From Rishikesh, we flew to Varanasi via New Delhi.
Indigo Air is a very efficient low-cost Indian airline with almost new airplanes.
We are following the path of the holy Ganga River as it makes its way south, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal.
At the airport we were met by a taxi driver who drove us to the banks of the river, where our luggage was loaded onto a small, motorized wooden boat that took us to our hotel.
The whole way our taxi driver chatted, introducing us to the city and asking questions about our trip.
“My name is Bablu, sir.
Be Aey Be El You – Bablu, sir.
Sorry, my English is very bad. Very very bad. Only little English.
Thank you , thank you.
You hotel, sir, BrijRama Palace, is king hotel, number one hotel in Varanasi, sir.
Bestest hotel in city, sir.
Sorry, my English very very bad, only little English.
Thank you, thank you.
You come from Mumbai, sir?
Oh, you GO Mumbai after finish Varanasi.
Which hotel in Mumbai, sir?
Oh…. Oberoi very best king hotel, number one bestest hotel in Mumbai, sir.
Inside hotel, there is beach.
Very best beach. King beach.
I am from Mumbai sir.
My home, my wife, my kids, from Mumbai.
I have three boys sir, all in Mumbai with wife.
I work in Varanasi.
Varanasi only working.
Sorry sir, my English is very bad, only very little.
Thank you, thank you.
Varanasi, oldest city on earth, you know, sir?
Very, very old.
Also Varanasi name is Kashi and Banares.
You know sir?
All names same same.
Also sir, Taj Palace in Mumbai, very king bestest number one hotel in Mumbai.
You stay also?
Wow…. sir, very best, very best hotel.
Which hotel you stay in Goa?
You go Goa right?
Oh…. Leela Palace king hotel, number one bestest hotel in Goa.
You want Varanasi city tour?
You tell BrijRama Palace hotel you want Bablu.
I take you monkey temple, golden temple, Ganesh temple, Durga temple, Banares University, very nice gardens.
You tell hotel you want only Bablu.
Sorry sir, my English is very little, very very bad.
Thank you! Thank you!”
And so he went on for the hour that it took us to get to the boat waiting at the Ghat.
It was an endearing chat, and we encouraged Bablu to speak and practice his English with us, as much as he wanted.
We thought about the shy Japanese people and taxi drivers in Japan who are so afraid to speak a word of English, for fear that they might make mistakes. They feel so embarrassed to try out their English, unlike Bablu.
In Varanasi, the Ganga river is much wider and more slowly moving than in Rishikesh or Haridwar.
Wooden boats ferry people and supplies between the city’s 87 ghats.
It was dark when we boarded the wooden boat that took us to the BrijRama Palace.
On the boat, we were given a cold milk drink infused with saffron, almonds and spices.
The ghats by the river looked beautiful at night.
The lights illumined the old temples and palaces along the shore.
We pulled into the ghat where our old, painstakingly restored palace is located.
The restoration of the old Raja king’s Palace took fifteen years.
It is a beautiful stone castle with open courtyards and arched walkways.
Great attention was given to every detail of the restoration process, and the elegant decor includes meticulously painted ceilings in golden patterns of flowers and birds, marble floors and beautiful furniture.
Traditional musicians play the bansuri (bamboo flute) and tabla (drums) in the open central courtyard daily.
Varanasi has three names.
It is also known as Banares or Kashi, and it is a very holy city.
People refer to the city by its different names interchangeably.
Varanasi is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.
Archaeological findings of settlements around Varanasi date the city to the 20th century BC.
The old buildings around the city are in various stages of decay, but they are still beautiful and display an array of architectural styles.
They encompasses many building designs dating back to every era, from modern to Raja palaces, to British colonial, to ornate Islamic Mughal era buildings, to just makeshift shacks, barely standing.
The old markets have very narrow lanes.
It is an exciting and dangerous game, to just walk down those narrow lanes.
You have to make your way between workers carrying oversized goods on their heads, carts, bicycles, zooming scooters and huge cows and bulls with large horns that often occupy the whole alley.
You have to choose to walk either behind the bull and risk a spray of shit which comes unannounced, or pass him in the front, and risk a horn nudge or worse.
The animals seem to be used to people and are not aggressive, although judging from the kids and mothers who were terrified of the Bulls, aggressive behavior by the animals cannot be discounted as never happening.
Huge piles of cows’ dung dot the alleyways, and avoiding them becomes a dance between dung land mines and passing traffic.
There are also many tiny shops where the shop keepers call you to look at their goods (“no buy, just look!!”), and many men who chew tobacco or betel-nut and constantly spit red sprays of saliva onto the path right in front of your feet.
