Indian Chronicles (2) – Benares and Haridwar: Seeking, tracking and narrowly missing God.

Farishte hashr mein poochenge paakbazon se
Gunah kyun na kiye kya khuda ghafur na tha

On the day of judgement, verily the angels will ask
Why did thou not sin, was thy lord not forgiving?

Haridwar, Uttarakhand

I found myself in Haridwar and Benares during the course of this journey, with Haridwar being Priyam’s hometown and Benares, a planned excursion. Both of these cities have left their respective significant marks. They have answered some questions that I have had and because life is not an easy affair to comprehend, they have created a whole series of further questions.

We drove from Delhi to Haridwar, an approximately five hour journey and had arrived at the destination by maghrib. Where my thoughts were in the initial moments of entering Haridwar, I do not know. However, my conscience was soon greeted with the sun hanging low, giving a warm hue of golden light as it was tenderly bidding goodbye to the slightly hastened water currents before it. That is how I first met Ganga ji and quite possibly, how I first fell in love with her.

The river Ganga is the holiest most body of water in Hinduism. Starting out in Garhwal, the river begins from at the junction of the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda. The river is central to much of Hindu mythology and present day culture. At the heart of much of this mythology, the ganges personify the goddess Ganga. One of the legends state that a descendant of a King had prayed to Brahma for Ganga to come down to Earth, so that the wandering souls and sons of this King, could cleanse themselves from her waters and thus help them attain moksha. This had angered Ganga and she intended to wipe the earth out with her force, however, in her attempts to reach the Earth, she first landed on Lord Shiva’s head. Lo and behold, Shiva trapped her in his locks and thus released her in three major streams – one running through the earth, one through paradise and one through hell.

The first evening we reached the Har ki pauri ghat, the riverside bank, where the evening ganga arti was taking place, a devotional fire offering to Ganga ji. I was amidst hundreds of people, all charged up by the environment, and in most situations like this there would be an inherent aversion from my part (mainly due to the sheer volume of people). The personal plot twist was, that I did not get the suffocating feeling, rather, it was a calming endeavour and the entire credit would go the flowing water of the river.

Should there have been doubts about being a green spaces person, well, these were entirely obliterated when we drove up to Shivpuri. Being off season, thankfully, all the surfer boys were away from this little haven. We were surrounded by a turquoise watered Ganga ji, shrubs, greenery and modest sized peaks…oh wait, and a ton of silence. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I met the divine again in this moment. In a moment of romantic nostalgia I made an exclamation to Priyam, “Kudrat mein khuda ki jhalak hai”… I might have even sighed for that extra melodramatic telenovella effect. I mean, I have done theatre, darling!  -insert, over the top hair flick- Anyhow, it was a shame we did not have more time, however, there was a curfew to make and thus I made a mental note of ensuring that I return here.

Whilst in Haridwar, I was quite lucky to be able to go to Rajaji National Park. Armed with a telephoto lens and the amazing company of Priyam et al., it was all systems go! Most people who have some knowledge about me would be able to vouch for the love of elephants that I have. I had my heart set on getting some decent shots of this amazing animal. There were no elephants. However, I may have been the only person in the national park who went in with hopes of elephants and came back with perfectly respectable shots of rodents. -silence- Moving on. A story to remember of this evening would be of our jeep breaking down midpoint in this place and it is well past maghreb, and into the dark. The bhaiyya with us was a straight up fellow, “Dhakka lagaayenge?”. Part of me rejoiced that for the first time I shall be transcending these boundaries of gender stereotypes in which women, especially desi women, have been encased in. As a first in life, I will be dhakka lagaaying a jeep without hearing the males of my family asking me to step aside whilst they dealt with such a manly matter. With the will of iron and a resolve of steel, Priyam and I rolled up our sleeves and shouted a slogan of “Heave ho!”. We must not have moved the thing more than 20cm [accounting for some generosity of cm]. Oh, well.

