Varanasi: A Journey Beyond The Withinby Shiv Bhalla March 23 2017, 3:25 pm Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 15 secs
The first impression of this “holy” city were singular moments of “unholiness” tied together by exasperation and a tense feeling of confusion. As we found ourselves swamped in the cacophony of vehicles and the dense putrid combination of pollution, urine and feces invaded our respiratory tracts causing us to comically grimace at each other. The weariness from travelling kept disappointment at bay, as all that occupied our imaginations was the comforting embrace of rest. A blocked off road compelled us to leave our taxi cab and find our way to the hotel. Eventually, two representatives from the hotel that we were staying at arrived to guide us through the narrow arterial lanes to ghats at the riverfront, where our hotel was located. Our guides were intrepid in their traversal of the labyrinthian inner pedestrian lanes, masterfully avoiding aggressive bulls and their steaming cakes of dung that speckled the floor, reminiscent of a minefield. We followed suit, mimicking their movements as best we could.
As a team of three from ACEE The Third Eye, we had ventured to this city of Gods as a research tour with the purpose of learning of local encounters with the paranormal for a story we were working on. Weary and tired, this purpose had fleeted my consciousness as I took a moment to rest in the hotel room after spending the past thirty minutes vigorously washing the residue of all the unspeakable muck that had gathered around my feet and shins. After adequate R&R I emerged from the first story balcony of the hotel, witnessing the Ganga shimmering in the late afternoon sun, boats ebbing and flowing on the surface. The ghats on the banks eclectic and eccentric in design, each dedicated to a unique God, more or less. The sight was breathtaking, superlatively so, melting away my cynicism. In that moment Varanasi had lifted its veil of Maya (illusion) to reveal to me it’s true beauty, as all the memories of the ordeal to arrive at that moment seemed to be washed away by the Ganges.
After a lunch, we set out to explore the banks, orienting ourselves to this surreal city. Having seen many a stunning photograph of the ghats of Varanasi, the experience of being there in the flesh is incomparable. As dusk began to cast its hues of orange,red and purple over the horizon we enlisted a local boatman to explore from the perspective of the river. From a small ancient looking wooden boat, we truly felt transported to eons past, to some mythological archetype of what a City of God should be. We learned of each Ghat, bursting with the personality of its namesake, Gods of old and new, covering a vast spectrum of Hindu scripture and mythology. The flavours, textures and diversity blended into a unique confluence of contradictions that in some strange dynamic seemed to fit.
Nowhere was such a confluence of opposites more apparent than when dusk relented to night and the daily night aarti began on the main ghat. Clanging cacophonic bells, melodic chanting and crowds for days all characterized this prayer gathering. Bright colourful lights mirrored by countless diyas floating in the river. On the other end of the river was the Smashaan Ghat, essentially a set of funeral pyres that are said to have never ceased burning since that Ghat was created. In contrast to the aarti, the mood was sombre, the entire ghat was lit by the raging infernal pyres, causing shadows to manically dance. The juxtapozition of the visuals, aesthetics as well as the sound, where the aarti was loud and boisterous the Smashaan ghat emanated atonal hypnotic chants.
The events of the previous night set the perfect tone to embark upon a hunt for local stories of encounter with the paranormal. The surrealistic coincidence of opposites had a tremendous impact on our outlook and our lenses adjusted to see things through a more abstract lens. The next two days, we spoke to priests about spirit and matter, we learned of an encounter with a group of malevolent female spirits from an oarsman, we met another oarsman who spoke to us about dogma in spirituality and told us of the Aghoris, a sect of sages that embrace all that is taboo and find spirituality in that. We learned of local superstitions from generous and hospitable hosts who invited us into their homes. At the Smashaan ghat we learned of how one cleanses oneself of spirits who seek to do harm. Seeking local opinions on the paranormal, we were invited into many a home where people offered their opinions, experiences and skepticism.
All in all, we were able to extract nuance, depth and context to give to the story we were working on back in Bombay.
Spirituality emphasizes exploring the within, and upon reflection I came to the conclusion that this city of Gods would manifest in a way to reflect one’s within, thus a tool to explore one’s inner space and beyond.