I met the mad pilgrims in Delhi, a day before flying to Varanasi. Amongst them was Astrud, the Laughing Lotus teacher assigned to the task of ‘being’ Jasmine whilst she stayed home and looked after herself and her (as yet unborn) baby. And Cristina, a dear old friend I hadn’t seen since university days. Meeting Astrud – who turned out to be as thoughtful as she was beautiful – I knew we’d get along. Cristina looked the same as she did a decade ago! She attributes this youthfulness to a very small bowl of chia porridge enjoyed every morning and a tiny appertif most evenings.
The pilgrims – apart from Cristina, who I’d describe as a ‘world citizen’ – were from New York, California and Australia. All very diverse backgrounds with our only common threads being yoga and a fascination for India. Turns out that’s all we needed.
Varanasi is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. It is said that if you die in Varanasi, you are guaranteed salvation. Despite being built at the point where sacred waters meet, it is considered Shiva’s City or the City of Death.
It is easy to see why: Shiva is everywhere; his imposing image – wide eyes, dreadlocks, trident and a cobra for a belt – in the ancient temples and on the walls of Varanasi. And even when the temples are too small for a full-size deity (tiny duck-your-head-and-have-a-peak-inside affairs), well there is Shiva lingum; Shiva in his, ahem, most masculine form… His eternal consort, Shakti, also makes innumerable appearances in her many incarnations including the downright terrifying, man-beheading Kali. Her temples are often blood red; a detail I love.
The ghats (ancient staircases that lead directly into the Ganges) at dawn are a straight up mystical sight: countless Varanasi locals taking their ritual bath and morning puja as their ancestors have done for perhaps hundreds of generations. Incredible. I felt downright honoured to be their guest.
Our boatmen were deeply philosophical young men who were used to seeing bodies being cremated here on a daily basis. They let us know- quite light-heartedly – that ‘Burning is the learning’ and ‘Cremation is the education’. And after spending a few days, I started to get a feel for what they meant: cremation in India does not hide anything. Nothing at all… Here it is impossible to hide from the reality of physical death.
Back on the banks, despite warnings from countless friends back home – I found myself dipping my legs in and washing my face. It was as if I was being led by Mother Ganga; no more just a physical body of water, but Ma herself. Jai Ma…
My most treasured memory of Varanasi was a private kathak performance organized for us by the lovely Seema . Cristina and I studied kathak at university and it was a treat to see it performed in the country of its birth. The dancers (considered two of the best in India) and the band were all family members but you probably could have guessed that witnessing them gel so much. They were more than ‘in sync’; they played and danced as one. Both Seema and I got goosebumps watching the two dancers perform the stories of Shiva and Parvati (an incarnation of Shakti) in a perfect balance of technique and expression. And when they performed the stories of Krishna and Radhe in Vrindavan, well let’s just say all of us pilgrims were swooning…
I’m not a deeply emotional person but I’m man enough to admit it was hard to hold back when the male of the duo – a very distinguished looking man in his fifties – thanked us for being his audience. ‘On behalf of my family, thank you for appreciating us. In the band is my nephew and he is also being my kathak apprentice. I will dance until I die. But when I die, I am knowing that the dance and the music will continue’. Lost it. Completely. In the west, you would scarcely see a dancer in his fifties perform at all; let alone with such power, grace and ultimately, humility. I thought about the nature of creativity and how it will never die. And that we in these temporary bodies – like the boat that carried us down the Ganges – are but vessels for this infinite source.

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