Luckily, at least cars and motorized rickshaws are not allowed in some of those tiny lanes, but there are more than enough Royal Enfield motorcycles with horns that sound like they belong on trucks, to keep walkers on their toes.
After breakfast, we went for a walk by the ghats, to get the feel of the city.
The heat and the humidity were overwhelming.
It was now clear that we were farther south in India, well away from the cool, cleaner air of the Himalayas.
Moments after we made our way down to the ghats, we were surrounded by men and boys of all ages, offering boat rides, hair shaving, to do pujas, or buy something.
Half naked or fully naked men were bathing and soaping themselves in the river, all calling us, offering boat rides.
There are two kinds of boats, motorized and hand rowed.
The price varies by what the boatman feels like charging, and by how long you wish to go.
There were many makeshift “shops” on the ghats, which included wooden or stone day beds, shaded by patchwork wooden umbrellas.
Many people live or conduct their daily business on those day beds.
Some offered to tie a red ribbon on your wrist and place a tikka dot on your third eye, others offered to perform a private puja, or hot masala tea from their tea stalls, or a head shave or sold flowers, candles and beads for a puja.
The umbrellas are made by hand from scraps of bamboo and wood covered in leftover fabric.
I looked behind me and saw that Jules was conversing with a young man with shifty eyes and almost no teeth in his very red mouth.
His teeth were rotted away by chewing Paan, the betel-nut mix with caustic lime that many people around Asia are addicted to chewing.
The young man was offering Jules a head shave.
“You come to my shop, sir.
I give very good head shave, seven years experience now.
Over there, is my shop.
Only eighty rupees, sir.
You pay as you like, only eighty rupees sir.
I give very good head shave, sir.
No, not old blade, sir.
I have only NEW blade for you, sir.
Here, I show you new blade.”
He took his wallet out of his back pocket and showed Jules a new blade wrapped in its original package.
“No sir, I do not use dirty Ganga water for shaving.
For you, I use only Bisleri bottled water, sir.
Here you see sir, I buy new bottle.”
To show us that he was telling the truth and not using a mineral water bottle filled with Ganga river water, he went over to a convenience shop and in front of us, bought a bottle of Bisleri mineral water.
No money was exchanged.
Everyone living on the Ghats knows one another.
To my amazement, Jules agreed.
He was shown to the “shop” which was made from two wooden day beds shaded by three umbrellas.
The day beds already had three people sitting on them, and they were not about to abandon their places in the shade just because customers were coming.
But they did make some room for Jules and for me to sit down.
I surveyed the men occupying the beds.
One man had bright orange henna hair.
He had a smiling face and he told me that he had two daughters.
The second man was a skeletal and evil-looking man who had no teeth remaining in his mouth, yet was still emptying packets of chewing tobacco into his mouth between chews of paan.
Even though I could not understand a word he said, I could tell by his angry temperament that he was not a nice and honest man.
At times he seemed to hiss and rage, while most of the time the others just ignored him.
The third man was a sadhu.
He had long white hair which he tied in a knot on top of his head, a very long white beard and an orange loin cloth.
His skin was dark and he had a large painted third eye with lines on his forehead.
He had a simple unadorned bamboo stick, similar to the one the real Babaji carries.
His eyes were kind and good, and he made room for me to seat by his side.
The man who was shaving Jules’ hair cleaned the rug for me, and said:
“Here Mama, you sit next to Babaji.”
I turned my face to the Sadhu, and as if he read my mind, he introduced himself and said:
“I am Baba, Sadhu Baba.
You can call me Babaji, is OK.
Everybody calls me Babaji.
I am a Saddhu.
I have sixty five years.
I have no house, no business, no family.
Only I live by the Ganga.
Also, I have no ashram.”
While Jules got a very good head shave and a long full body massage, I chatted with Babaji.
I knew he was not THE Mahavatar Babaji, the deathless master whom I had come to India to look for.
Still, he was the real thing, a recluse Sadhu who had renounced all worldly attachments and truly seemed to be calm and peaceful, despite being surrounded by some evil looking paan chewing characters, who had very little interest in sharing his search for enlightenment.
Babaji told me that he does not chew tobacco or betel-nut and he does not smoke Chillum or drink any alcohol.
He said that he lives and eats very purely.
He only drinks a little milk and eats a banana or an apple; on occasion, he eats chapattis or rice, but not very often.
He had a robust full figure for somebody who eats only a banana or two, but that is because he lives a very sedate lifestyle which does not include a lot of exercise or even much walking.
