Lights Temples and Learning

IMG_2771Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and it looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain 1897.

Day 1

Shrouded by the dim light of early evening I buck up my courage and walk down a crammed passageway to get to Dasaswamedth, Varanasi’s main ghat. It’s an important place on the Hindu divine cosmic road, and I’m trying to walk with purpose, to look as though I know where I’m going and what’s going on here. ( Although I don’t.)

I’ve lost Ross somewhere in the crowd but I’m determined to press my way alone through throngs of pilgrims, alms seekers, stretcher-bearers carrying covered corpses sadhus (holy men, most fake, some real,) locals and a few other stunned foreign travellers. IMG_2822The touts are aggressive and close. Too close. I turn my eyes away from them and whatever they shove in my face.

A putrid stench rakes over me.

IMG_2826I trip and slide around the garbage, some organic but mostly plastic. Plastic Bags. I do my best to dodge cattle dung, goat turd, dog poop and other unsavouries, including the plastic bags and what may be in them.

Will it ever end? Damn. I nearly stepped in it again.

There are too many tacky trinket stalls, too many people, too many piles of wood, too much smoke, too much of everything. I want to get out of here even though I’ve just arrived. So I ask myself. Why are you here, Nancy? What made you come? Where is the light in this City of Light you’ve finally come to visit?

For thousands of years literary masters have written about Varanasi (called Benares or Kashi by locals.) The city has inspired composers and musicians; been painted and photographed by famed artists; explained by philosophers; and spoken about in mysterious tones by my friends who have visited.

Varanasi is the zenith of the Hindu faith and is revered by Jains and Buddhists.

So here I am. But nothing I have seen, read, heard or imagined has prepared me for it.

Then, unexpectedly, the dark passageway opens up. There it is at the bottom of the steps. The River Ganges. It is wide and beautiful and shining in the low western sun.

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Along the broad stone steps, called Dasaswamedth Ghat, the Goddess River Ganga spreads out holding thousands of twinkling floating candles, rose petals and flowers. Eerie sounds of horns droning and symbols clanging resonate through the spaces. Smoke and the smell of sandalwood and incense drifts around everything.

I take a deep breath and inhale the moment. The noise, the garbage and even the touts are obliterated.

Ross comes out of the crowd and we stand at the top of the ghat.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” I whisper.

“Amazing. Listen,” says Ross in hushed tones. “The sound is supernatural.”

Our guide, Babalu, leads Ross and I down the steps. We work our way around small groups of musicians sitting crossed-legged around fires, chanting mantras as they play sitars and tablas. The sun will set in a few minutes and the Aarti Puja will begin, an offering to five great elements in the Hindu faith–fire, water, air, earth and the ether that is also known as space.

“For thousands of years this is happening everyday.” Babalu expounds. “We recite the Om loudly and pray for all people, for the well being of all.” And then he lifts his head toward the sky, clasps his palms together and shouts in a loud musical bass voice.

“Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva.”

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I shiver, memorized by the mystical hold of Mother Goddess Ganga.

Ashish, our oarsman, holds our hands and helps Ross and me into his low-slung wooden boat so we can watch the Puja from the river. The ghats (there are eighty-seven in Varanasi) are busy tonight after days of rain and cold temperatures.

Peacocks, oxen, goats, and dogs stroll along. “Look at those animals.” Ross laughs quietly. “They have attitude. They know they belong, they’re looked after.”

Thousands of people sit on the steps waiting for the Puja to begin; others, women in colourful saris and men in white dhotis, are bathing in the river, believing the Mother Goddess Ganga purifies the soul. I wonder what it would be like to be in the river beside them, but even though I want to hear their stories I hold myself back. P1020334The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world. Environmental efforts to clean it up have been a complete failure. So far.

Through the smoke and fires I see crumbling palaces in gaudy colours scrunched in between hundreds of temples. “We have 120,000 temples in Benares,” Babalu says, stopping his prayers. “We call it the City of Temples. It’s the spiritual capital of India, founded in 1200 BC. Three thousand years ago. Imagine. Many important people in India own palaces here. It is the city of the great Hindu god, Lord Shiva, the destroyer of evil.” He looks up to the sky. “We come to Benares to be healed, to be purified, to die. To be at peace.”

