out from Pakistan’s Northwest Territory, but a similar honest, level gaze greets you. Some challenge you with this unapologetic expression.
It feels medieval here, as though you are going back in time to a more raw existence. This sense of longstanding history is slightly misleading, however. There is no doubt that Varanasi has stood the test of time, but much of the city’s splendor was destroyed in the 12th century when Mohammad Ghauri, one of the leaders of the Ghurid Dynasty, laid the foundation of Muslim rule in India that lasted several centuries.
As a result, none of the current buildings and temples date further back than the 18th century. British author, Geoff Dyer, in his book Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, explains Varanasi’s quality of cultivated antiquity as such:
“The light is ancient, but the buildings are not. None of them is older than the 18th century. The history of Varanasi is the history of how it gets razed to the ground and rebuilt, razed to the ground and rebuilt. No sooner has it been built than it looks like it’s on its last legs. Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn’t even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it’s been there since the dawn of time.”
Salvation in the Marketplace
It may seem incomprehensible that a place that sounds as dirty and confrontational as this would be attractive to visit. Once you get used to the magnificent and infuriating chaos and flurry of commotion coming from every possible direction, however, the draw is palpable. It’s a holy and crazy town. In an email written to Eddie Stern, founder of Ashtanga Yoga New York, I attempt to communicate my first impressions of Varanasi’s allure:
“Dirt, noise, defecation and death occur alongside life, prosperous trade, hustling, begging, laboring, praying, worship, celebration; cricket games and laundry go on beside the mourning of bodies burning at the cremation ghats. I mean, it’s all in your face at every moment in this town.”
Dyer describes Varanasi’s strange pull in the following way: It was where Shiva had decided to live…Crossing places—tirthas—were sacred, certain crossing places were especially auspicious, but the whole of Varanasi was a crossing place, between this world and the next. Basically, there was no place on earth more worth visiting even though, in a sense, it was not of this world…Varanasi made going anywhere else seem nonsensical. All of time was here, and probably all of space too. The city was a mandala, a cosmogram. It contained the cosmos.
Rock Star Bābās
A naga sādhu (holy man), ash-smeared and naked, approaches you, unsolicited, and puts ash on your forehead. He then asks for money and flings the coins that are offered onto the ground with a few colorful expletives that you mercifully can’t understand. With this insolent gesture, it doesn’t take long to determine who the rock stars are in Shiva town. These modern-day manifestations of the Lord himself, back in his own earthly residence, operate on a cash (paper) only basis, rather than stooping to accept pitiful coins.
Due to Maha Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest gathering of people, the presence of sādhus and naga bābās is much more noticeable this year. All along the ghats are rows and rows of encampments for these holy men, true renouncers and charlatans alike.They beckon you to sit with them with deep, scratchy voices. Some have hacking coughs. Some are aggressive and cocky, displaying their eye-catching choice of regalia with all the humility of a peacock.
Part of sādhu life is public outreach to lay pilgrims and spiritually-inclined tourists. In order to stand out and attract students and followers, a certain amount of showmanship appears necessary. Others, however, are quiet and introspective, attending to daily duties around their encampment and waiting for people to gravitate toward them.
After taking a walk through the encampment area, I stop to visit a group of friendly-looking sādhus who didn’t instantly demand money after having their photograph taken. I strike up a conversation with the youngest sādhu.
A silver-haired sādhu with long dreadlocks both on his head and beard poses for a photo. When he is shown the result, he urges us to take it again, this time accurately documenting the full length of his beard, rather than prematurely chopping off its extent. It is believed that the longer your jata (dreadlocks) are, the more spiritual power they carry. They remind me of Rastafarians, only without the macho, sexual vibe that can come, at times, with that territory.
One sādhu looks like a Mau Mau warrior (Kenyan independence freedom fighters who grew dreadlocks as a mark of defiance against the British colonial presence in Kenya). We nickname him Kenya Baba. He looks very pleased with his new moniker and breaks into a wide smile, a rare and pleasant contrast to his usually solemn countenance.
Seeing these peaceful, noble-looking men makes me think about getting older in a more positive light. In our culture of panicked, hyper-consumption, where youthful beauty is revered as something to hold onto, these gentle, regal men are a refreshing alternative to the images we are aggressively fed. Contrary to the fear of losing youth and vitality, we might actually think to look forward to more advanced years and gain some peace.
Being in the company of these particular sādhus leaves me much inspired and touched. A project for next time would be to seek out the more hidden company of the holy women, sādhvīs, who make up about 10 percent of this majorly fraternal group.
Like most of the experiences I have had in India, visiting a place like Varanasi is a mind-boggling paradox. How can such stark contradictions exist simultaneously? There is an overwhelming and unrelenting honesty to this city from the moment I enter it. A brutal, strangely compassionate honesty.
In this holy city, it seems as though nothing is sacred. Not privacy and certainly not shared public space. And yet, nothing is particularly profane either. The sacred and the profane: perhaps another duality that India challenges us to overcome.
Wambui Njuguna is an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Helsinki. A true blue third-culture kid, she was raised both in Kenya and the US and has lived in South America and the Middle East. A daily yoga practice has provided moments of clarity so she can write stuff down to send it to publishers like elephant journal, The Helsinki Times, The Seattle Globalist, and Ananda, Finland’s premier yoga magazine. She put her degree in linguistics to good use by editing a book on Ashtanga Yoga. When not involved with yoga, she can be found checking stuff out at Helsinki’s state of the art public library, trying out different types of Japanese meditation, and dreaming of a sewing room, complete with mannequin. Connect with Wambui on Facebook or Twitter.
Assistant Ed: Thandiwe Ogbonna/Ed: Kate Bartolotta