Jeff Morton
Journey to the City of Light


When I came to the end of my degree, and found myself with an opportunity for travel, I started thinking about how to see what's happening in the world today. There were many reasons I picked India. One was that it seemed to me like a small representation of the world as a whole - lots of the various factors that are uneven in the rest of the world (like poverty - low in the West, widespread in the South) are more proportionately distributed here. I expected to see a more "real" representation of the world.

Another reason was that I had friends who were already there, on a longer trip - I wanted to get a little more insight into the culture by travelling with people I knew, who'd been living in it for much longer than I could.

I wanted to seek out some of the religious sites on the subcontinent, to get a glimpse of a culture living in contact with its most ancient traditions in daily life, adapting to the new world.

These motives shaped my observations, and they came out a bit slanted. Looking back, though, they blend to give the whole experience enough cohesion that breaking it apart is difficult. However, I can only relate a part: this one is based upon the travelogue I sent back to friends and family during the leg of my trip from my arrival at Calcutta to the end of my stop in Varanasi.

~

Calcutta reminds me of the Amazon - tropical climates are hospitable to life, but not to people. Too much life to be really ordered and calm. A city with a population half the size of Canada, squeezed into a space smaller than Toronto, with people living in every available space. Walled-off spaces are hotels and homes of the wealthy, with gardens and fountains, while outside, goatherds lead flocks through tiny alleyways and below signs advertising American movies and internet training, while thousands of stray dogs wander around eating garbage. The city is alive in a way no other city I've ever seen has been.

I went to the Kali Temple today. First I tried to go by rickshaw, but the driver kept taking me to the wrong place, until eventually I had to pay him to go away, and take a taxi instead. Not really a loss, because I got to see all the twisted alleyways, roads under repair by laborers with pickaxes and hand-mixed cement. Learned the rules of the road from my travel guide, and confirmed them by observation:

1) Theoretically, drive on the left. In practice, drive wherever there is room, since there are swarms of taxis and cars, hand-drawn rickshaws and autorickshaws, trucks, super-packed buses, trams, cyclos, dogs, goats, pedestrians, people bathing in the gutter water, birds, monkeys, motorcycles, bikes, makeshift houses made from tarps, all filling up random patches of road. If the road is wide enough, however, the left is preferred. Only the very largest roads are wide enough to do this, or straight enough to have a well-defined concept of "left".

2) When in doubt, honk your horn. See above for why. It is accepted practice that you can drive wherever you want as long as you're doing it loudly enough that people in front of you have warning that you're coming.

3) There is no 3.

The Kali Temple is, by contrast, a sanctuary of peace and quiet. It is to a North American church what the above is to our roads. The beggars there hardly pester you at all, since they can get free food in the morning from the priests. Apparently the Missionaries of Charity next door, formerly of Mother Therea, have been in the habit of turning more people away since she died. Everyone here remembers her fondly and often mention her name when telling you their sob-stories, showing little pictures of Christ and Mary which they wear, apparently in the belief that if you think they're Christian, you'll be more likely to help them (though Hindus, of course, have no problem worshipping such gods if they're appropriate to their needs - as they clearly are)

There are probably a few hundred beggars in the temple, and dozens of Brahmins, little merchant stalls selling incense, pictures, flowers, and things to offer to the gods. There are also tiny temples and altars to miscellaneous other gods: again, Hindus regard absolutely everything as an aspect of the One, Brahman, which has no characteristics. So there are Krishna worshippers, Shiva cultists, devotees of Durga, and many other shrines scattered around the main Kali temple. In another corner is the pen where they sacrifice the goats which they use, together with rice and vegetables (bought with donations from richer pilgrims and the money from the little shops), to feed the poor. The Brahmin priests are vegetarian, and can't eat the goats, or kill them for that matter - there's a special office for the guy who kills the goats. They used to sacrifice people to Kali, but the British made it illegal almost 200 years ago. Now it no longer happens at the temple, rarely anywhere else, and people who do it generally go to jail.

A Brahmin showed me around, got donations out of me (quite a bit - I feel better giving at the temple than to the individuals: a waiter at a cafe told me that even buying them baby-milk and rice doesn't really help the children, since they just turn around and sell them again for a higher price, and the women who I bought these things for keep offering to buy me Chai, which the travel guide warns against, since apparently it's not uncommon for them to put sleeping pills in the tea, and rob you when you pass out, so - better safe than sorry), showed me the pool where Kali's little finger is alleged to have fallen when she was dismembered and her body scattered over India. Oddly, the only idol by this pool is the statue of Nagashiva - Shiva as the lord of the snakes. Here, we made prayer offerings of flowers and bangles for the health of my parents, me, and my girlfriend (according to him).

