Didn’t know where to start 5 weeks ago; don’t know where to stop now.
Brushing teeth by the banks of Ganga
Evidently, my resolution to update this journal daily has not been very realistic.
I have been slightly under the weather — indeed, thanks to the weather — the past few days so I stay home the whole of yesterday. In the evening, the ladies prepare an amazing Punjabi dish called Chola Bhatura. It is bhatura (deep-fried bread; soft, fluffy and completely irresistible) served with chick peas gravy and is so delicious I lose count of the number of bhatura I eat. Never have I imagined vegetarian cuisines to be so full of gastronomic delights!
A guy from Lyon joins us for dinner. He has quit his job in Belgium to explore Asia for a year. Dinner conversation is interesting, revolving around travel, culture, alcohol and foie gras. We have Indian sweets for dessert and then I retire for the night.
Today, I go with Nandan to an Aghori ashram called Sri Sarveshwari Samooh, in the outskirts of Benaras. I am very glad to have made the trip there because the people in the ashram are real practising Aghoris, not the sort of quacks that have been generated by the media. The manager of the ashram, upon learning what my project is about, enthuses that Ganga is synonymous with Aghor. I talk to a guy named Ashok Kumar, who works in the Aghor Research Centre & Library of the ashram. He is nothing like Lali Baba. He explains that Aghor is a spiritual state of mind, and not a sect as I have previously assumed. The essence of the Aghor school of thought lies in alleviating human suffering. It is about peace, compassion and mental equilibrium. Contrary to popular belief, they do not condone cannibalism or the consumption of alcohol, and just like all Hindus, they revere the holy Ganga and carry out rituals in her waters and by her banks.
“The mother teaches her son how to walk, move, rise and speak and desires that, by his ideal conduct, the son may earn name, fame and wealth and bring credit to the parents. However, when the son turns unworthy and begins causing anxieties to his loving mother herself, he is reduced to ashes in the fire of her sighs of pain and sorrow. Thus, it is the mother who gives birth to the child and it is she herself who also devours him.”
– Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram (from a sermon)
Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram, who founded the ashram, also set up a service centre for lepers within the compound. This centre is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for having treated the highest number of lepers. The lepers receive free medication (Ayurvedic treatment), food, clothes and an environment that allows them to be treated with dignity. After having some chai, we drop by the male ward but there are only about 5 of them in there at the moment — the rest are working in the gardens as part of their rehabilitation programme. It is the first time I have ever met leprosy patients. I want to start photographing them but the guy who is showing us around is paranoid that I might be a terrorist (!) and tells Nandan to tell me to stop.
In the auto-rickshaw back to the city, I ask Nandan if the locals of Benaras consider themselves lucky to be living so close to Ganga. Yes, he says, if he goes to other parts of India and tells the people there that he is from Kashi (the most sacred part of Benaras), they clamour to touch his feet. They give him money and tell him to throw it into the river. I have had some idea of how special this place is to every Indian but never have I quite comprehended the magnitude of this sacredness.
Meanwhile, I have passed the halfway mark of my stay here, yet I don’t know if my project is even close to half complete. It seems like the learning could never end. I arrived with the intention of documenting life along the banks of Ganga but every facet of this life is worthy of a whole documentary in itself — the locals who bathe here, the boatmen, the doms, the touts, the dhobies, the aarti ritual performers, the sadhus, the pilgrims, everyone.
So many stories.
The sadhu’s hand
“People say the life of a sadhu is very tough but I have found true peace only after becoming one.”
– Radchor Ashram, 59
I believe there is no place in the world quite like Benaras. Some people come here for a few days, some for a few weeks, some for years, some come here to live the rest of their lives and even more come here just to die. Already, home seems like worlds away; the sterile cleanliness, the jaded looks, the silence. Was all that what I have been so used to?
This place is a complete enigma, so full of character and contrasts that it is hard not to wear a perpetually bemused expression even as I just sit on the steps of the ghats and watch events unfold before me.