I asked the man who shaved Jules’ head to leave a small patch of hair in the back of his head, like many Hindus do.
This patch of hair is called a Sikha.
The Sikha is a long tuft, or lock of hair that is left on top or on the back of the shaven head of a male.
Though traditionally all Hindus were required to wear a śikhā, today it is seen mainly among Brahmins and temple priests.
The śikhā signifies a one-pointed focus on the spiritual goal, and a devotion to God.
It is also an indication of cleanliness, as well as a personal sacrifice to God.
Another man joined us and now two men were vigorously massaging Jules.
They took off his shirt and were pouncing on his chest and back, telling me:
“Sir is a very, very strong man, very strong man.”
After awhile, the man who shaved Jules’ head grabbed my feet and started to give me a leg massage.
He asked me to lay down and started massaging my back as well.
I could not really relax and enjoy a massage given by a man who chewed tobacco and spat red saliva under the platform I was laying on, so I asked him to stop and continued chatting with Babaji.
I liked Babaji and his honest and sweet demeanor.
Normally, a Sadhu has no business, no wife, no family, money or earthly possessions, but many of them do belong to an ashram where they can sleep, eat and share with other sadhus or enjoy the warmth of the disciples who come to learn and show respect to them.
Babaji lives by the ghat, sleeping under the stars with the rain and the bugs, without an ashram and the shackles of belonging to an organization.
He had no disciples, although it was obvious to me that with his wisdom, he could have many disciples, if his ego was big enough and if he wanted to see that happen.
With sadness, I told him that I was his opposite.
I have two houses, cars, much furniture and all sorts of belongings.
I have a business and have had three husbands.
I have a family, money and much responsibility.
Babaji listened to all this with compassion.
He then asked if my eye was twitching every day.
I said that sometimes it does.
He focused his calm eyes into mine in a quiet stare.
With his fingers he signaled for me to look straight into his eyes for as long as I could.
I could only concentrate for a few minutes, finding the environment around us to be too noisy, busy, buggy and chaotic.
Babaji’s eyes did not waver and his gaze was infinitely kind.
He truly wanted to help me.
I wanted to tell Babaji that a friend of mine, someone I truly cared about, had just passed away….
But with the cremation smoke rising from the nearby cremation ghat with its many burning bodies, I felt it was pathetic and small to complain about death.
In Varanasi, death is everywhere.
People unload wrapped dead bodies from rickshaws and hand stretchers at the Cremation Ghat, from every street.
Before we parted, Babaji gave me a gift.
A card with an image of Lord Vishnu and Lord Rama on it.
Many sadhus give similar cards to people who give them donations.
I gave him an offering of money which at first he refused, but at my insistence, he folded it into a fabric drawstring sack which he kept inside his robe.
The man with no teeth and the evil looking eyes was curious to see how much I had given Babaji, and I felt that he would try to weasel a cut of the money later on.
The price for the head shave and the full body massage that Jules got, escalated significantly.
The boys kept on begging and begging for more.
We handed them a thousand rupees and escaped, but the boys came after us, pleading for more.
From a distance, I bowed my head to Babaji and placed my palms together and mumbled: “Namaste Babaji…. Thank you and Hari Om….”
He smiled and cupped his hands in return.
By the Ghats, children were swimming in the Ganga, signaling to me to watch how well they could jump.
They did somersaults and back flips, proud of their technique.
They came out of the water looking to see if I was impressed.
I gave them the thumbs up.
Dozens of steep steps lead up to the markets, old buildings and temples that line the roads above the ghats.
These chowk streets are full of small convenience shops, tea stalls and places selling the famous Varanasi sweets, as well as dingy guesthouses, musical instrument shops, fabric shops and many cafes and restaurants.
Somewhere along our walk, a young man who introduced himself as Roy, started walking with us as our unwanted guide.
He led us to the Kama Sutra Nepali temple and we climbed up the steps to see the temple.
It has very beautiful dark wood carvings of sexual intercourse and people doing yoga postures.
When we reached the cremation ghat, we met a skeletal man dressed in orange robes.
He looked like death himself, with sunken eyes and a dark face.
He spoke excellent English.
Roy said a few words to him which translated to me like:
“These two are real suckers, and if they believe what you say and pay you handsomely, remember that you owe me a cut.”
And then Roy was gone.
The man said he was a volunteer at the nearby hospice, taking care of very sick people who were waiting to die and be cremated by the Ganga river.
He said that they had no family and no one to pay for the wood needed for their cremation.
The building he pointed towards looked abandoned, but we gave him the benefit of our doubts.
