Guest post by Richard Furlough.
Of my varied experiences while traveling through India, some of the most surprising and memorable have been during the hours just before dawn when I’m out walking and exploring this beloved country. Whether participating in the elaborate mahamangala harati ceremony performed at 4:30 every morning at Sri Sailem Jyotir Ling Temple in southern India, taking a dip in the Ganges River from its rocky beach before it enters Rishikesh in northern India, or simply picking flowers in a Delhi park for 5:30 puja, something unexpected and special awaits.
It was no different my first morning in Varanasi. Upon arriving in this ancient and most holy of cities the previous afternoon, the Ganges was in flood stage from the monsoon rains. The red flags were flying up and down the waterfront which meant that no boats were allowed on the river. The ghats leading steeply from the city proper perched on a bluff down to the waters of the river itself were completely submerged.
By this particular morning, however, the Ganges had receded somewhat such that the upper portions of the ghats were revealed, and I was able to head north along the river by holding onto the iron railing separating the city from the river and jumping over mini-crevasses created by the floodwaters.
As the sun breached the horizon on the other side of the Ganges on this overcast morning, I came upon a pandit performing his morning puja to either Shiva or Ma Ganga, and stopped to watch and meditate.
There were also two Indian men performing their morning ablutions in the river. After about half an hour, I decided to act on a thought that I had during meditation, and retraced my steps back to the hotel to retrieve one of my traveling companions so that we could return to the same spot and perform our traditional puja to the Holy Tradition. A stiff breeze blowing from the river made it impossible to light our incense so the pandit offered some that he had formed by rolling it between his hands and that was already lit.
After puja and after meditating for awhile, another Brahmin man who had witnessed our puja asked several questions about the Holy Tradition picture, then offered to take us to his silk company’s shop located in the family’s home nearby.
We began to climb the ancient steps into Varanasi, passing the Nepali Temple before entering the narrow alleys that characterize much of this city. We passed by many open doors that revealed by sight and sound the city’s inhabitants beginning the new day.
Upon arriving at the family’s home, we were immediately ushered to a small window that looked down onto a below-ground shiva lingum that we were told was unearthed long ago and that was “in the history books.” After descending the steps leading to this most recognizable symbol of Shiva so that we could get closer, and coming back up, we were directed into the shop where stacks of colorful sarees and shawls filled the shelves to overflowing.
We were served chai before the assistants began to open their wares in front of us by flinging them into the air where they settled at our feet. After making our selections, then some good natured bargaining during which we laughed frequently, we were escorted to an ATM so that I could withdraw enough rupees to pay for my purchases. I decided that even if I had paid too much, that I had had a good time doing it!
My gifts this particular early morning were being a part of the ancient and daily ritual of recognition and adoration of some of the seemingly infinite aspects of creation…doesn’t matter that some call it Ganga or Shiva, it’s all the same…and being welcomed into a family’s home where I caught intimate glances into the daily lives of the inhabitants of this land that I have come to think of as my second home. Oh, and another gift of this day was finding my camera still atop the ATM where I realized I had left it after getting back to the hotel!
Bharat Mata, what future secrets will you see fit to reveal to me on future early morning perambulations? You are teaching me to be a more patient man and I am always grateful.
Images: First photo courtesy of Linda Castillon.