Date With a Riverboat, a Sacred Geography Professor and My Younger Self

India 2013

Tuesday, 19 Feb

5:30 a.m. Date with a riverboat. Breakfast is scrumptrilescent: lemon honey pancakes with fruit salad. OMG. Then a 30-minute walk to catch the boat. At 6:00, life on the Ganga is already rocking' and we’re afloat by 6:30. Rows of men stand calf-deep in the water slapping laundry on slabs of rocks they’ve slightly raised out of the water, hundreds of people dunking in the sacred waters - couples, families with kids from infant to teen, yogis and saddus, chanting, praying and bathing. There are dozens of boatfuls of any group of humanity you can imagine - Thai monks, Cambodian monks, Tibetan monks, monks in purple, monks in yellow, honeymoon couples, grieving families here to cremate their loved ones, Euro hippies, tourists agog with wonder... hey. that’s us! But I’m blabbing way too much. I’ll let the pics do the talking.

Birds fill the air at sunrise.

Recipient of the IHB (India's Happiest Boatman) Award.

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Life in the world's oldest city, on India's most sacred river, is bustling at 6:45 a.m.

...and I do mean bustling.

The Leaning Temple of Tikka.

Ritual is a daily way of life, not a Sunday morning thing.

Always discreet, if sometimes on the edge.

Not shy about colour here in the subcontinent.

Cap'n Ben takes over the oars. Not a task for the faint of heart.

A short collection of movie clips taken from the boat.

By 10:00 our convoy of bicycle rickshaws is on its way to Benares Hindu University, where Darrol's contact, Dr. Rana P.B. Singh will generously give us a lecture. Dr. Singh has a degree specializing in "Geographical Thought, Heritage Planning, Sacred Geography & Cultural Astronomy, Peregrinology, Eco-Tourism and Rural Studies." Geesh. The world has such a glut of Sacred Geographers/Cultural Astronomers, it's a wonder he has a job. (Peregrinology - I'm sure you were wondering - is the study of pilgrimage.)

The generous Dr. Singh, Darrol and Tamara in the lecture room.

I miss a lot of what Dr.Singh has to say partly because I'm tired from being up early and out in the sun, partly because his accent is quite strong and partly because the subject matter is quite dense and filled with Hindu and Buddhist terms. What I did manage to take in was fascinating, though. Here are a few shots of Dr. Singh's slide presentation, to give you a taste.

Benares, Kashi and Varnasi are different names for the same place."The correct spelling of Benares is Banaras," Dr. Singh tells us. It's from a Buddhist term "Bana," meaning the juice of life, and has to do with knowing there is ultimately no difference between pleasure and pain.

Even though I could only count 30 ghats in my guidebook map, there are in fact, 84; an auspicious number as you see from this slide. Hmmm, let's see. 7 chakras x 12 (because it's an auspicious #) = 84 lakh yogis. Just a tad complex. And you can see the connection between geography and sacredness, insofar as here in Varanasi, the Ganga flows in the same crescent moon shape as the forehead of Shiva. Coincidence? I-don't-THINK-so.

Dr. Singh does not speak favourably of traditions that remain mere stagnant superstitions. This slide speaks to a progress which is rooted in tradition.

...and in the spirit of a progressive attitude, eco-spirituality is a very important subject for this committed scholar and teacher.

I wouldn't dream of pretending I can give you any coherent idea of all that the good Doctor is trying to convey, but here are a few more points that I find interesting.

  • Hindus have a macro > micro idea of worship. e.g.You can do a pilgrimmage around India for years from place to sacred place or you can do the same walk in miniature around Varanasi and environs, or an even smaller version by simply standing in front of a statue or similar carving that represents the macro version of the journey.
  • Ganesha, the Elephant god, is both male and female.
  • The only cosmic dancers are Shiva and Ganesha. Hey, I woulda thought Parvati could cut a rug.
  • Dr. Singh had an interesting take on the concept of Shiva as the god of destruction: He is rather the god who oversees completion of an old cycle which has run its course, and the beginning of a new one.
  • Hinduism is not a religion; it's a way of life. And a related idea (I don't remember if it was Dr. Singh or Dr. Bryant who told us this) is that the term Hindu was only invented recently, by the British in attempt to describe and categorize (don't we westerners love categorizing, tho) the collection of traditions they saw being practiced when they came to (conquer) India.

You can always learn more by Googling things like the following:

  • "Sacred Geography of Banaras"
  • "Prof. Rana P.B. Singh, BHU"
  • "ecospirituality"
  • "Michael Phelps swims the Ganges"
  • "Shecky Greene's India. Oy!"

Tomato Man

Lured by the clarion call of Tomato Man, I follow him through the too-narrow Varanasi market streets, waiting for another of his sweet beckonings. Seems like every time I turn off the camera, T.M. calls again. I get sidetracked by the fascinating swarm of life just up-street from the Ganga's ghats. Eventually, I catch the Tomato Man's song again, like an Audubon of vegetable sellers. Perhaps he is inspired by the presence of Balloon Boy. You will hear the T.M. call at the start of this video:


My Dilemma

In the evening, I go out on my own. I want to investigate a couple of volunteering opportunities I have read about. Not for our short stay now, but for my time alone later. I am not sure what those two weeks are going to look like, but have a couple of options in my back pocket. Actually three:

  1. spend time in Kolkata with Andrew & Jonathan Kay, a.k.a. the Saxophone Brothers. These are Toronto born jazz musicians who took the spiritual side of jazz, inspired by John Coltrane, to heart, and ended up moving to Kolkata to study raga (Indian classical music) with a guru. I met them last fall and they generously offered me a place to stay, and said they'd introduce me to their teacher and show me the city.
  2. go to Dharamsala and/or other northwestern Himalaya towns like Rishikesh or Dehradun. Possibly use my recently acquired ESL certificate and do some volunteering with Tibetan refugees.
  3. return to one of the places I visit with Darrol's group if I find that something warrants further time.

So tonight I want to check out the Learn for Life Society which can be contacted through the Brown Bread Bakery. The BBB, I have also heard, has great food. There are signs everywhere for the Bakery, but they show slightly conflicting directions. Turns out there are two of them. One owner has split from the other, and they both kept the name and both claim to be the original and that the other is dishonest. Needless to say, I don't find this an appealing volunteer situation, but I eat a little at each place and the food is good. The northernmost BBB has a very soulful and skillful sarod and tabla duo. Here is a bit of the live show. Anshuman Maharaj, Sarod / Vibhash Maharaj, Tabla is the listing on the CD I buy.

Click here to play audio in a new tab.

Over a beer, I speak to a twenty something lad whose t-shirt says WHERE THE FUCK IS BRATISLAVA? Admitting I don't know seems a good conversation opener. There are also two young women from Australia, one of Sri Lankan descent, and two sisters, students from Vancouver. Being here is a little like the trip I never took after university, when everyone was hippying their way around Europe and India. If I add the ages of the two sisters and the Brataslavian together, they might equal mine. I kind of wish I was this guy again...

circa 1971
Photo by Thaddeus Holowania (thanks, Casey)

or this guy.
(They used to let you smile in passport photos in '74)

But the overriding feeling is one of being tickled pink to be here, doing this, being my 63-year-old self.


Our next stop is Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his famous first sermon after his Awakening.

Coincidence? I-don't THINK-so.

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