At this stage, the bhaiyya’s mobile was not within the remit of a bar of reception, he was not able to help with the jeep movement side of things…all in all, he was a pressure cooker about to blow a whistle and yield nothing. Priyam, however, was not a pressure cooker. She was an all functioning top of the range entire-kitchen-works type of system. Please excuse the kitchen references, I must be hungry. Ok, I digress. She was able to put out an SOS that reached Uncle. Now, enter LB, a man of limited words (scenario dependant) had crossed the boundaries of this park and had zoomed (read: sped) across shrubbery and grass to rescue one Priyam, one Huma, one aunty and a jori of Khala-Khalu. We were rescued! I could probably write for a good ten minutes as to the swag LB has. In a simple sentence, this man is a AA battery pack loaded with TNT and he left Priyam and I with an amazing sentence, “Zindagi Allah ke haath mein hai, hifazat apne haath mein hai”, all whilst speeding around an ascending blind bend at the speed of 90mph. #thuglife


So, the two and half days were over in Haridwar but how I longed to stay there more – and boy, oh, boy…how much I wanted to retain the company! However, onwards… some memories have yet to be treasured, and some to be made, including the direct face/off with my PTSD and Priyam being there to hold my hand through it. As a huma(n), I pride myself on not showing my vulnerabilities, my fears and my thoughts. Stick me in a fast moving pressurised vessel and just watch me crumble.

We all cannot have the tashan of LB. [La da da da dah, it’s the motherf****’ dee arr ee!]. Sorry, it just had to be done.

Benaras, Uttar Pradesh

In terms of chronological events, Benares was the final stop before returning back to the United Kingdom. The myriad of experiences in this city left me at a juncture, where I could not conclusively determine an overall opinion. Most certainly I was battling in my head whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. There were enough paradoxes and directly opposite experiences scattered within yards and minutes of each other e.g. feeling the tranquility at the ghats in one moment and then being in a spiritual leader’s shack where people do a twirl at the end of a confusing sermon; meeting the common man who will greet you with the utmost hospitality (and chai!) to an individual who is at the cusp of Muslim bashing and will hear Huma as “Uma” and his resolve to beat out the Nationalist in her; and finally, the zen of devotees at Sarnath as compared to the blitz of pilgrims at Shri Kashi Vishvanat mandir, all fighting for space and oxygen.

Being one of the world’s oldest inhabited city, Benares is an important city; for its dwellers, for its pilgrims, for its scholars, for its history and for its mythology. It compromises of eighty-eight ghats out of which two are exclusively for cremation. It houses hundreds of temples, some small, some big, some unknown and some as pertinent as Vishvanat mandir, which has its sanctity attributed to its relations with Lord Shiva. To give a general idea of how far back the origins of this city stretch, archaeological artefacts have been discovered, which are dated to 1000 BC.

The major highlight of Benares is undoubtedly the multitudinous ghats. History and mythology are often intertwined when locals speak of these ghats. Two of the most prominent and well known are the Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika. Legend has it that Dashashwamedh ghat was created by Brahma for the sole welcome of Lord Shiva. One of the few legends associated with Manikarnika ghats speaks of Goddess Parvati’s attempts to keep Lord Shiva at the ghat and not travel away with his followers. In this attempt, she hides her earrings and asks him to seek them out from the banks of the Ganges. Furthermore, when a body gets cremated the Manikarnika ghat, Shiva then asks the soul if it has seen these earrings.

Out of all the cities that I had visited, I found Benares to be the least progressive and in many ways, the most suffocating, at least on a social front. It took me back to the early visits to Pakistan where in semi urban areas, the streets belonged to the men, who had the inherent right to stare at you from head to toe, from your movement point (a) all the way to where their eyes can go. They could say what they want, do what they want and you would be at the mercy of either them or a more macho man of the household who accompanied you everywhere. Up until this point, I did not get the feeling that I did not belong in any city or that it was wrong to be out late at night (which, by the way was 9pm). Then Benares came and I became conscious of being an XX candidate in the world of XY candidates. Even in this, there was not a fear that something might inherently happen to me…but the power of someone’s gaze to violate your personal space and a sense of self, that is the feeling that stuck. I remained, however, intrepid along with the trusted company of Priyam and chewed on that paan like there was no tomorrow and walked all the way back to Shree Ganesha Palace with some swag [at least in my head].