I knew that there are indeed hospice patients with no families who are hoping to be cremated by the Ganges, but he was no volunteer.
Later we heard that he was a heroin addict, lying to tourists in order to fund his addiction.
Before we came to India, I read a very good non-fiction book about Varanasi, and so I already knew much of what he told us.
He only lied about two things, the price of wood for the burning of the bodies, and the fact that he was a volunteer; the rest of what he told us was accurate.
His English was very good and easy to understand.
Cremation is believed to release an individual’s spiritual essence from its transitory physical body, so it can be reborn.
Fire is the chosen method of disposing of the body because of its association with purification and with the power to scare away harmful ghosts, demons and evil spirits.
After purifying the body with a dip in the Ganga river, the fire god “Agni” is asked to consume the physical body and release the soul towards heaven, in preparation for a new rebirth.
It is believed that a cremation by the Ganges can release a soul from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The god “Pushan” is asked to accept the sacrifice, and guide the soul to its proper place in the afterlife.
There are rules as to what kinds of bodies are not allowed to be burned.
Sadhus are never cremated, because it is believed that they are already pure and do not need further purification.
Pregnant women, carrying an innocent fetus inside, are never cremated.
Young children before the age of twelve are not cremated.
People who died by cobra bites are not cremated, because you cannot offer poison to the gods.
Lepers are also not cremated. because they were already purified by their earthly sufferings.
The bodies of people not allowed to be cremated are tied up with large heavy stones and then taken by row boat a hundred meters from shore, to a deeper part of the Ganges, where they are drowned. If the rope ties come loose from the stones, these bodies will rise back up to the surface of the river, and sometimes float back to shore.
Unnatural deaths, such as those who committed suicide, killed other people or were murdered themselves, or who were involved in serious accidents, are burnt two kilometers down the road at other ghats.
These victims of suicide, murder, or other kinds of violence are believed to have souls that will not rest, no matter what is done to the corpse.
The attendants bring the body wrapped in fabric to the river for a final purification in the water.
Then they place the body on the wood pyre.
It takes about 150 kilograms of wood to burn a human body and about two to three hours.
The wood used is generally a banyan or other fast growing wood.
When a body is cremated, generally the men’s chest part does not fully burn.
With a women’s body, it is the hipbone that does not fully burn.
After the body is burnt, an attendant hits the ashes with a stick to release the hipbone or chest from the ashes.
A family member of the person being cremated, uses two sticks to pick up and throw the remains into the Ganges.
The family member must dress in nothing but a white cotton cloth.
He then fills a large clay pot with Ganges water and holding the clay pot over his shoulder, he drops it on the ashes.
The clay pot breaks…
Then at least one of the family members must shave his head. There are many men who offer head shaving to the family members of a person who was just cremated.
When a father passes away, the older son must shave his head.
When a mother passes away, the younger son must shave his head.
When a wife passes away, her husband must shave his head.
The cremation grounds were hot, smoky and full of cow dung and the remains of burnt cloth and human ashes.
Stray dogs with half eaten legs waddled around with only a bone sticking out where their legs should have been.
In the dirty Ganges water, two men, half naked, used sieves to pan for any remains of gold from gold rings, gold teeth or gold jewelry from the cremated bodies.
If they find any gold, they must give it to the “big boss,” the owner of the cremation ghat, who sells it and pays a small share to each of the workers.
When it was time to part from our heroin addict/guide, he pleaded with us to give a donation for those who cannot afford a cremation.
He said that it cost 480 rupees for one kilo of wood, but in truth it costs only about 5 rupees per kilo.
Still, we gave him a generous donation for his time and good explanations.
By the temple sinking into the river next to the cremation ghat, we met another man who told us that the river rises very high at certain times of the year.
He also told us that many heroin addicts hang out by the cremation ghats, and that they will lie to us about the cost of wood and ask for donations for the hospice.
We found a small heritage hotel that looked lovely, and we climbed up the stairs to have lunch.
We needed some air conditioning and a quiet place to sit.
From the roof of the heritage hotel, I saw boys and young men flying handmade kites on the invisible currents of the wind.
They were experts at controlling the kites.
Walking through the narrow lanes of old Varanasi or through the busy market streets, you get a chance to see all of life with its many joys and sorrows in just a few days.
On trash collection days, the markets look and smell like hell on earth.
Cows and monkeys rummage through the garbage piles, eating scraps.
Because they do not use plastic bags around the city in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly, the trash is collected by men pushing two wheeled wooden carts.
There are also many beggars, and young men who try to sell you Hashish, postcards or tours.