There is a tree there, to which people tie stones for good fortune, such as getting married, or having a baby.

Which baffles me. One woman I got some rice for told me she was 24, and had four boys and a girl. She said: "Lucky, yes?" I thought to myself, "not really". The fact that having many children is considered lucky probably accounts for the fact that India has over a billion people . . .

This city really feels like the City of Joy, though, in spite of (or maybe because of) the prevailing poverty and misery. The sense of being surrounded by so much life sort of drowns out everything else. In Canada, the winters swamp that out: six months of the year, life just sort of retreats into its hole and waits to emerge again in spring. Here, it's only the dry season that interrupts it. When the monsoons come, it just gets even more intense. I'm mostly relieved that I'll miss it.

Tomorrow evening, I have a sleeper train to Gaya, from where I will take an autorickshaw to Bodhgaya, the city on the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. It's a much smaller city of 30,000 (only 0.2 percent the size of Calcutta!), and has temples from all over the Buddhist world, each in the distinctive style of one country or area: Thai, Japanese Zen, Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, etc. . . . The monastic life sets the flavour of the city, despite the tourists and pilgrims - it should be a good place to recuperate from Calcutta.

~

I've arrived in Varanasi. Bodhgaya was pretty amazing - the Mahabodhi temple which houses the famous Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was enlightened is the focus of the town. Above and beside the tree (or a descendant of it taken from a cutting of a cutting, having passed through Sri Lanka in the interim) stands a huge temple, a tall, thin pyramidal structure with carvings all over the outside, and surrounded by a garden full of stupas (little monuments built over relics of one kind or another, or just to commemorate something). When I visited, the sun had just set, so there was a glow in the sky, Venus was visible next to the temple, which was lit by a yellow-tinted full moon, framed by banyan trees, and surrounded by swarms of bats.

My stay in Bodhgaya was devoted to recovering from illness caused by eating rice made with unclean water at the Howrah train station as I left Calcutta, and visiting the sites of the Buddha's retreat and enlightenment: a cave and the tree.

After recovery, I made my way to Varanasi (Benares). It is a city dedicated to Shiva - it's considered an auspicious place to die, because those who die here are released from the wheel of reincarnation. All along the Ganges are ghats - steps leading down to the river, some with temples . . . I'm staying near the main ghat - also near the main cremation ghat - on which cremations are constantly taking place. As I've been sitting here typing, three funereal processions have gone past the little internet shop (three computers, some chairs, and a table in a little room, one side of which opens straight onto the narrow alleyway). They carry bodies shrouded in gold silk brocade and supported by stretchers made of long sticks, and walk by chanting - "Ram Nam Sat Hai", "The Name of God is Truth".

I'm in the Old City, rather than a more expensive area, staying near my friends.

"Old City" in Varanasi really means Old City: there's been a settlement on this site since... Well, since before the beginning of recorded history. Several thousand years anyway. None of the buildings are older than a few hundred years, because of various waves of Muslim invaders and the practice of ripping things apart for building materials, but the city has the feel of a medieval farming town which has grown to a population of 2 million. Cows and goats are wandering around everywhere, and cow dung lies all over the walks. The Old City is a labyrinth of narrow little alleys towered over by stone buildings. Some alleys have roofs, some seem more like hallways - none have names, and none appear on my maps. Navigation is tricky, but there are signs painted on the walls, pointing the way to various particular things of interest, like hotels.


In the Old City in Varanasi, and apparently also elsewhere in India, the garbage is thrown into the street. People will leave garbage where it falls because it's someone else's job (typically the cows) to pick it up (you don't do other people's jobs - it's their caste, their station in life). This whole arrangement has some problems - such as hygiene - but in a way it's more honest than the North American way of hiding the garbage in huge piles out of view and pretending it isn't still poisoning the water table.