At Harish Chandra ghat, young boys play a rowdy game of cricket just beside the cremation grounds where piles of burning wood are encircled by mourning family members. I look through the viewfinder of my camera, watching within that little frame a boatman with his two sons, all wrapped in shawls and silhouetted against the morning light. Just behind me, two men piss on the walls of the ghat. No one bats an eyelid. I try to photograph sewage very openly leaking out from a pipe. A peanut-seller passing by stops me and asks why would I want to take a photo of the “dirty water”? Ganga is over there, he says, pointing to the river. Take photo of Ganga, good sacred water, very nice photo. I gesture that the “dirty water” behind is flowing directly into Ganga and he shrugs sheepishly. The government is not doing anything, he says. I buy a bag of peanuts from him. Some kids come running over. They are the same kids everyday and I am starting to learn their names. They ask if I would like to buy candles or flowers today but it is only a half-hearted question since I say no everyday. We sit in the shade and share the bag of peanuts.
In the evening, I walk along the alleys and pass by a group of hijras. When I reach home, I go up to the rooftop to watch people flying kites for a while and then retire to my room for the night. I will have to prepare for my short trip up to Kanpur soon. Also, will be visiting an ashram for (even more) Aghori sadhus with Nandan soon. That should be interesting, haha.
MUMBAI: Army commandos laid siege Thursday to two luxury hotels in Mumbai where gunmen held foreign guests hostage as part of coordinated attacks across India’s financial capital that left up to 100 dead.
A group calling itself the “Deccan Mujahedeen” claimed responsibility for the attacks late Wednesday night on the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels, and eight other locations, including the main train station, a hospital and an up-market restaurant.
Maharashtra state’s Director General of Police A N Roy said around 100 people were killed in the precisely targeted assaults by small groups of gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades that began around 10.30 pm (1700 GMT).
Some foreign tourists were reported to be among the dead.
Witnesses said the gunmen had specifically chosen US and British citizens to take hostage.
(More information: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/392586/1/.html)
SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) says they are working closely with the Indian authorities to secure the safe release of a Singapore woman held hostage at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai.
It is believed she is one of 20 foreigners taken hostage and is unharmed.
In a news conference, a spokesman says they are flying up the family members to Mumbai and rendering to them all necessary assistance.
“We will definitely look at all the scenarios and make an educated decision on whether there is a need for us to send a crisis negotiating team to Mumbai,” said the director of consular directorate at MFA, Jai Sohan Singh.
“We have actually made the offer of assistance to the Indian government, if necessary. We have not received any request at this point in time.”
MFA says Singapore strongly condemns the attacks and conveys its deepest condolences to the victims, their families, the government of India and its people.
It says the Mumbai attacks underscore the common terrorist threat that we continue to face today.
Singapore stands firmly behind the Indian government in its fight against terrorism.
MFA and the Singapore Consulate-General in Mumbai are closely monitoring the situation in Mumbai.
(More information: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/southeastasia/view/392569/1/.html)
I’ll be staying in today. Hopefully it’ll be safe to go out tomorrow.
Morning on Assi ghat
The days are getting colder. This morning, I walk towards Lali ghat, hoping to watch Lali Baba’s morning aarti, but I get too caught up watching the slow stirrings of life along the ghats that I arrive at Lali ghat just in time to catch the last bit of the routine. Lali Baba asks why I have not come to see him the past couple of days and I tell him I have been busy. He wants to know if I have mentioned anything about our conversation the other night to Nandan. No, I say, in fact Nandan does not even know I am coming here today. He seems satisfied so I try to steer the subject towards Ganga. I ask him if it is part of his daily ritual to clean the river with his bare hands. Yes, he says proudly, he used to be the only one cleaning up the Lali ghat area but now there are students from the yoga school who help out too, as well as people who sweep the ghats. He offers me some pieces of coconut with balls of fine sugar to eat and we sit there and talk for a while. Then he asks if I would like to go up to his ashram to make chapati again but I say no, I have somewhere else to go to today.
On my way back to Bhadaini, I am smacked squarely in the face by the tail of a passing buffalo. Must remember to stop walking with mouth open.
In the afternoon, I take a boat down towards the point where the Assi river empties sewage into Ganga but it is too hazy and dusty to get any decent shots. When I get back home, Nandan brings me to an ashram where about twenty sadhus live. I manage to have a little interview with a couple of them but by the time we are done, it is too dark to take photos so I ask for permission to return tomorrow. The sadhus lead a fascinating lifestyle, so simple and peaceful and without “tension”. I am especially heartened by the passionate way in which they talk about Ganga. In fact, everyone I’ve chatted with so far in Benaras speaks of Ganga as though they are referring to a loved one; you may never guess it is a river they are talking about. I think this is beautiful.