by Gabriella Sonabend
I had been invited to have Sunday lunch at the Christian Ashram, I was hesitant to go but Kathrin thought that it would be fun and I had no other plans. At midday we headed to the Ashram bringing a box of Indian sweets, (a symbol that we were not expecting free lunch and were therefore not receiving charity). Along the way we bumped into friends of Kathrin and brought them along for the ride. At the Ashram the Australian couple and other residents were sitting in a large circle on straw mats in the garden, sitting amongst them were locals, (foreigners who have settled in Varanasi), and passing travelers. Once the circle was filled with people quietly chatting away, Brendan, (the man who runs the Ashram), stood up and introduced himself and the space. He explained that the Ashram was a Christian space for people to come and meet, to exchange ideas and to learn about Christianity. He then asked the guests to stand together in a circle and take each other’s hand as he led us in prayer.
His prayer was shaky, he spoke to God as if God were a politician thanking him for his various blessings and stumbling around in his address for blessings and guidance. He ‘ummed’ and ‘arred’ as he thanked his lord for the various wonders of his life. He prayed on behalf of each person in the circle, everyone stood with locked hands and lowered eyes. I opened my eyes wide and took in each face around the circle. I watched the ways they held onto each other and wondered what percentage of the people were spiritual, and what percentage had arrived simply for the free food. There were many familiar faces and a few I had never seen before, some were anxiously trying to mask their cynicism, others were breathing deeply into the great performance.
Despite the uncomfortable start, the lunch was lovely. We sat on soft grass in the beautifully maintained garden, behind us children play fought and birds chirped in the trees. I sat beside a French man who had come to Varanasi to follow his wife who is teaching at the same school as Kathrin. It is his first visit to India and he was certainly still in a state of shock. I listened to him speaking about his daily encounters and the various things which he could not quite process. As he spoke of cows, pigs, life and death I thought about how strange it was that I no longer experienced surprise and have become totally comfortable with my environment. After lunch Brendan asked each person in the circle to share a story of own about their first true experience of culture shock. Each person introduced themselves and told anecdotes of travels in India and various other countries around the world. The stories ranged from tales of a first visit to Ikea in Germany, to a story about eating with a tribe who had formally been cannibals. Each person spoke with excitement as they related their own personal tales of confronting Eastern toilets, taking their first bus ride in India etc. I anxiously awaited the moment when Brendan would turn around and begin on some conversion speech, but thankfully this does not happen. I left the Ashram feeling like I had dodged a bullet, grateful for the food and uncertain whether I would ever return.
Sunday was the day of Kartik Poornima. Kartik is the current Hindu month, which focuses on the celebration and ritual of death. It is the month in which women wake to chant and sing by the river each morning. Poornima is the full moon. Kartik Poornima is the last day of the Kartik month and is a great celebration of light. It is the one day of the year where hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Ganga in order to place candles in the water, to light the sky with fireworks, to chant and sing, to eat and dance altogether.
I had been warned by Navneet that it would be an overwhelming experience and that the riverside would be completely mobbed but no amount of warning could have prepared me for the true intensity of Kartik Poornima. By 4pm the entire city was flowing with people emerging from every wide street and every tiny alleyway all following their various paths towards the Ganga. The roads leading towards the riverfront were closed and pedestrians moved in solid blocks as balloon sellers and chai wallahs wove between people with their wares. By 5pm the stone steps of the riverfront were completely covered north to south as far as the eye could see. People had taken their places, sitting and standing in any free spot. At the water’s edge, women crouched in the mud pouring cooking oil over cotton wicks, people clambered into rickety boats and small children pushed through the crowds selling candles and flowers to float on the water. All along the ghats, stages had been erected and different live performances were happening, the crowd was dressed in their most beautiful clothes. Each sari was wrapped with elegant perfection, the women wore heavy gold jewelry, the men had trimmed their moustaches and oiled their hair. They stood around with their hands pushed into their pockets, they carried camera phones and filmed each other and crowds.
I moved through the masses on my own. For the past few years I have suffered intensely from a phobia of crowds and now I was in the middle of the largest congregation of people that I had ever seen in my life. To make matters worse even in the midst of the hordes I stood out like a sore thumb with my short hair, towering above the other women. I decided not to panic. It was a conscious choice. I moved freely around people and paid no attention to their looks and beckoning. I found a large group of women who had gathered joyfully on the mud of Assi Ghat and stood with them. As soon as they noticed my camera they were enthralled. They begged me to take their pictures, each woman posed individually as I spun around to face each one in the ever shrinking circle around me.
Their joy was infectious and I found myself laughing with them as they stroked my cheeks and pinched my chin. I was kissed and hugged, patted on the head and fed. One by one each woman clasped me towards her. They shook their smiling heads as they had their moment staring at my foreign face in delight. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. They were young and old. Each one was overjoyed to have captured a lone western woman as a strange Kartik charm. I stayed in their company for almost an hour, laughing with them and taking the candles they handed me to float down the river. During this time daylight evaporated and at the moment I raised my hands to say goodbye to them I realised the full moon had risen. The Ganga was plunged into darkness save for the thousands of candles, which now chased each other along the current.
I continued along the river. I took my time and crouched down beside people along the way. I felt the heat of the small fires being lit along the banks and moved with the rhythm of the music, which changed from ghat to ghat. Eventually I found myself pulled by the crowd to the top of a steep staircase; here I stared out at the pulsing scene below, a million or so people carrying candles to the river. A million people sitting, standing, watching and enjoying in one long strip. On the water hundreds of boats filled with Indians and tourists alike floated out to watch the scene on the banks. I suppressed my panic and fell entirely into the moment but I could not maintain this state and soon had to leave. I headed towards the Kund, to my place of silence.
When I arrived at Lolarka Kund the temple priest was lighting the very last candle placed inside the well. The entire well had been lit with hundreds of candles flickering on each of the steep steps, fairy lights hung down the high walls of the Kund. It was transformed into a deep, bright, tunnel of amber, the shadows of the priest danced along the three walls and the tall looming tower. At the moment I reached the centre of the structure, (where I have become accustomed to sitting), the puja (Hindu ritual) began. Aside from myself there were about ten other people inside the well, a startling contrast to the masses on the riverfront. The priest who stood at the heart of the well, (where a wood plank had been placed across the top of the water carrying the head of a deity adorned with flowers), began to chant as he raised a bowl of fire and incense above his head. From the temple above bells were rung in quick succession and drums were played rapidly. The priest was joined in his chanting and he moved in a circle around the base of the Kund carrying the fire bowl above him, offering it to each corner of the well. The smoke crashed into every step and corner, it fell on our faces and rested by our feet, it circled our hands and rippled with the sound of the drums and bells. The chanting and banging grew ever louder and louder, the well drew the sound into its base, the water threw each noise back into the air and I stood struck at the centre of this titanic performance, each sense caught and transfixed. My legs were weakening and even as I stood with closed eyes; I could see the flickering candles through my eyelids, they cast deep red shadows across me and I was drawn further and further still into that ever expanding moment.
When the puja stopped I stood frozen. Every ounce of my energy felt like it had been exchanged with that of the space, as if I were now racing around the steps and up and down the walls and inside me stood the dark, quiet of the well. The rest of the night I carried that shaking emptiness. I returned to the masses of people but was filled with the space I had borrowed. I sat amongst the millions but I was not affected by their imposing presence. I did not take a boat and I did not watch the fireworks.