When I left South East Asia, I had a few more things that I wanted to do that I hadn’t gotten around to – adventures around Chiang Mai, visit Wat Marp Jun monastery in Rayong Thailand, see Laos, visit a friend in Ho Chi Mihn City. But I made sure to get to India by mid-February so that I could meet up with my friend Anitra and her family.
Anitra was my housemate for five years, and is one of the people in the world I feel closest with. Her husband Freedom is rapidly becoming a friend, and their child Antara is my favorite kid in the world. Anitra has been practicing yoga, learning Sanskirt, and otherwise immersing herself in Indian culture for years, and Freedom has been studying and teaching the best of Indian culture for even longer. Freedom has lived in India part of the past ten years, and the Cole family spent the 2009-2010 Indian not-unbelievably-hot season (November to February) in the ancient city Varanasi.
Varanasi (formerly known as “Benares”) is situated along the banks of the Ganges river, in North India. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, older than most of the major world religions, and the oldest in India. Mark Twain apparently said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Wikipedia also says that it is the holiest city in the Hindu and Jain religions, is the spiritual capital of India, and is often referred to as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”, “the city of learning”, and “the oldest living city on earth”.
My friend Mako wrote, “The holiest of Hindu places in India, Varanasi (or Benares) is known for its “old city” of narrow and twisty alleys that all look alike as well as for the ghats leading down to the Ganges. It is a last pilgrimage for many Hindus who come not only to bathe in the holy Ganga water but also to die and be cremated there, as doing so is believed to bring instant Moksha, or salvation. Varanasi is also an important historical location for Buddhists, as the Buddha’s first sermons were delivered in nearby Sarnath, and many of the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives took place in Varanasi. At the end of the 12th century it fell under tight Muslim rule, which constituted a death blow to the already waning Buddhist community, and from that point forward it has remained predominantly Hindu (68%) and Muslim (30%)”.
Tearing myself away from Thailand a little early so as to meet up with my friends before they left was the right move. Like so many people, I found India immediately overwhelming, but having my India-experienced friends to meet right when I got there was invaluable to soften the shock. They gave me a mountain of helpful tips – like, when I first got there and about to step into a rickshaw, I’d be all, “Namaste and Jai Ram, Sir, yes, that seems like a fair price”, and Freedom, standing next to me, would start laughing, tell me “He’s trying to rip you off cuz you’re a tourist – offer him one fifth the price”, and then say something in Hindi to the guy to knock him back.
There was a pasta restaurant across an alley from Anitra’s family’s apartment. It was perfect – big plates of delicious homemade pasta for about $2.50 – perfect, except for the massive clouds of flies. I hung out there a fair amount with the Coles. Here is Antara walking around the joint, looking for new phenomena to explore/play with/pull on/chew on/break/etc.
One thing I love about Antara is her dignity. She seems to know who she is and what she wants, and is almost never smiley-approval seeking, like many kids are
Make new friends, but keep the old
God save the Queen
The Coles paid for the private schooling of a bright early teen Indian girl named Bubita. Bubita was sweet and fun to talk to, and, yeah, really smart. But she also seemed to skip school a lot to make money for her demanding parents, by selling candles down on the ghats (the temples along the Ganges River). This put the Coles in a bind as to whether to continue to pay for her school.
As the months went on, I eventually got to know many Indians on a real level, as friends. But, when I first arrived in India, I mostly ignored Indians as I went about my day. They were mostly going about their daily lives, much of which I didn’t understand. And for the many Indians (mostly men) who did step to me on the street (“Hello, my friend …”), it was a bummer but I just assumed that whatever they wanted to talk to me about, I was probably not interested. But yeah many times a day someone would penetrate the wall, and then usually there was real sweetness. Especially, of course, the kids.
“Me too, mommy, me too.”
Antara, with a pan man. Pan is a mix of sweet and bitter herbs that is used kind of like chewing tobacco. Many Indian streets, train stations, stairwell walls, etc have bright red stains from pan spitting.
Girl, meet geese. Geese, meet girl.
Freedom is one of the top Joytish (Indian-system) astrologers in the world (he’s given lectures, taught classes, published books, etc.). He therefore seemed pleased to show Antara a display of different goddess figures, each representing a different planet.
