Sunday, October 17, 2010

Temple Tidbits

Holy Cow!
The guesthouse I'm staying at may have been recommended by tuk-tuk drivers seeking only a hefty commission, but none the less I am very happy at Pashno Guest House. The food is outstanding, and ordering an 'Indian Breakfast' at a family run hotel is always a treat. For only 60 rupees, I am fed authentic home cooked meals. Curry in the morning? Heaven! My only complaint is that their coca-cola shipment is running late, which is hardly their fault. They're also very protective of the people who stay here, and warn 'enlightened tourists' (those exposed by bhang lassi and baked goods), not to venture out after nightfall. With frequent power cuts in the old city, and many dark and foreboding alleyways - getting lost is a real possibility.

After a delicious breakfast curry, accompanied by deep fried bread (poori), I begin my first full day in Varanasi with a tour of some of the city's more famous temples. The guesthouse owner, Chris, is all too happy to share his wisdom with me, as well as dispelling some myths on Hinduism at the same time. The first temple we stop at, is known for housing Shiva's penis. A marble specimen about the size of a bar-fridge - no wonder Indian women believe Shiva to be the shining example of a perfect husband. It is perhaps also understandable, that many practice yoga in their spare time.

The next stop is 'Durga Temple,' known also as the monkey temple due to the hordes of macaques that congregate within temple grounds. Chris warns me not to make eye contact, or smile at them, as both are considered signs of aggression and could provoke an attack. I find this excruciatingly hard, as my natural instinct is to laugh heartily at everything they do, they are after all comedians of the animal kingdom. I am told that on Thursdays and Sundays, there are even more monkeys here as a mass feeding frenzy occurs when pilgrims pay their respect. Backpacks have been known targets of the monkey criminals, and to avoid drama there is a strict no camera clause.

The next stop after the tour of big temples, 4/8 of which are open to foreigners, we visit Banaras Hindu University or BHU. It is a huge university, easily the biggest I have ever seen. The campus grounds themselves stretch out 5.5km², but this is just one of many campuses. It is considered the best university in all of India, as well as the largest in Asia, so it's little wonder that it is known in circles as the 'Oxford of the East.' I soon learn though, that in order to learn or takes classes in Varanasi, you needn't enroll here for a semester. Many guesthouses offer lessons in; cooking, Hindi, yoga, sitar, etc.

After BHU I visit a silk shop, knowing full well the 'butter me up with chai' routine, I still manage to leave with a tailor-made silk shirt and two silk saris for less than $40. The silk shirt is a ridiculous red, and I am warned to stay away from bulls whilst in India as they will no doubt charge at me. The salesman shares with me a story of his own about Varanasi, involving a bathing widow who would hobble down the steps of the ghat each day in order to say a prayer for her husband.

Each day for about two weeks, he would notice this elderly woman trying her best to bathe in the sacred waters and say a prayer for her dearly departed husband. She was feeble, and broken with age, which meant the only way for her to make it in the water and out again was with outside help. After watching the spectacle many times, he asked her why she did it, she replied simply, "I bathe here, and say a blessing for my husband. When I am in the water, it is as if he never died. He is beside me, watching me."

The same woman also contracted bronchitis, as she continued to bathe in the river during the Varanasi winter. A sadhu noticed her declining health, and pointed to some dirt and dust along the riverbed, suggesting she ingest it. She dismissed this as crazy talk at first, but after a week or so without change in condition, decided she'd give it a go. She was cured the very next day, but the sadhu was never to be seen again. She went to different ghats all over town, asked other sadhus if they had known the man, but nobody knew who he was. That same woman bathed in the Ganges daily for over ten years, before dying.

It is stories like this one, not guidebooks nor sightseeing trips, that paint a picture of a place. The story might have been part of an elaborate scheme to part me with my money, but I don't think so. For one, I had already made my purchase when he told me the story. Secondly, the Benarsi are a proud bunch who love to share their culture with outsiders.This man, salesman or not, did just that =)

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