Sunday, September 12, 2010

The City of Learning and Burning

October 19th
Varnasi is “a city of learning and burning,” our guide, Veena, tells us. There are four universities, and the city prides itself on the quality of its classical Indian music. The burning… I’ll get to that.

Like Delhi, Varanasi is crumbling. The dirt seems to be holding the walls up. The buildings are mostly the remnants of British colonial architecture and even though the columns and moldings are discolored, peeling and crumbling, they are still beautiful.

When I look at these white columned buildings, I can see the British colonists dressed in their Victorian whites and khakis, the ladies in their lace dresses, hair pinned in elaborate curls by their Indian maids. I see these ghosts sitting on the verandas sipping tea from bone china while being fanned by dark men in pale kurtas. Their hushed conversations are carried on the breeze.

Varanasi is the holiest place in the Hindu religion and is considered to be the center of earth in Hindu Cosmology. Buddhists and Jains also stake their claims here for holiness. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

What draws people here, and what has drawn them for countless centuries, is the Ganges. Varanasi lifts itself up from the banks of the Ganges, its steps dipping into the water, the water sometimes rising up to the first few floors of the buildings, depending on season. The river provides life and livelihood for the world’s highest density of people. The river is also where they come to die. Leave it to me to reach from the sublime and poetic to a search on Wikipedia, but I think this says it best: In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about the Ganges,
The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man.”

We take four air conditioned cars to the Momokshu Bhavan ashram. Midway, one of the ladies wants to switch to a less cramped car and, while we are stopped, an old man comes up to the window opposite of where I’m sitting, carrying a basket with a live cobra swaying up above the open lid. I, of course, think this is the coolest thing ever and without even thinking I point and say “Look! A Cobra!”
The woman sitting at the window turns around to look behind her, her nose inches from the cobra’s (with a glass window closed between them). A shriek and a jump ensue, and the man walks away with his cobra.

The Mumukshu Bhavan ashram is an old tattered building structured around a few shaded courtyards populated by monkeys and elderly residents. The residents mostly stay inside, or maybe that’s just because we were there. The people who stay at the ashram are waiting to die – they are old, feeble, a burden on their impoverished families, and want their bodies cremated on the banks of the holy river. Mumukshu Bhavan is a waiting room for death. To visit there is to feel mortality, an idea that is foreign to me as a 25 year old. Death is a theory to the young. We hear about it, sometimes we see it, but it doesn’t touch us. Still, I’m not entirely insensitive. I don’t whip out my camera to take pictures of the wrinkled men and women peeking out of their cells.

Some of the old residents are very willing to engage lookyloo western tourists and the women are taking pictures of everyone. It makes me uncomfortable. I know they would make great pictures, the kind you see on the cover of National Geographic with pleated folds of skin radiating out from wise timeless eyes. I get it. But I can’t justify what feels like rudeness and exploitation to get the shot. I can’t treat these people as objects to be photographed. I do, however, take pictures of the monkeys. Who doesn’t love a picture of a monkey?

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