Today i would have been inducting my new groups of students, but instead i am traveling north from Mumbai to Varanasi. Boarding the Mahanagari express at Mumbai CST was dare i say a pleasure. Traveling in 2AC is very much the way forward. Yes its more expensive than the cheapest option but the contrast in comfort was mind-blowing! The carriage was pretty empty, we had beds which were permanently accessable, curtains, pillows, sheets and indian railways woolen blankets. Tinted windows, reading lights, cleaners and nice smelling toilets. This is not something i plan for every train journey but it was an interesting, comfortable experience for my first twenty-eight hour train ride this trip – positively VIP and much better suited to a backpacker of my age!!
I have been reading about a practice called Sallekhana, which is a ritualistic process in Jainism where people fast until death. This practice is not suicide but something quite different. Jain people belive that death is not the end, and that life and death are complimentary. To embrace Sallekhana is to embrace a whole new life, no more than going from one room to another. Suicide ( by death ) is full of pain and suffering, but sallekhna is a beautiful thing. There is no distress or cruelty, just gentil purity.Sallekhana is embraced not out of despair with one’s old life, but to gain and attain something new; like visiting a new landscape or a new culture. They feel exited by a new life full of possibilities. If clothes get old and torn you get new ones. In rebirth you simply exchange your torn and damaged clothes for a new suit or dress. I think this is an inspiring way to think of death, and life.
We arrived in Varanasi at 6:00am. The train chugged into the station through rice paddies. Fields of green and beautiful rural India; women’s occasional flowing sari’s and lotus flowers opening in the soft, slightly pink morning light. It was hard to fight back the tears as i stood at the open train door with the holy city fast approaching. I knew what was waiting for me on arrival, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer size and majesty of Ganga. The monsoon rains have engorged her by one hundred times. Even after a 28 hour train journey i felt compelled to dump my bag and hire a boat to cruse her waters. The people of Benares still performing their rituals even though the Ghats are pretty much non-existent. Beautiful to say the least. The boat ride turned into something more complex than i had anticipated due to the river being so vast. At several points we collided with bathing pilgrims which was funny but rather embarrassing.
Post boat ride we descended upon the lanes of the old city, perched above the submerged ghats. Such an assault of people, motorbikes, cows, silk shops, monkeys, goats, more goats, dogs, stickers, chai stalls, six-inch puppies feeding from their mothers – everything you can imagine. Being back on Dasaswamedh ghat brought back so many memories of the first time i visited back in November 2001 and how life had progressed so much since then.
I have decided to fast on Tuesdays for the duration of the trip. I want to feel hungry, i want to sacrifice something and give my body a break from consumption, however i will still have the occasional cigarette!!!
My fast ended at around 9:00pm with a small bottle of ‘Magic Moments’ vodka and a can of sprite!!! Hopefully my determination will progress to nill by mouth, with time.
My first year in India, ten years ago in retrospect feels now like heaven. Just me and the sea and the sun and the sky; in a village in the south where i became so self-absorbed. Out of that village i feel like a tiny ant in this giant landscape, just wandering around amongst all walks of life in this, the holiest of cities; however the crowds and the dodging of everything was had to take. Varanasi is spilling over, like Ganga. The space where people would normally relax, meditate, do laundry, stroll or worship has shifted to the city. For this reason we decided to relocate to a small town outside. I will return to the Ganga when the goddess has dropped, but for now it didn’t feel right….I will return in the winter.
As we left our guest house, in the rain , wading through rivers of shit i breathed a sigh of relief……..And then there was Sarnath.