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Early Dawn in Varanasi

I walked in the early dawn- a gray and pinkish haze had settled on the waters of the river. I murmured this verse in a soft voice. 

mano buddhi ahankara chittani naaham

na cha shrotravjihve na cha ghraana netre

na cha vyoma bhumir na tejo na vaayuhu

chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory,

I am not the ears, the skin, the nose or the eyes,

I am not space, not earth, not fire, water or wind,

I am the form of consciousness and bliss,

I am the eternal Shiva

Where else could this mantra have held more relevance? I was in Varanasi, the city that celebrated Shiva as Vishwanatha, the ruler of the world with Annapurani, the eternal giver as His consort. Near Assi Ghat in Varanasi, the ancient city was mostly asleep.

Ganga Arathi

Ganga Arathi in Varanasi (image: Nirupama Vaidyanathan)

Two days earlier by these very banks, we watched the Ganga arathi where priests had held lamps, paying homage to the river. Turning their backs to a city teeming with throngs of devotees, ancient buildings and a history that one could hardly fathom, I sat crouched along with hundreds of others. As we jostled for darshan of Vishwanatha and Annapurani the following day, we were surrounded by hundreds of devotees. 

There was a sea of humanity around me at all times. I felt deep inside a sense of controlled chaos. Disaster could happen at any given moment, but it never did.

A Balancing Act

Driving down a narrow lane, a man appeared on a bicycle balancing a ladder on his shoulder, with both of his hands clutching the handlebars – he made a wide turn onto the street and then came the second cyclist with the other end of the ladder perched on his shoulder expertly! Can you imagine the dexterity and focus it would take to navigate a bicycle with a ladder perched on one shoulder?

Sadhus sat with matted hair and outstretched hands that bore begging bowls. Hands and voices thrust articles for worship, sarees to buy and snacks to eat. The lights, the bells, the chants and the murmurs of the crowd melted into a humdrum of sounds that formed a constant backdrop. Those sounds and the controlled chaos of the city seemed like a distant memory in the early morning hour as I walked by the ghats. 

Ghats on the Ganges (image: Nirupama Vaidyanathan)

A Dip in the Ganges

The river seemed to flow languidly, with the odd wave catching my feet on the stone steps as I walked. I looked up towards the street and saw small groups of men and women carrying bundles of clothes, walking purposefully down the steps towards the river for a ritual bath. A dip in the Ganges is considered one of the holiest acts that a Hindu can do in his or her lifetime. And, here in that early morning hour, I bore witness to little tableaus of that human striving among the devout.

Boats on the Ganges at dawn (image: Nirupama Vaidyanathan)

A couple cupped their palms to receive offerings from priests, repeating Sanskrit verses as their parents hovered around, content to see their children carrying on familial ritualistic traditions. I watched men and women slather shampoo and soap liberally on their arms and torsos as they took a dip in the waters. 

A young couple sat, arms around each other, whispering sweet sounds comprehensible only to those in love; I wondered whether their families knew about their clandestine early morning tryst. I watched a husband bend with the effort that age demanded to hold a towel with his hands outstretched to provide some measure of privacy for his elderly wife seated on the stone steps, as she struggled to peel a wet blouse from her withered arms. 

A Measure of Mortality

And, then, right by the ghat, a few male family members stood as a funeral pyre burned, its flames crackling upwards right by the river. The body had been placed in an iron grate and the family stood around it with a somber silence. I turned away to give them a measure of privacy as they performed this supreme act of love. By these waters, our mortality is treated with the matter-of-factness it deserves, I thought. 

By then, a light drizzle had started as the river bore witness to that particular morning’s cast of characters playing their roles in the drama of life and death. I walked by myself, but the weight of this ancient city’s history, much of which I would never know, sat on my shoulders. The controlled chaos that I felt in the city’s waking hours symbolized a giant striving for a certain transcendent silence above the noise of human existence, I thought. The whir in my brain stilled as I came to this realization, and that is when I almost missed seeing her. 

A Young Yogini

A slight movement of a diaphanous dupatta caught the corner of my eye. I looked back and there she sat – a young woman who could not have been a day over twenty. She sat at the corner of a wide stone step, cross legged with her eyes closed, fingers clasped. She sat motionless in deep meditation facing the river, oblivious to the sounds of the city waking from slumber. Her chin was tilted slightly upwards – a director could not have made even the most skilled actress capture that serenity coupled with a silent striving. 

I felt a shiver within me as I imagined the entire city reaching for that river with a thousand unanswered prayers on their lips, to rid them of sins committed with the frailty that accompanies the human condition. And, as I stood a few feet from the young yogini looking down at the river, I understood the power that those waters held – they held the promise of absolution from sins for countless generations. A giant striving for forgiveness and redemption. 

Seeking Stillness

The sun would soon rise in the sky. The temple bells would clang, the prayers would be recited, the devout in their multitudes would buy offerings, each external action symbolizing a wish within. The chaos of the multitudes would restart in gusto – searching for redemption, absolution and the ultimate silence within.

The chaos that longed for stillness – in that, lay the irony – I felt as if the river understood that very irony. With its languid waters, it was drawing the noisiest among us to the deepest of its silences.

Nirupama V.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a multifaceted artist - a dancer, writer, storyteller, and educator. She founded the Sankalpa School of dance, where she trains the next generation of committed dancers to pursue...