The storm, the boys, the girls

by Gabriella Sonabend

The West coast has been hit by a cyclone and thousands have been evacuated from their homes. Here in the East, hundreds of miles from the storm, the wind and rains have gathered, the river has risen, its surface choppy and rough. In the city, the pot holes in the road fill up once again with rain water and with refuse. Those with little shelter move towards shop awnings, towards temples and doorways. Our internet cuts and lights fade in and out as the generator begins to kick in. Trees fall in the garden around the residency at night and in the morning I walk bare foot through the deep puddles to the kitchen, climbing over a tree and beneath a swinging fallen cable. The winds blow strong and there is a chill in the air.

Still, city life continues and the great festival of goddess worship continues. At night the city is lit with twinkling fairy lights and tents have been set up throughout the city with models of the various goddess set up inside. All through the night people gather and queue to enter these shrines and pay their respects to the deities. They walk towards the Ganga to place statues of the goddess in the water; they celebrate as the great mother rises.

A few days ago Vallery, (Navneet’s cousin), took me to see another aspect of Varanasi life. I had expressed interest in meeting everyday people who were not necessarily involved in the spiritual aspect of the city and specifically I wanted to meet women, house wives – I wanted to find out what they do during the day; how they connect to the city; how they feel about their lives here. I went to visit a very lovely lady who welcomed me into her home not far from the gallery. We sat in a cool civilised environment and she told me of her life, her youth in another city growing up in a traditional family unit with her 3 sets of grandparents and many many cousins. She talked of the way people used to function as a unit and always think of the whole rather than the self. She spoke of moving to Varanasi and learning a new way of life, of settling into this very holy city and discovering her love for it after a difficult introduction to life here. She spoke of her family and her joy of creating, the paintings which she made in her spare time and how she had become involved in becoming a pranic healer. (I am hopefully going for a healing this week, which I am extremely excited about). It was fascinating to be hearing this perspective.

Her daughter entered the room and joined in the conversation. She is the same age as I am and studying for her masters in German. She is intelligent, opinionated, energetic and extremely confused. She stated on a number of occasions how confused she was. She is caught in a very strange and very common position. She is a modern woman, with modern values but she lives in a very traditional family in an extremely traditional city. She is frustrated by the fact that she can’t walk outside her house in shorts and always has to return before her curfew but at the same time this is her home and she loves the Varanasi way. As her mother talked of old traditional families she would inflect or roll her eyes. She nervously played with her hair and shook her head in her hands. I could feel her frustration her gestures were ones I knew well and could imagine myself employing in the same situation. Her mother was an extremely loving and caring woman who clearly was allowing her daughter to decide her own path and develop her own thoughts but this freedom seemed to be complicating matters even further for her. I did not stay long as I had to return for lunch but this little glimpse of female, middle class life here was fascinating.

We, (Naveneet, Katrin and some of Navneet’s friends from Delhi), headed to the Ramlila at Ramnagar. The Ramlila ( ) Footnote is a folk theatre tradition in India where the life the Lord Ram is re-enacted over a number of weeks in an area specifically built to house this drama. In Varanasi, the Ramlila exists on a scale unlike anywhere else in India or indeed anywhere else in the world. It is an extremely unique and overwhelming event. In order to tell the story of Ram’s life each element of crucial scenery in the story has been built on a plot of land that stretches across many acres – these features include 2 artificial lakes, temples, a battlefield and many other small stages and platforms. During the 48 or so weeks of the year when the Ramlila is not being staged this set is empty and serves no other purpose. The story of Ram is enacted by young pre-pubescent boys (Brahmins) who have to be selected and trained specifically for the performance. For the month leading up to the Ramlila they eat only milk and fruits in preparation for their role. Those attending the Ramlila believe that rather than watching a dramatic performance they are actually watching a true depiction of the story as during the event it is said that the gods and goddess actually enter the bodies of the young boys and for that time they become those gods. Because of this the Ramlila can’t be photographed. People queue to touch the feet of the young boys who play both the male and female parts. Each day of the Ramlila another part of the story is enacted with each park taking place at a different site. The audience walks around the enormous stage to follow the drama. We arrived during one of the battle scenes, towards the end of the story and saw large groups of people following the deities across the battlefield as the scene moved from place to place. Brahmins and Sadhus sit patiently in the field. There are men there who have been to every Ramlila since their childhood and can recite every last word of the story. There is a deaf man who sits and watches and knows exactly which word is being uttered at any time – so closely does he know and understand this story.

We visited the temple site which is a beautiful sandstone temple overlooking the artificial lake with intricate carvings of deities and animals. It was about 5pm by this point and the evening light flooded the field and bounced off the artificial lake back towards the temple. It was bathed in the warm golden glow that is seen in the most beautiful and archetypical images of India, a glow which seems to kiss and glisten on every surface it touches. I stood in front of the temple and closed my eyes, the light falling on me, and I felt incredible warmth radiating, which I wish I could have held onto. This is a place I will return to when the fields are empty and the Ramlila has passed.

We spent a while in the main field and then I saw Phyllis who is one of the few people with permission to photograph the young boys. She has been coming to the Ramlila almost daily, trying to photograph them before they go ‘on stage’ and take their deity form. Both Katrin and I were overwhelmed and exhausted and we parted with Navneet riding back to the other side of the great river with Phyllis and her driver.

I returned to my room and sat up late, in the west the storm was gathering and I knew it would not be long until Varanasi once again became a swamp.