With Scott back to life, and one day left in Varanasi, we realized we were well over-due for some bicycles. On recommendation of an American girl working at the ashram, we headed to the restaurant at the Haifa hotel, towards the city center. We caught two bike rickshaws (the vessels themselves are too small for even our conniving minds to squeeze 3 humans aboard) and off we went. The city was already well underway towards its many mysterious tasks. And the streets simply boiled with fascinating activity.
At the hotel Haifa, Scott and I decided to split one order of the “American Breakfast” and one “Indian Breakfast.” Indian breakfast was a healthy stack of savory lentil pancakes, stuffed with spiced potato and a bowl of unsweetened yogurt to dip them in. The American breakfast was scrambled eggs, toast, and oatmeal. The food was quite tasty, but arrived one dish at a time and over an excruciatingly long period of time. Made all the more confounding by our being one of only two occupied tables in the restaurant. Two hours later we stepped out into the burning heat of the day, and strode next door to the bicycle shop.
The proprietors were a little wary of us at first, demanding weighty deposits and mysterious unwritten contractual obligations. By the end of the discussion, Nikhil secured a fair deal and we were off. Little did we know, Varanasi is great for wheeling. As intense as the streets were, Nikhil deftly took bishop and lead us through the madness, Scott and I ringing our bells and he simply shouting his presence as we barreled through the tumult. We visited first a great red temple, into which only Nikhil was allowed. He purchased a coconut at a nearby shop an went in while Scott and I waited. After very little time he emerged with the coconut split in half and a decent quantity of sticky red powder, which he used to place a dot on each of our heads. The same man who sold the coconut cut it into pieces for us to eat later.
We then wheeled to the Banaras Hindu University campus, in the center of which there was another temple. This one we were able to enter. We dropped our shoes off at a station and walked barefoot on the hot stone floor. At the entrance to the interior of the temple was a great bell, which hung over the threshold. Nikhil invited us to ring it as we walked in. The act was strangely satisfying, loud and low, echoing for some time throughout the temple. Outside the temple, lassi was for sale, served in clay bowls, made by people in the surrounding villages, which were simply discarded after consuming the sweet yoghurt inside. We were wary, fearing for out intestines. Nikhil, though, bought one and drank deeply, finishing the bowl and commenting of how very tasty it was.
After some more wheeling around the vast campus, noting the marked focus on agricultural sciences and technology, we exited the gate of the university and took off back across Varanasi to another temple. As we rode things became more and more hectic, and soon the pedestrian traffic was so dense, that we had to walk our bikes. We stopped at the main section of ghats, and paid some gentleman to park our bicycles in a large expanse of crumbling concrete. We then ventured down the steps of the ghat. The steps were filled with people and we reached a landing half way down where Nikhil said “I am going to get a head massage; I hear they are very good here.” So with Nikhil getting the rubdown. Scott and I found no excuse not do the same.
The man who was massaging me was not terrific. –he was more just rubbing his hands all over me, than really digging into my muscles– but he did have some tricks up his sleeve. The most interesting of these was one in which I closed my eyes and he began to vigorously shake the skin of my face around, causing the sunlight that shown trough my eyelids to flash dramatically and produce some quite beautiful colors. Also, he went to town, as they say, on my scalp, prodding and rubbing my scull in a most delightful way. Some of the delight was diminished when he started softly whispering in my ear bargaining for the reimbursement.
But this minor displeasure was completely forgotten when I look up to see that an Indian television crew was videotaping us. After the massages were done the fellow from the crew moved in closer and explained to us that they were in a new Indian station, and set up to interview both Scott and I regarding our experiences in Varanasi. **Stay tuned oh valued reader for we will post this footage as soon as we can get our hand on it.** Then we were off towards what, Nikhil explained to us, is one of the most holy places in all of the Hindu faith. In order to get in the the temple we had to present our passport photocopies, and swear that we had no beef with the Hindu faith.
My passport copy had become very wet with sweat and almost unintelligible during the wheel, but it seemed no problem (with Nikhil fighting on our side) and after some slight paperwork we took off our shoes, rented a locker from a stand outside the gates to stow our our cameras and anything else which could possibly be used to taint the experience of the temple, and were admitted to the first round of frisking and metal detectors. The savage security which abounded at this place was due to the threat of terrorism (how dare I assume that islamic terrorism was a unique American problem) and necessitated redundant screening. Only some months before our visit there had been bombings of temples and tourist locations.