Some come with their mouths so full of chewing tobacco or betel nut, that they can hardly pronounce what it is they are harassing you for.
When the heat and the harassment got to be too much, I wanted to say:
“At least spit out the tobacco BEFORE you come to harass me, so I could at least understand what it is I am refusing to do…”
But there are also wonderful sights in Varanasi.
The main streets are lined with tea stalls where men meet, linger and talk politics and philosophy.
Around the corners you can suddenly come upon small temples, where people chant and sing, worshipping colorful gods and deities.
My favorite was the Jagannath temple with its three gods made of sandalwood and painted with colorful faces.
They are dressed in colorful clothing and are taken out during festivals on a colorful chariot.
There are even special times of the day when the gods are bathed and receive offerings.
The Halva and different sweets made in Varanasi are very famous.
Shops display dozens of kinds of sweets, infused with the scent of roses, nuts or covered in edible silver leaf.
Varanasi is also famous for its beautiful silk saris, which are expensive but favored by wealthy women who are about to be married.
They travel to Varanasi to buy the best silk, choosing between hundreds of designs while sitting in elegant shops sipping tea.
One day we came upon a Muslim festival which included men carrying palanquins with ornate spire minarets on them.
There were also sword and stick fighting demonstrations, performed to the pounding beat of big drums carried by many boys.
At those moments, when we see the beauty of the people and their cultures, I feel as if this place is wonderful.
When the noise of the constant horns and the traffic gets too much for me, I close my eyes and for a brief moment I imagine the beauty of our property in green Kohukohu in New Zealand, or the vast Rocky Mountains in Colorado…. where it is easier to believe that Heaven is in the core of the mind of each of us, and could be seen by each of us right here on this earth….
Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the first snow of the season has already fallen.
On the other side of the earth in New Zealand, springtime is coming and the flowers are blooming….
When night fell, we wanted to do another puja at the Aarti for Owen, our friend from New Zealand who just passed away.
The Aarti in Varanasi is the biggest and busiest we have ever seen. Thousands of people gathered at the ghats by sunset.
Since the priests were facing the river, the best place to see the ceremony was from the water.
Lines of wooden boats were tied to the ghats, and the boatmen sold seats on the boats, from which you could see the hour long ceremony.
Seating in the water on a wooden boat surrounded by people, we met a Canadian woman who told us that she lives on a small Caribbean Island, near St. Vincent. She said that she has been a yoga teacher for thirty years, and that finally she decided to come and see India, the birthplace of yoga.
She told us that she has been here for twenty days, and that she will never return.
She said that India was too challenging for her, and that it was very hard to be here.
She said that she took some yoga workshops and lessons, and that she was NOT impressed.
You can get much better yoga instruction in the West, she concluded.
The yoga teachers in India do not seem to know much about the human body and very little attention is given to stretching, flexibility, relaxation and after class meditation.
It is as if they do not understand the principles of yoga at all, she said.
We asked her about the places she has visited and what were some of her experiences.
She told us that she enjoyed Varkala beach in Kerala, and that it was a nice hedonistic break after a terrible yoga ashram that she stayed at in Kerala.
In Varanasi, she told us that she was staying at the Puja Guesthouse, and that she thought it was very comfortable and nice.
She said it had nice colorful furniture and decor, air conditioning and a good shower.
She said she was paying only 1500 rupees per night ($22).
We felt too ashamed to admit that we are staying in a palace that cost a fortune per night, and just said that we were staying down the river, a few ghats south.
We booked this luxury hotel as a buffer from the hot, dirty and busy city.
We thought it would give us a quiet and elegant place to rest, away from the mayhem, and it has.
When the evening Aarti started, we floated baskets of flowers and candles on the river to honor the memory of our friend Owen.
We sang Hindu hymns and chanted, blending our voices with the thousands of souls around us.
Our eyes were tearing from the smoke, the fire and the sadness of losing our gardener and friend…. the Kohukohu Silviculturist and arborist Owen Lewis….
Yes, it helped a little to see the cremation ghats and to be reminded that eighty to a hundred people daily are being cremated in Varanasi.
Our immortal essence lives on beyond the dream of birth and death.
We play a role in each of our incarnations.
Fully immersed in our life-dramas, we forget that we ARE the directors of our lives, not mere actors in that drama which we only enact for a very short time….
But we must never forget that time itself is not real.
Beyond the ridiculous belief in time, there is only eternity.
What was created as eternal, can never be born nor die….
Beyond life and death,
Beyond the stars and beyond the earth,
There is a Unified field
I shall meet you there…
– [ ]