by Gabriella Sonabend
I fear that I am not doing this place justice. I have talked of cows and dogs but I have forgotten to mention the water buffalo who trail in long lines against the city walls and I have given little attention to the strangely loveable pigs roaming the gutters. I have talked about the hustle and bustle but I have not mentioned the men sitting on the roofs of low buildings hammering away at stone and brick in an illogical persistent frenzy. I have mentioned the poor and the sick but I have not talked about the smiling eyes and the praying hands. I have talked of my own feelings and my initial reactions so much that I feel I have neglected so many stories embedded in this city of endless wealth and texture.
Perhaps this is because each day I spend here the protective layer, which keeps me from interacting with my immediate environment grows thinner and thinner and I step deeper and deeper into the city, slowly scratching at its multifaceted hide. It is no wonder that Varanasi is said to be the city in which the Lord Shiva resides, for Shiva in his highest form is seen to be limitless, transcendent, and formless and the more time I spend here the more befitting I find these words for this city.
Those following this day by day account are probably confused by this entry as it seems that within only a few days I have gone from feeling downtrodden and hopeless to becoming suddenly enthralled and immersed. Indeed it does feel strange to be sitting in my bedroom as the sun sets outside my window, leaning back on my wooden chair and smiling with the knowledge that today I am happy, extremely happy to be here. Again I am overwhelmed at how quickly emotions can pass through me and how sensitive I am to slight changes in my environment but I am extremely grateful for this. I am now able to wake up every morning knowing that by the time I go to sleep I will have seen something new, felt something new, that I may have changed my mind about something entirely.
It began with the well. Yesterday I was unable to speak about the well as I could not begin to work out how I could describe it and the experience I had within it, but today I will make some attempt as I feel articulating this is crucial.
In the south side of the city near Tulsi Ghat there is an ancient well called Lolark Kund. This well sits beside a small and very beautiful temple whose gates open onto a stairwell that leads into its heart. At the base of the well a large archway has been carved into the tower structure so that from the bottom the well is half open. Around the open side of the well there are three surrounding staircases which lead steeply down to the water.
This site is known for its healing qualities and mostly attracts women who climb down the steep steps to bath and wash in the water. I did not know this when I discovered the well and I did not know this when I asked the temple guard to let me pass through the red gates, down the steep steps to sit and stare into the high brick tower and the cold deep water. I took Kathrin with me to the temple yesterday and together we sat on the steps in silence. Whilst we sat a man entered the well area. He walked down the steps and removed his clothes until he was wearing nothing but a red sheet wrapped around his waist like a loin cloth. Slowly he began to submerge himself. First standing with his feet in the water, he bent down to scoop up a handful of water flicking some over each shoulder and sprinkling the remainder over his head as he drew his hands together in prayer and looked up towards the beaming sun, which was being channeled directly to him. In a deep monotone voice he repeated a mantra as he gradually descended the stairs further and further. Eventually he drew in a deep breath and plunged into the core of the well emerging seconds later to plunge in again. For five or ten minutes, (possibly longer I could not say), he repeated this action rising and plunging. Kathrin and I were transfixed, sitting silently watching this most private and sacred routine. At first I felt we were voyeurs but this thought quickly dissipated as I realised that like the stone steps and the deities painted orange into the brickwork, like the scarves and sheets which had been dipped in the water and now lay to dry on the stairs, we were merely part of the scenery and we had our place within this landscape.
My hairs stood on end. I felt suddenly connected to this man and his ritual as if somehow we as watchers had become an integral part of his actions. From within the well an inexplicable energy raced around the steps, it bounced off the water and up the tall tower. Perhaps it was the echo of the millions of people who have come to this site over the many years to offer their prayers, their mantras and the way each had rippled the small deep pool of water. Perhaps it was simply the silence and our ability to sit almost entirely alone. When we returned to the streets I was unable to talk, my body resonated with that strange energy for hours after.
Today, I returned to the well on my own. I took a cycle rickshaw from the residency straight to Tulsi Ghat and for the first time since I arrived in Varanasi I was unaccompanied. I was not anxious, I worried about nothing. I sat in the rickshaw and watched as the crumbling city seemed to move past me. I looked at every person who looked at me. I smiled at every woman who smiled and raised my hands to my heart in prayer, to every wise old sadhu. I was amazed when an elderly woman carrying a heavy load on top of her head stopped in the street to return my smile and greeting. I was overwhelmed by the children who seemed so ecstatic when I waved to them and replied as they called ‘hello miss!’. I listened to Chopin in one ear, (courtesy of my late grandfather’s CD collection), and with the other I absorbed the sounds of the city. Somehow the two seamlessly merged; the vehicles and animals making their way around one another on the roads perfectly mirrored the frantic piano playing.
With no one to talk to on the rickshaw I tried to commit each sight to memory; each absurd billboard, each fragmented façade. I tried to remember each dress hanging outside each shop front, each man having a wet shave on the street, every dog, every pig, and every child. Of course minutes later I would forget every detail as new sights continued to wash over me.
When I arrived at the well I was anxious and impatient. The temple was deserted so I removed my shoes, circled the central shrine twice and waited at the red gates for someone to let me down the stairs. A man appeared from I am not sure where; he recognised me and warned me that I would only be allowed 10 minutes. I raced down the steep stairway. Up ahead monkeys were circling the high walls and pigeons flew from crevices in the well to the street above. When I reached the bottom, I found the step I had sat on before and placed myself crossed legged and eyes closed directly facing the opening. I felt like a buffoon, it crossed my mind that desperation might have led to the experience I had had on the previous day and that it was foolish if not greedy of me to expect to have such an episode again. It was probably a combination of my former negativity, my inherent optimism and finding a quiet place to muddle through my thoughts – perhaps the well was not such a sacred place.
But then I closed my eyes and I shut out all thought. 15 minutes later the guard came to expel me. I had already overstayed my allotted time slot and he was suspicious of my presence there.
I did not mind. I had been recharged with that same intense energy and I carried it with me as I walked for hours and hours alone through the city, feeling for the first time that somehow I belonged and that I am one part of the many, which makes this place what it is. I was not afraid. I followed the hum of the streets until they led me home.