Security was high. But we got through, and soon we were inside the temple. There were monkeys leaping from spire to spire and people everywhere. In order to reach the first holy place one had to fight through a dense crowd of sweaty people. At some point Nikhil placed a clutch of leaves in my hand and I squeezed into the front.People were placing their offerings (in my case the leaves) into a pool. There was a holy man sitting nearby arranging the flowers and leaves and every once in a while acknowledging a particularly big offering of cash money with a sage glance. I placed my leaves into the pool and leaned over the railing to touch the rock in the center (since this seemed to be the next step). As soon as I had done that, I was spit from the crowd like a watermelon seed.
We proceeded through the temple, observing similar rituals taking place all around us.The temple itself was covered with ornate engravings and the floors were cool marble, glistening with what may very possibly have been monkey dung. All around us there were workers building some additional structure onto the exterior of the temple. At some point, we became attached to a fellow who either was asked by Nikhil of or elected himself our guide throughout the temple process relevant specifically for Brahmans. Through a gaping hole in the ceiling (which may have also been a skylight), we could see an adjacent mosque. This new guide of ours explained that at one point this spot fell into strict Muslim rule. And part of the temple was leveled to build this mosque.
We were then lead to another holy place where we we gave put a few hundred rupees in a pile and we asked to repeat a prayer, would by word, then lean over and ouch our heads to the golden toe of a statue. We had just finished this and were still staring dumbfounded at the intricacy and richness of the environment around us, when our guide exclaimed, now we must go the the most holy place of all. With that, Nikhil took my hand and I took Scott’s and we began to rush in this great daisy chain through the crowd, half running, barefoot down the narrow ally to another entrance. Inside the floor was quite wet with a brown mush, discernible amidst the slime were very discrete piles of monkey dung. I barely noticed it at the time, though, so entranced was I with the surroundings.
At the direction of our guide, we sat down with a holy man, crossed legged in a tiny, well lit stone room in this section of the temple. In exchange for some offerings which Nikhil provided, and some pretty hefty monetary donations extracted from Scott and myself, the holy man walked us through the ceremony, allowing Scott and I to repeat prayers after him, and giving out us a mark of bright dust on our foreheads. We were given each a dense flower blossom and told to take it to a wall, and with it write the names of our family by smudging the yellow blossom on the stone wall. I did so, and was then directed to another locus, at which I was taught (by yet another fellow) a prayer to be said following the names of family which i wanted to send good fortune and love to. I did this for some time, marveling at the simplistic gravity of the ritual, finding it very hard not to tear up, before I was once again sent forth towards a woman in a booth where I was to take my now quite disheveled flower.
Before I could give this to her though, I was told by another fellow to return to the room of the fellow who had taught us the first blessing, again I repeated some more prayers in hindi and was asked for 1000 rupees. I had no such bills in my wallet, but gave 100 of the 150 rupees which remained. Then it was discovered that I still had the disheveled flower in my had and I was whisked back to the woman who’s business it was dealing with those. She also asked me for some rupees and I put my last 50 in her pile. She gave me a ladleful of water, much like the one Nikhil had partaken of so many time on the day before, and, under the scrutiny of all these holy people, I slurped a little bit the brushed the rest into my hair the way Nikhil had done.By this point I had broken from Nikhil and Scott and I slid back across the drizzles brown floor of the room to where they were gathered around yet another statue of a god. They had just finished offering some foods to the god and I was handed a little puffed grain ball, which I then ate and was still chewing on as we left the temple and put our bare feet on dry pavement once again.
Sadly, it was nearing time for us to end our time with Nikhil, and for us to leave this strange and wonderful city. Back at the ashram we packed and paced around the room, feeling the voltage of the eminent departure. Some 20 minutes before he needed to leave, I was looking through our silk purchases with Nikhil and we discovered, despite drastic searching through the room and our luggage, that the filthy silk merchant had simply stiffed Nikhil on one of the silks that he bought! The garment, though paid for in full, was no where to be found. So, dear reader, let this be a lesson to you as well as us. Varanasi is a great place to visit, but keep your wits about you. Even a chief snake charmer can be bitten…