Recycling as such is less common here, but on the other hand, the animals eat a lot of the garbage, except plastic (though the other day my way out of the hotel was blocked by a water buffalo eating a plastic bag... but I don't think he got much nutritional value out of it), and people don't produce nearly as much trash to begin with. Actually, it seems to me that we really handle it much the same way, but on a different scale. In the long term, life will just have to adapt to its new waste products and use them for something, just as it did when plants first started the highly-toxic gas oxygen (and had to invent animals to breathe it up) or when animals found they needed to get rid of excess calcium to run their metabolism properly (and invented coral reefs, shells, and skeletons). Already I see signs of urban ecosystems settling into some workable form here. It may take longer in richer countries because this idea is still foreign to them.

~

I'm beginning to understand a quote which I saw recently in a book about Benares, to the effect that you can't understand this city without understanding Hindu theology. That seems to be a pattern to the places I've been so far. Calcutta is baffling and terrifying if you don't understand the significance of Kali as not only the embodiment of destruction and chaos but also the Great Mother who is the source of all things. Bodhgaya is utterly weird if you don't understand the significance of Buddha's enlightenment there, and the peaceful, middle-path approach to life which he taught.

To understand Benares, you have to understand Shiva. There are temples and shrines here by the thousand. Literally, you cannot stand anywhere in this city - the Old City, anyway - and not be within line-of-sight of a little shrine built into the wall, usually containing a Shiva Linga or two, or else an image of Shiva surrounded by snakes, or maybe a Ganesh, who is the chief of Shiva's attendants (the Ganas). The presence of the public cremation ghat is surprising, considering that in Hinduism, cremation grounds are considered ritually unclean - except in Benares, since Shiva makes his home in the cremation ground.

Shiva is the prototype of the Saddhu - and this town is jam-packed with saddhus just now, on their way back the main ganges-bathing days are over. These guys are mostly-naked holy men covered with ash and red paint, wearing their hair in long matted dreadlocks, smoking hashish constantly, chanting, living with almost no posessions, being surrounded by devout Hindus listening to their wisdom - and hippies from the West, for their own reasons. Supposedly this is one of the stages of the ideal Hindu life cycle, to be followed after one has been a successful householder and raised children, then come to a mystical enlightenment. Vishnu is usually pictured as the "social" Hindu, responsible and devout. Shiva, although he is the rebel of the gods, is also generally acknowledged as the most powerful and most important. Hence, his city is the most holy city in the world, for Hindus. His city where the usual rules of ritual purity about death are reversed - where people come to die, knowing that if they do so here, they attain liberation.

~

While I was in Bodhgaya, a little Indian boy of about 8, selling Buddhist rosaries, asked me if I was Buddhist. Elsewhere, people have talked as if assuming I were Christian. At first I thought it would be difficult to explain my philosophy and religious ideas: to some extent it is, but the simple answer turned out to be easy to get across. In Bodhgaya, I tried to explain that I'm not a Buddhist, though I find all religions to have valuable things to say - but that none of them seems like the final answer to me. "I'm a bit of everything," I said. A Tibetan monk who was crouching by my feet examining something looked up and gave me an approving nod. The boy said: "Ahhh. I also am everything." I should have realized the concept wouldn't be hard to explain, since it's a central tenet of both Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism that the Absolute Reality, or God, is unknowable by the limited human mind, and all the various gods and entities they deal with are just projections of our understanding and ideas. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has said that his intention is to promote peace, happiness, and awareness, but not to convert people to Buddhism, since all the different religions have developed to meet the various needs of the people who practice them, and the diversity is very desirable. And Hinduism isn't so much a religion, after all, as a way for thousands of different cults to live peaceably together and even use the same temples and share members. In Varanasi, a similar discussion of why I'm not exactly Christian provoked: "Yes, all god same-same - but for work, is other-other." I think he meant: "All gods are really the same God, but when you actually worship them, it matters which one you choose," and couldn't understand why, as a white person, I didn't just worship the god white people usually pick.

Hinduism isn't really monotheistic OR polytheistic - they don't think of the two as different, which is why they were able to absorb Buddhism (which is agnostic) and Catholicism (which is at least nominally monotheistic) without any particular sense of contradiction. The only religion Hinduism hasn't been able to absorb is Islam, because they take seriously the idea that you should only worship one God, and not images or partial ideas of it. Hindus find this concept weird: how can you worship something which is beyond your ability to understand or conceive?

~

I went out on the river, and saw the city under the light: it's supposed to be reminiscent of the experience of liberation itself (this may be one reason the Ganges is holy). From the bustling, all-surrounding hubbub of the city, one glides out into a peaceful space of water and distant sounds. The dirt, crowds, confusion and bustle of the city fall away, and the crazy overlooming buildings pull back and reveal themselves as a long stretch of gorgeous colours.