That same afternoon, we stopped by a different temple, where some snaggle-toothed old bahkti-hearted dudes keep the kirtan odes to Ram going twenty-four/seven. Freedom sang along, I played cymbals and drum, and Antara chased her balloon around the room.
Speaking of music, just like Thailand, I was surprised how little Indians listen to Justin Timberlake, and how most of them almost exclusively listened to indigenous music. And Varanasi seemed to be a center for people to practice, perform, and learn traditional Indian classical music – sitar, tabla drums, serengi, voice, harmonium, violin, etc. It seemed like there was an Indian classical music concert somewhere in town pretty much each night I was there. Freedom took me to a few times to see some beautiful, complex, patient, ancient music being performed.
My cap was confiscated by the local authorities
Me n my homiez
I found traffic to be insanely chaotic all over India, but nowhere more so than in Varanasi
A view I had many times while in India: the back of the head of a rickshaw walla (a bicycle taxi peddle-man), as he propelled me down the street
I imagine over all of India that there are at least a million men, perhaps millions of them, working as rickshaw wallas. Some of these guys annoyed me with their aggressive attitude, but many of them, skinny, dressed in rags, and eager to work, I felt compassion and pity for.
Freedom and I went through Varanasi near the Ganges, and he took a whole bunch of pictures of me
We were snapping pics of me in this doorway, and a gaggle of li’l cuties came running by
A bunch of people on Facebook have told me that they love this picture, the joy it brings them, which has felt good for me to read. The whole “Indian classical dance” posture was the munchkin in purple’s idea. I was a little surprised – the rest of the girls immediately knew exactly what to do, as soon as purple-dress-girl suggested it.
I find your lack of faith … disturbing
A few friends warned me that theft is out of control in India, but I generally felt safer on the streets of India than I do on the streets in many parts of the USA. It seemed to me that most Indians had an instinctive sense of ahimsa (non-harming).
It is my understanding that, for a devout Hindu, being cremated in Varanasi next to the Ganges is like getting your own reality TV show would be for an American – boom, you win at life. Marnikarnika Ghat is the name of the main cremation ghat, and it is a whole overwhelming circus of bodies, colors, smells, con men, grieving relatives, tourists, etc. These pictures are at one of the smaller burning ghats.
The next few pictures are of the ghats (river-side temples) of Varanasi, and I got them from the web. I am posting these pictures in part to remind myself what that place was like, and in part to show you that the Varanasi ghats have become a large part of the international iconography that people unconsciously think of when they think of India (along with, say, the Taj Mahal, tigers cobras and elephants, women wearing saris and men wearing turbans, etc).
Devout Hindus travel from all over the nation to take a holy dip in the holy Ganges river in holy Varanasi city.
Sometimes while I was there I would see big tour groups of older folks, often with their heads shaved bald and wearing holy white garments, being shepherded and instructed in the ritual process by tour guides who seemed a little bit like con men, hustlers.
Indians used the Ganges river in Varanasi for many purposes, including religiously ritual dips and other devotional activities, daily bathing, doing laundry, and disposal of dead animals. Their immune systems were generally able to handle the river, but it wasn’t safe for Westerners. The Lonely Planet says, what is considered safe, “clean” water is less than 500 fecal coliform bacteria per liter – but the Ganges in Varanasi is shit-filled – after ~200 municipalities upstream dump their sewage in it, it is at about 1.5 million bacteria per liter. It is ironic to me that this river, so symbolically “clean” to the Hindu mindset, is literally so filthy.
Laundry wallas doing their thing. They would slap the wet clothes hard against the concrete slabs, as a way to wring them out.
While in Thailand, I would often give my dirty clothes to guest house staff to wash. Once in India, though, I took on the habit of other Westerners that I talked to, and always did all my own laundry, in a sink or a bucket. I didn’t want my clothes to come back to me stretched, ripped, soaked in river shit-water, or discolored (from being washed in a machine or bucket along with non-colorsafe Indian clothes).
Solar powered clothes drying
There was a hangout scene in my Varanasi guesthouse – guitars, beedie cigarettes (Indian farmer cigarettes, rolled in a leaf, cost about half a cent each), games, and late night bullshit sessions talking about traveling, Indian philosophy, home countries, etc. Here, I am out for pizza with some of the people from the scene. Alex, the Romanian dude in the yellow shirt and glasses, was the person I felt closest too.
