Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.
Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.
It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent.
A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.
I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance — the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.
“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”
Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.
Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.
More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.
Sikhs seemed to give without hesitation or question.
The off-duty tour guide who had corrected my foot placement freely gave explanations of Sikhism and his time despite my being clear that I could not compensate him financially. I was slightly concerned about his interest, although, at his invitation, my friends always accompanied us. With his guidance and explanations, we had observed the night’s closing ceremonies.The softly reading voices waft out of the rows of rooms where six men take turns reading the holy book without ceasing, having been hired by someone for the blessing. Each replica of the sacred book is wrapped in white and gold among incense and prayers, and carried to a special resting place — miniature carved beds with soft white cushions. In the morning, they will be taken out again with equal ceremony, and one page will be read at random, becoming that day’s wisdom. Volunteers haul the heavy golden litter onto their shoulders to carry the original holy book from the temple at the center of the pool. The text read from that book is posted on the wall, along with translations.
Our guide even took us to a few smaller nearby temples; at one, we observed a ceremony in which a lithe priest is hauled into the air on a simple wooden seat and unties the long swathe of fabric covering one of the tall sacred poles. This sought-after fabric brings good luck and prosperity; every morning the pole is wrapped with fresh cloth, funded by the donation of a particular family who would then stand and receive the blessed pieces of the previous day’s wrapping. The extra bits would be passed to the waving, eager hands of pilgrims pushing each other aside like a bouquet-tossing scene in a bad romantic comedy. Seeing two men argue, both gripping tightly to the last piece of fabric, was the most un-Sikh thing I had seen in Amritsar.
Our guide spoke to the priest, who returned with a piece of the fabric and, relatively unceremoniously, handed it to me, The Tourist. Stunned by the significance, I felt that I did not deserve such a sacred item, not being Sikh, but our guide was proud to see me with it. I stood there, stunned, as a small group gathered around to watch me having my photograph taken. I slowly began to wonder if this man was eager to indebt me to him. Although courteous and informative, he, twice my age and a bachelor, did inquire about my perspective on marriage and relationships, as the two of us walked back to the Golden Temple just ahead of my friends, as we seemed to navigate the chaotic narrow streets more easily.
Remaining respectful in case he was genuinely curious about a foreign person’s ideas, I gave a more conservative view than I actually hold, as well as tossed in a lie — that I was very likely going to convert to Judaism so that I could marry a serious boyfriend back in the States.
As I walked into the Golden Temple with my new orange scarf fluttering, an elderly Sikh woman said something I could not understand and reached to touch the sacred fabric. She may have been merely pointing it out, but, suddenly inspired, I offered it to her, remembering to hold it with both hands in the greatest respect. She looked to a younger man seated near her, eyes wide and confused; he spoke, and, of course, I could not understand him either. She slowly allowed herself to take the fabric into her arms.
It felt natural and beautiful.
I had forgotten the guide. He had walked farther ahead as my friends were sorting out their shoes (you can only walk in the temple barefoot), and came striding back, upset. I led him away from the direction of the woman, explaining myself.
Everything I had seen and heard in the temple emphasized equality, service, humility, and giving to others. The fabric had never been mine. Instead of treating it casually, I had felt it was too precious for me to have. And I try to give away what I think is beautiful, because in the giving it becomes much more than an object. It was an honor to have it for a moment, but the greatest honor was in having something worth giving.
And, since he had suggested that he somehow join me in Rishikesh, I did not feel guilty leaving a negative mark on his memory of me.