It is a hotel for the dying. An old woman lies in one of the bare-bone rooms, her body twisted in pain, but her eyes peaceful. Her doctor has given her only a few days to live. "She has come to Varanasi to leave her body," says her son. "She is happy."
I will see many such people facing their end in Varanasi, India's holiest city. They gather here to die and, they hope, find release from the cycle of rebirth by the Hindu god Shiva's liberation mantra they believe Shiva will whisper to them at death. But other pilgrims arrive in Varanasi for life-enriching aims--to be reborn in this incarnation by bathing in the Ganges River and beginning anew, simple and pure.
As a compulsive seeker of California's New Age mystic offerings, I, too, come here for my own glimpse of truth. Shirley MacLaine has nothing on me. I have been rolfed, ested, and massaged in search of that elusive something. And now I bring my twentieth century angst to this ancient city.
Like good old buddies, my modern doubts and Varanassi's traditions walk side-by-side here, where opposites comfortably converge.
Life and death meet in Varanasi, along with release and entrapment, history and timelessness, decay and renewal. In its spaghetti-thin streets the reverent ramble with rogues, and the wretched confront the wise in a kind of topsy-turvy harmony that is Varanasi's own.
A city that was old when Buddha preached here in 530 BC, Varanasi seems to be perpetually on the edge of crumbling away into the Ganges, but devotees remind me she is eternal.
Or at least so antiquated that her origins fall into the misty regions of pre-time. Varanasi is said to be one of the world's most ancient cities, at least some 3,000 years old. She was called Benares before reclaiming her ancient name of Varanasi. But even before Varanasi she was Kashi, the City Of Light.
Certainly light is a powerful presence here. It makes Varanassi's cramped streets magical with mystery. Indeed, she comes into her own with the first rays of the sun, transforming her deteriorating self into a vortex of energy. Sari-clad women and men in loin cloths descend the ghats, steps leading to the river, for ritual baths, imploring the Ganges to purify them. They raise their hands in salute to the rising sun.
The Ganges is said to carry l00 minerals here on its journey from the Himalayas. Believers contend that its waters heal body as well as spirit. Skeptics, on the other hand, point out the Ganges is one of the world's most polluted rivers. Still, the enraptured expressions I see on the faces of the pilgrims, many of whom are simple people who have traveled thousands of miles to meet their gods, make me believe that for most faith will triumph over matter, leaving them with peace instead of disease.
On the banks of this sacred river all seems possible. Myth and everyday life fuse easily in Varanasi. Humans can leap to the heavens in a moment of enlightenment and the gods descend to the world of man.
This is, after all, Shiva's city. Shiva is at once an ascetic, dopehead, phallus, and the raging god of destruction. Hindus believe he wandered in Varanasi, playing out a life as rent with foibles and heroism as those of his human friends. Near the burning ghat Manikarnika is a tank that Shiva supposedly filled with sweat as he went to work retrieving his wife's lost jewelry.
Further on at Dasaswamedh Ghat the god Brahma, it is related, sacrificed ten horses so that an exiled Shiva could return to his city.
Shiva, Hindus say, is still at Dasaswamedh, blessing, granting wishes, and destroying ignorance. It is one of the city's busiest ghats. Pilgrims bathe, pray, and meditate amidst Brahman priests, tourists, and rams with painted horns. A priest in a paisley shawl chants Vedic verse in a high-pitched voice. An occasional male sneaks a peak at bathing women. Another priest with betel nut stained red teeth and rings on three fingers sits next to his sign, "Please protect your money and valuable luggage while taking a bath." When seeing that I have nothing for him, this resourceful entrepreneur motions to his pots of powder for painting a sacred sign on my forehead. It is a scene little changed over the centuries, a tableau which we human beings in both our piety and frailty have kept timeless.
Along with Dasawamedh, about 70 other ghats lie along the Ganges, each drawing its own followers. For a view of the morning spectacle, I often rent a boat whose helmsman's hard bargaining catapults me squarely from the world of the gods into that of the rupee. On my morning rides I see ghats for South Indians, ascetics, and even dhobi wallahs, the Indian laundry men.
Every ghat seems to have its temple. There are 2,000 in Varanasi. The Nepalese Temple with its fine carvings is open to foreigners, but most, such as the famous Vishwanath, boasting 850 kilos of gold for decoration, are off-limits to non-Hindus such as me.
As perhaps they should be. For Varanasi at her core is an unabashedly Hindu city, although in former incarnations she flirted with other religions. Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment here. The ruins of the Buddhist center that flourished afterward are still in the village of Sarnath five miles away. Later, beginning in the twelfth century, Muslim invaders tried to exorcise Hinduism with the sword, destroying temples and erecting mosques in their places.
Still, these affairs were only a momentary gleam in Varanasi's eye, soon to be lulled to rest by the throb of her Hindu heart, which beats in unison with the magic myths of gods rather than the surge of empires. She is a patient city, willing to wait until the mighty Buddhist center became ruins and the mosques were surrounded by more temples than ever.
Today those temples overflow with worshippers spilling out of them, mingling with cows, excrement, shops sporting India's most exquisite silks, and travelers like me craning our necks to glimpse the temples' inner sanctums. The lanes bordering them are packed with the weird and wonderful. It is no wonder that Varanasi's most popular drink contains hashish, for she is a city on a trip. She walks the fine line of sanity and absurdity. Her priests offer me magic incantations. Her wise men and fools preach me their versions of the secrets of God. Her scraggly sacred cows and wild-eyed sadhus, or holy men, with matted hair and painted faces elbow me aside in a manner I suspect they learned not in the heavens, but in the school of hard knocks.
This unedited labyrinth of life reminds me of the City of Light's other side--darkness--for I constantly meet people who have gotten trapped in the con game of life. These tricksters hawk everything from an introduction to their gurus to instant enlightenment.
Still, these shady salesmen underscore this religious city's strange practicality. "It costs money to live," replies a "student" of a guru when after being hounded by him in a non-stop barrage, I finally, in my blunt Western way, suggest he is motivated by the desire for a commission rather than the love of his guru. "And it costs money to die . . ."
Especially in Varanasi. The Dom Rajas, members of the untouchable class, are among the city's wealthiest. They are keepers of the sacred fire, which is never allowed to lapse, and cremators of the dead. Some 250 corpses a day meet their end here at the burning ghats. If the family runs out of money for wood before the cadaver has fully burned, you will find the partially incinerated body floating in the Ganges mixing with the living.
Indeed, death is commonplace here. I begin to walk past smoky burning ghats without pausing in fascinated horror. Soon I hardly notice litters of shrouded corpses being borne through the streets by chanting families.
In Varanasi death becomes the inseparable shadow of what I have called life. Death's depthless mantra whispers that my cherished world, including all the exotic truths I have sought, is as fantastic as the pageant of pilgrims and pariahs passing through the city, a child's make-believe that will in its time merge with Shiva's cosmic dance into other forms.
In Varanasi I stand at the point where life both begins and ends. It mists away before me, daring me to define it, possess it, or even know that it is real.
I can take the city's intensity no longer. My old life with its tiny loves and hates beckons; yet having been touched by Varanasi, its shininess dims. But I am not yet ready to let it go.
In that strange way that often happens in India, a spiritual teacher with wise eyes suddenly appears on the day before I leave. Explaining that an experience in Varanasi becomes a parable of self, he advises me to examine my Varanasi trip closely. "Whatever you really want, you will get in Varanasi," he says, looking at the presents I have just bought for friends at home. And smiles.