India is tougher, less convenient, to travel in than is Thailand. Thankfully, though, that meant that, among traveling Westerners, there were fewer [frat n sorority / Spring Break / Eurotrash / douchebag] -type backpackers than in Thailand – travelers in India seem relatively more sincere, deep, and “spiritual.”
Anyway … one day, while eating with Anitra and Freedom at the same pizzeria as in the picture, I met a Venezuelan PhD physical anthropologist woman whose Italian boyfriend from six months earlier took a ritual dip in the Ganges, trying to have a local experience. But, boyfriend’s European immune system wasn’t ready for the reality of the river: he got an infection in his nose, it spread to his brain, and he was dead within a week.
Helping Stav the sweet Israeli girl from my guesthouse take her travel digital pictures off of her thumb drive, to get them burned to DVD. In accessing some files from my computer as part of the process, I discovered that the cyber cafe’s computers were packed to the gills with scores of viruses, ready to hop onto anything stuck in their USB port. I came up with an analogy: my travel computer is to a girlfriend, as a cyber cafe computer is to a crack whore.
Buying oranges with the Israeli girls
“Hmmmm … no, I don’t know why they call ’em ‘oranges’ either”
The tall German guy in the white collared shirt was a professional magician. He did a bunch of tricks and some hypnosis on the Israeli girls and on the daughters of the Indian guesthouse-running family. I do not think it would have been possible for all of them to have been more hot for him. (yeah, I briefly considered a new career in the magical arts)
I do not think that I have ever been to any city where heart-felt religious ritual and meaning is so worked into the daily rhythm of life as much as it is in some of the places I was in India, say Varanasi and Rishakesh.
Here I am at a Durga temple in Varansi. They sent us tourists up to a roof walkway overlooking the temple, while crowds of Indians did puja (praying, offerings, and other forms of religious practice) inside the temple itself
Apparently, the Hindu temple that is considered the most important and holy in Varanasi is a one named Vishwanath (a different temple than the one in this picture). Muslims destroyed the original Vishwanath temple about 300 years ago, and modern Muslims keep trying to blow up the current one, so there are soldiers and metal-detector checkpoints all around the alleys that lead to the temple. When I got to the gate, solders pointed to a big sign that says, “Gentlemen not of the Hindu faith are requested to not attempt to enter the temple.” But when I lifted up my shirt and showed them the tattoo of Avalokiteshvara Boddhisattva on my shoulder, they let me in – I guess Buddhism was close enough to Hinduism for government work.
I patently waited on line for my chance to do puja, but the li’l old dot-on-the-forehead grandmas in saris kept pushing me aside, madly scrambling to get up to the altar. Finally, a solder pushed me on the back, and I got the message – I started throwing elbows, knocking the grandmas aside, slowly clawing my way though the scrum so that I could pour my bowl of milk and flowers on the Shiva lingam. It felt weird to get physical like that in a temple, but soon all the rest of the pilgrims were smiling at me, the white boy joining in in their world.
The Durga temple again.
I have heard India described as a land of extreme opposites. One example was, there is a contrast between bright colors of the temples, religious posters, flower garlands, clothing, painting on trucks, etc., and the drabness of so much else.
Shaina, a beautiful yoga teacher from Washington State, who I met at a Kashmiri Shaivism (Hindu philosophy) lecture. She and I were walking along the ghats when a boy came up selling caged exotic birds. An owl was 300 rupees (about $7). Shaina said something like that owls were her power animal, and bought one, so that she could let it fly free. She wondered aloud for hours after that if she should have bought the other owl also.
To the my left, not visible in the picture, was a big terraced pit. The story was that Parvati, Lord Shiva’s wife, dropped her earring, and that Lord Shiva dug the pit recovering it. Accordingly – LL Cool S.
If you ever visit Varanasi, I recommend walking along the ghats at all different hours of the days – early morning, late morning, afternoon, and evening (when the pujas happen). I wouldn’t walk in the middle of the night, though – not safe.