The far side of the river (perhaps representing a state which follows death for those who do not reincarnate?) is uninhabited, being the flood-plain of the Ganges, although there are tents set up there now by the Saddhus. Even the steeper near side is partly flooded during the monsoons, and there are temples which are underwater for parts of the year (apparently people will still attend them, swimming down to the doors to get in, in order to keep visiting their favourite god's shrine). The city, confined entirely to the west bank of the river, is said to face the dawn, which is the best time to go out on the river. The ancient name of the city, Kashi, means "Luminous" - and it fits.

Returning (reincarnating?) to the bank, I walked along the ghats past babas and snake charmers (yes, snake charmers, with shennai, cobras, shiny silk turbans - the whole bit - who wave poisonous snakes in your face until you pay them), gangs of saddhus (and a couple of rastafarians who seemed to fit right in), pundits in robes, the poor, old and sick who've come here to die. These last seem much less desperate than the beggars in Calcutta: here, they know that death brings liberation - having reached the holy city of Shiva, lord of death, they no longer fear it.

By night, the city of light dims somewhat. The cremation fires continue into the night, and loudspeakers send out strains of devotional music over the city until quite late, but mostly what remains are the hundreds of free music concerts by highly skilled musicians.

~

Freida remarked the other day that entropy seems to happen much faster here. Just a few minutes ago, I was watching an example of this as guys with fire-hoses washed away the mud and silt that had buried a riverside temple in the most recent floods - they were excavating the temple for the festivities on Shivaratri. Little boys ran around pulling out bits of stuff that had been buried in the mud, presumably washed up by the river during the flooding. The temple is leaning substantially to one side: it is obviously sinking slowly into the mud, and will eventually just disappear, to be discovered by later archaeologists. It's made of sandstone, or some similar soft stone, and I wondered how fast the firehoses were eroding away its outside compared to the river-flooding. It reminded me of some of the artifacts in the archaeological museum at Sarnath, where we went yesterday - stone figures melting away into dust, fine details blurring and disappearing.

It's easy to see how Buddhism would arise in a place with such a high energy flux rate and long history. The central idea that all forms are just temporary arrangements which eventually will pass away is much more obvious here. Everywhere I go, I see people pulling apart the cobblestones and walls, pounding the bricks to dust, and making mortar with them to build new structures. The food scraps in the street are eaten by cows and goats, who produce milk, which goes into more food... All of which happens everywhere, in some sense, but not usually so visibly.

~

We're planning on leaving Benares later today. We stayed for the festival of Mahashivarashtri, yesterday, which is the date (on the Hindu lunar calendar) of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. There is a huge celebration in Benares - Shiva's home-town (95% of the temples here are Shiva temples). A huge fraction of the men in the city, plus spillover from the Maha Cumbh Mela, which ends the same day, go on a pilgimage around the city, visiting 108 temple sites on a circuit road that takes a whole day to traverse. The custom is to drink bhang (a drink made from marijuana buds and ganges water) and go to all the temples, ring bells, do Puja (a hard-to-translate word which means something like "worship", or "celebration" or even "prayer" in a noisy, festive sort of way), do the pilgrimage route. The route is symbolic of a similar route around all of India, and supposedly generates the same good karma to run around.

The upshot of this is that the streets were packed absolutely full of something on the order of a million Hindu males high on bhang (and smoking "charas", or hashish, as well), running around, chanting, cheering, making noise and celebrating. I say "running around" in a literal sense: the crowds were trying to get around the whole route in only 12 hours, which requires them to keep up a pretty fast pace. We made our way through the throngs to a concert held at the Durga temple.

During some introductory speeches, there were a few interesting comments which made it into English. One woman said that the great thing about Indian spirituality is that EVERYTHING in life happens within the context of religion. There is an overall view of life which infuses everything. I wonder if this isn't true all over, but we sometimes don't see what the view is if we live too close to it. Another guy, who was dressed as a holy man of some kind, made a brief speech "In English, because there are so many people here from so many different countries." He also said that when he was in California, all the richest people he spoke to complained about stress and anxiety, while of the ascetics and people who've given up everything they had, he said: "You ask them 'how are you doing?' and they say: 'BEAUTIFUL!'"