A complete digression, by the way, as the above recount takes me back to an essay of Anita Roy, who was examining the sexual harassment of women as well as drawing comparisons to hijras and the issues that specific community undergoes. A very powerful concluding remark was, “Hijras may perhaps envy women for their ability to bear children, for the apparent “naturalness” of their gender. But Indian women, in turn, may envy the hijra for the confidence and ease with which she flaunts her femininity. There is this terrifying or liberatory thought: that the hijra represents what the “real” women might be if they were to become as sexually confident as “real” men. The invisibles of Jaffrey’s titles have much to teach the women of Delhi who have long been hidden behind the stifling veil of ‘decency’…”

All thoughts aside and an attempt to think positive thoughts, I do not think very many can boast a Benares experience like mine in such a short space of time. Visiting all of the ghats; witnessing the saffron clad aides to the demiurge; obtaining pretty epic pictures of the arti (without a tripod!); witnessing an awe inspiring Kathak performance; a detailed tour of Benares Hindu University and seeing the extraordinary exhibitions in the Kala Bhawan; having THE bhandara of my life [and scandalising Priyam with “Yaar, catering solid thi,”]; evading the horns of a universe of bulls without severe abdominal puncture wounds; saying cheers to a Benares paan; engaging in the ongoing silsila-e-chai; and the highlight…somewhere in the heart of a meandering Benaras street in a dilapidated house of an unknown pandit ji, there will be a lineage of the Goyal’s, which a Huma Khan attested to and made her mark of doing so. #gangsta

It is now time to make conclusive remarks about Benares and since I seem to have used up a vast majority of the words that were floating in my head, I shall recount a comment made by a bhaiyya, which has amused me. He informed us as to how clean Benares was these days due to an upcoming visit of Narendra Modi. He was instantly challenged with regards to the streets flowing red due to a mixture of saliva and betel leaf contents. When asked to reflect on the possibility of paan being banned, he exclaimed, “Arre, paan band karwa diya mantri ji ne to unki sarkaar hi na girr jaaye”. Priorities, yo.

Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

By the morning of departure from Benares, my soul was craving some solitude and a sabbatical from humans, and somewhere in the skies, She heard my prayers and God gave me Sarnath!

Sarnath, approximately 10 kilometers away from Benares, is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in India. It is believed that Buddha delivered his first sermon here after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath was to become a major centre for arts, education and a central religious hub, with there being approximately thirty monasteries and over three thousand monks by the conclusion of 6th century AD. Turkish Muslims had then invaded and left the site in ruins and it was not until 1836, when the British came and began the excavation and restoration of the city.

One of the coolest things amongst the ruins was to see the Pillars of Ashoka, which were one of the earliest known sculptural remains from India. The pillars were initially erected and named after the Mauryan King Ashoka in the Third Cent BC and today, a slightly modified version, makes up the State Emblem of India. And it is damn cool.

If in that part of Uttar Pradesh, I would most certainly recommend a visit to Sarnath. If for nothing else, then for the ruins, which have stood their ground to plunderers and exist today in a garden of greenery and accompany an ocean of zen.

So final thoughts? The theme of the two cities and consequently of this post was The Divine. I am no stranger to God, or at the very least, the idea of a God and religiosity that has been implanted in my living memory from childhood. However, these epicentres of spirituality made me realise that if I was ever describe how I found and understood God truly and eternally, then it would not never be through a mandir, masjid or through the ever accepting shadow of a spiritual leader. I have found her in the currents of Ganga, at the heights of mountainous peaks, in the wisps of the fresh oxygen that my lungs were inspiring and ultimately, in the depths of the solitude surrounding me, whenever I stumbled upon it.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is all for the penultimate round of reflections… time to focus on some real life issues such as a cup of adrak chai and using this phase of the writing bug to see what else I can conjure. Probably not much, but hopeful I shall remain. Adios!