Shaina and I went on a day-trip to Saranath, a ruined monastery and garden-park just outside of Varanasi. The monastery was where The Buddha spent much of his time. In this picture, I am at the two-millennium-old Dhamekh Stupa, which commemorates the spot where The Buddha gave his first teaching.
When we got to the stupa, there was a battalion of Thai monks (in tan robes) and lay people (in white pajamas) chanting. After my time in Thai monasteries, I found the sound of their voices both comforting and grating.
Me in The Buddha’s main monastery (or, what’s left of it)
Thai Theravadan monks and a Tibetan Vajrayana monk, reflecting very different forms of Buddhism, but both in Saranath to pay respects to The Buddha’s legacy. Monks and priests from different lineages together was a sight I eventually saw at other holy sites in India, but was delightful for me when I first saw it .
A pre-dawn boat ride on the Ganges – one of the classic things tourists do in visiting Varanasi
“If you stare too long into the Abyss, the Abyss will stare back into you.” — Nietzsche
(In Soviet Russia, picture takes you!)
A boy rowed up, and I bought a li’l candle-boat from him. Then I lit the candle, I made a wish, and I sent the candle on its way down the holy river.
A local skinhead tough guy
The swastika is actually an ancient good-luck symbol in Hinduism/Buddhism, and you can see it all around in India. It seems to have a totally different resonance for Indians than it instinctively does for Westerners.
Speaking of different cultural meanings, I noticed that we Western travelers in India seemed to do things that seemed to be rude by Indian standards. One example was Western tourists, men and women, wearing less clothes and showing more skin than is considered polite, in temples and on the street. Another example is Westerners being comparatively “demanding”, expecting buses to arrive on time (i.e. not take hour long breaks for no reason, something Indians seem to accept with an alien sense of sanguinity). Another is ordering a meal just for ourselves, and then eating it, without offering to share. Another is buying a bottle of drinking water, and considering it exclusively ours, as if it won’t be used again by someone else, wrapping our lips around the aperture as we drank. In India, the polite way to drink from a bottle of water is to hold it above your mouth and pour it in, without your lips ever touching the bottle.
In the hotel I stayed at in Mumbai, every day the staff took empty water bottles from tourists’ rooms, filled them with tap water, and stacked them near the door. I presumed that they then gave/sold the bottles to poor folks on the street.
Indians, of course, also did many things that probably seemed to be fine by their standards, but were rude by ours sensibilities. Many of these acts might have come from many Indians growing up with less of a sense of personal boundaries than we have – being raised sharing a room with siblings, and in a house crowded with relatives.
I usually didn’t mind when Indians stared at my computer screen while I was working. I disliked, however, when people would brush, lean, or push up against me without noticing that they were doing so, or, worse still, push against on my back in a crowd when if I couldn’t go any faster (I think it was un-malicious in intent, but even worse was people pressing their fists into my kidneys while crossing a crowded bridge). The ear-splitting honking that car and motorcycle drivers did, even when right next to me, was also unpleasant, as was the way many Indians seemed to find it unremarkable to talk at full volume, or even yell, in the middle of the night (on a train, on a bus, in a hotel).
Something that brought nausea to me both in India and Thailand was the way people (mostly old men) would hock nasty loogies as loud as they could, often with an extended raspy throat clearing beforehand, in public, even inside restaurants. I also disliked how many people would just cough and sneeze out into the air, not even into their hands, much less into their forearm or inner elbow.
When I first got to India, seeing cows lollygagging in the streets was interesting/shocking/exotic to me for a while.
And while it was often fun to see big gentle beasts wandering around in the middle of everyday life, having them block traffic was less fun, and big cow shit slides all over the streets (and accompanying clouds of flies) was least fun of all.
Another thing you can see from the picture is my least favorite thing about India – trash strewn about carelessly, in cities and in the countryside.
India, the old and the new, mingling together
My friends of Indian ancestry in the US are all so refined and high-achieving, that, before getting to India, I was somehow under the impression that all/most/many Indians in the home country are like that. They’re not.
Anyway, if you ever find yourself resenting what you do to make money, be glad that you are not one of the people who collects cow shit, forms it into patties, dries it in the sun, and sells it as cooking fuel
… or the guy whose job it is to pick up trash from the railroad tracks (toilets from the trains drain directly onto the tracks)