 

The jet-black boat we’re in slithers through floating grime and slowly moves down the Ganges. It has lost its glow now and is black like the night sky. The intimate rituals of life are close and very public. Death is especially close. We pause at a burning patch of land surrounded by temples and huge piles of firewood. This is the burning ghat, Manikarnika.

Babalu points to five or six sombre-looking men carrying a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders. “Look there’s a dead body,” he shouts, and Ashish enthusiastically joins in, directing us to look at a corpse shrouded in white. It seems as though they think that’s what tourists like me come here to see. “This is the place Hindus come for liberation from the cycle of life. The cremation ghat are busy 24/7,” Babalu says in a savvy tone.

I turn my head away. The magic of the Ganges loses its hold, the intimacy of life and death is too raw.

“I rather like the matter of fact-ness of it all,” Ross surprises me by saying.

But I have to work hard to try to set aside the ever-present death, poverty and filth in Varanasi and hold onto the beauty of spirituality felt here.

The river is crammed with boats like ours; there is no more room for people to sit (or stand) on the massive ghat. The Aarti Puja ceremony we have come to see seems to me like a big glitzy commercial show. IMG_2709And maybe it is, although our trusted new friend Babalu tells us it is his duty as a lay Hindu priest in Varanasi to take his turn officiating at the Aarti ceremony four or five times a year. The young priests performing the Aarti tonight are dressed in matching cream coloured dhoti-kurta (skirts and scarves) with flashy deep red shirts and they are swirling giant rings of fire in a cloud of incense and smoke. Some bang cymbals and drums, the volume of their chanting rising to a crescendo. The noise is deafening.IMG_2708

Babalu rises above it all and chants Hindu prayers in a loud and fearless voice.

I feel “out of sorts.” In the City of Light I’m in a time machine of some kind, zinging from one century to another. In twenty minutes I’ve come from the bedlam of an ancient world with timeworn rituals to a quiet, pristine place. There is nothing out of place in the one hundred and seventy-five year old Nadesar Palace where we are staying but I’m still reeling from the hullabaloo at the ghat.

“Varanasi is being buried by poverty and filth,” I had choked out when we left the bedlam.

“Change is happening.” Babalu intoned, and then his voice quietened and trailed off. “But it is very slow in Varanasi. People from everywhere come here now. A few years ago we didn’t even have plastic bags. Now we have to deal with more garbage. It’s hard to make change here. The same things have been happening for thousands of years.”IMG_2776

IMG_2784He hesitated. I’m thinking is he hopeful? “My little grandchildren learn about the environment in school and the youngest one is working on a project to clean up the school yard.” Then he smiled and barked out in that deep strong voice of his, “But when you live here you don’t notice the garbage.”IMG_2748

 

I find myself thinking about my own home and how I reduce, reuse, and recycle. I’m no saint. My own private Puja is hope for the future.

I scrub, wash my clothes (including my leather walking shoes) and try to calm down with a glass of Sula, Indian white wine.

As the night sky slowly comes to life with stars and planets, the mystical hold of India grabs me again. A curry dinner, prepared especially for us with produce from the palace garden, is delicious and full of fresh herbs, aromatic cumin, turmeric and red pepper.

Illiteracy is the main reason for poverty and the statistics are daunting in this area of India. But they also tell a story of improvements in literacy since we visited twenty years ago. I need to take a closer look at Benares to see what’s been happening.

Day 2 of Lights Temples and Learning is coming soon.

What has been your experience in Benares? Let us know.

The Taj Mahal: A Tear Drop on the Face of Eternity

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It takes my breath away.

I’m totally unprepared even though I’ve been here before and have seen it thousands of times in photos.

It’s true. Described by an Indian poet as a “Teardrop on the Face of Eternity”  the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building in the world. The pure white marble domes, arches, and minarets, the lattice screens and bas-relief carvings of flowers and the massive, welcoming and comfortable proportions startle me.

I’m taken aback; it is so perfect I hardly notice all the others here although, like every other day of the year (except Fridays,) there are thousands of visitors. Do they all feel like I do?IMG_2480

The Taj Mahal mausoleum houses the remains of a much-loved woman, Arjumand Bann Begum, who died when she was thirty-nine years old after the birth of her fourteenth child in 1631. She’s best known by her palace title of Mumtaz Mahal that means “Chosen One of the Palace”; her husband was Shah Jahan, the Emperor of India.

