We’ve not been blogging with as much frequency because we’ve been on the road without laptops and all the portable gizmos, so we’ve had to rely on internet cafes and the like for our communication needs. Since even the lowliest rickshaw wallah seems to have the internet and phone at their fingertips in India these days, most of the internet and phone cafes have disappeared as suddenly as they flourished for a brief time. Just another statement on the transience of existence? In any case, Alex and I were blissfully unhooked from the entire world for a week. Now that we are back in Chennai, we’ll try to make up for our absence with some additional photos and videos for your amusement.
We spent the last week visiting the holy city of Varanasi, cradle of Hindu civilization, situated on the banks of the Ganges River such that the waterfront faces the rising sun. We took a room with a view onto this amazing place, where one is awakened by the chants of pilgrims from all around the world passing by under the window, the ringing of bells, the blowing of the conch shell, all in praise of Lord Shiva, to whom Varanasi is home. “Ganga desh swaram, Shankaram…” goes the song…”on the banks of the Ganges is Shiva’s home.” The river is faced by giant walls, topped by temples, ashrams, tourist hotels, and even a grand mosque, with monkeys scampering across balconys and green wild parrots disturbing the tranquility, their wings flashing red as they shoot through the air, mingling with large flocks of pigeons and seagulls. The other side of the river is devoid of structures, a desert leading off to some trees and villages in the distance, riverbed which will be under thirty of forty feet of water when the river swells during monsoon.
Our morning ritual is to sit on the ghats (the ancient stairs leading down to the river), drinking heavily sugared spiced tea while absorbing the sights and sounds of the daily awakening of this ancient and amazing city; we’ve come to know the same gentlemen who come daily to bathe in the holy river. They stop by and chat with me in Hindi, amused that I would give the effort to learn the language of this place, ever ready to teach me new vocabulary. It’s not so difficult, for their English is almost always much better than my Hindi, but they enjoy watching me struggle and are ever so helpful with a quick translation of what they just said. Four years ago, to celebrate my 60th birthday, I swam across the Ganges to the other side and back with a young gentleman, Ollie from Australia. Upon our return to the same ghat as our departure, the bathers gathered in a small crowd with a big round of applause and presented us with garlands of flowers. When we drop a coin in the fingerless hand of the begging leper, we curiously feel a part of this place. “There but for fortune…” One always feels included in India, in particular in Varanasi, whether ecstatically happy with the music and colorful experience, or lying in a rotten bed, deathly ill, fighting off the ubiquitous mosquitoes. Somewhere along the line, returning here time and again for 33 years, it has become a second home to us.
We have family in Varanasi, wonderful musicians who practice dynastic traditions of keeping the family music in the bloodline; 14th and 15th generation descendants of courtly musicians to the Maharajahs. When we visit, the instruments come out and we play the music that they or their father so carefully taught me, then pick up the continuation of the musical education from where we last stopped, even if years have passed. We are all on the same path in music and philosophy, though great distance separates us for years. When in Varanasi, I must play, for they must play, we play together, we play our strange fiddle music for them and they love it and dance and play rhythms on their mouth cavity or drums. In music there is no caste, no difference of status–we all want peace and for everybody to be happy, at least for the moment. They freely give of their music, because they know we can create a moment of bliss, somewhere far away.
But I fear for the future of this beautiful place. When I first came here, a pedestrian couldn’t walk along the road at rush hour, the bicycle rickshaws were so tightly jammed against each other. The air was clean and fresh, blowing to the plains from the Himalayas. I mused at the time that this place would become an environmental disaster if the population here should ever be able to afford cars. That day has come; traffic chokes all the roads, the cycle rickshaw is diminishing in numbers quickly and a dense shroud of intense pollution blankets the whole place as cars and motorcycles reign supreme. Not just pollution–end of life on earth magnitude pollution. Everywhere, respiratory illness prevails; my friends have lost family members at an early age to it. Coughing and hacking have become part of the sounds of the city awakening on the ghats. Within a week, Alex and I both came to feel quite ill with bad coughs and a burning sensation in the chest. Smoke from burning trash and plastic swirls around the murals of Shiva and Buddha. In the late afternoon, one can look directly at the sun and discern the sunspots with the naked eye. If it is so appalling to touch our tongue to a soundpost or the foot of a violin bridge because our breath is considered impure, how can it be that such pollution and mountains of trash can be deposited upon the crown of the holiest of cities? Varanasi is called the most ancient living city on earth–perhaps it will ironically end up demonstrating how our demise as a civilization may come.
My friend Om Baba always said: “Holy man, dirty man, holy city dirty city.” To this we must add “holy city, dirtiest city?” At least the music and hearts of our friends here remain pure. This I can take home without carrying all the pollution…