It is said that Mumtaz Mahal was one of the most beautiful woman in the Mughal world and I think she must have also been beautiful inside her heart. Unlike most marriages at the time hers was a love marriage. The Shah was twenty-one when he first met her in a jewellery market. She was pretty, friendly, talkative and smart but she was not a member of the royal family so the Shah’s family forbid him to marry her until he won a couple of wars. Which he did. Promptly.

The Shah was devastated when she died twenty years later and to her memory he set out to construct the most beautiful monument in history. He hired 22,000 craftsmen and other workers who travelled to Agra from all over Central Asia to work on it. Twenty years later it was complete.

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I don’t know Mumtaz but I feel her presence here at the Taj Mahal. Did she love her gardens and nature? Yes, I’m sure she did; I can see it in the beautiful design and flowers carved into this pure white marble that is the hardest, most non-porous marble in the world. Iris are inlaid with lapis lazuli, orchids with amethyst, daffodils with jasper, tulips with coral and leaves with jade. Are they examples of the flowers Mumtaz loved from the palace homes of her ancestors in Persia?

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Her tomb, the Taj Mahal was built to last. Now it’s simply washed with soap and water every few years. There are 5-6 million visitors a year (it’s one of the seven wonders of the world) and to get into the Taj complex we’ve all been through a serious security check (after being told not to bring in any food, electronic devices, knives, weapons, or pencils.) We walk through a bomb checker thing-a-ma-jig and then guards with big guns search every bag; other security people (one line for men and one for ladies) pat us down. (Ross had the glue he carries for his journal project taken away yesterday and today they wouldn’t let him in with his sketch book and pencils.) Then we put special covers on our shoes.

I’m glad the Taj is being taken care of. Pollution from traffic and thousands of tourists is threatening it. Several factories in the city of Agra have been moved to help curb pollution and only electric carts are allowed near the entrance to the Taj. (We went by the hotel golf cart!)

Strangely the magnificence of the Taj for me is not diminished by all of this. In fact I feel as though I’m all-alone here … it’s just me immersed in the beauty of the Taj so that I can enjoy my imagination and the stories of history it holds inside.

IMG_2456     Namaste

Coming soon to Travel Musings: Benares (the City of Light)cropped-p1020350.jpg

Tastes of the Silk Road: Mulligatawny Soup

IMG_0080For me, travelling the old Silk Roads (between Europe and China) is all about immersion into the local culture–history, festivals, daily life, markets and food.  I keep two large, colourful hardcover books on display in my kitchen so I can have their beautiful photographs and delicious recipes by my side. One is Tasting India by Christine Manfield, and the other is Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey by Najmieh Batmanglij. I bought them for inspiration and for taking me back to my Silk Road travels, food being one of the greatest joys.

It snowed again last night. Tomorrow will be May 1. Almost summer and a cold icy white blanket covers our lawn. I want to go back to India. What could be a better way to take me there than making a nice Mulligatawny Soup for our supper tonight?IMG_0092

Mulligatawny, translated from Tamil, means pepper water and I can use the succulent savoury spices I brought home from South India a few months ago–red chilli pepper(cayenne,) cumin, turmeric and coriander. I’ve been making this soup for so long I know it by heart and use a dash of this and that. I don’t where the original recipe came from but, as Dr Seuss says, I’ll capture them wild and I’ll capture them scrawny and I’ll capture a scrapple -foot Mulligatawny.

So here we go. Bon appetite and happy Silk Road memories.

                                    Nancy’s Carrot Mulligatawny Soup

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1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion chopped

2 cloves garlic chopped

2 tsp each dried cumin and coriander

1 tsp turmeric

¼ tsp red chilli pepper (cayenne)

1 pound carrots, sliced (about 4 cups)

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock and 4 cups water

¼ cup cream or milk

Chopped fresh parsley or coriander

P1000302In a big pot gently sauté onions and garlic in oil until transparent, then add the spices and cook another 3 minutes. Add carrots, stir and sauté another 3 or 4 minutes. Pour in the stock and water and simmer 40 minutes. Cool. Blend until smooth then stir in the cream and reheat. (Carefully. Do not boil.) Ladle soup into pretty bowls and garnish with coriander or parsley. Serves 6-8.

Do you have any Silk Road recipes you’d like to share with us?

P1060308Just click on “comments” at the right, below and let us know.