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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

HAIBUN

Featured Poet: Yajushi (Vinodh Marella)
 

I felt it, the moment I stepped onto the crowded platform. A sense of belonging. This is where I'm going to commence my journey. Life after death starts here. Benares is a life terminus. My brother-in-law too must be feeling something akin. After all, we've come here to immerse his father's ashes in the holy Ganga. We are on a yatra millions have done before us, and millions more will do: Prayaga (Allahabad), Kashi (Benares) and Gaya.

We set off for Pandit Mishra's house. A fine old home. Dark beams supporting the ceiling, niches occupied by clay statues of Gods, and sepia photographs hanging on the walls. Pandit is eighty years old, a vigorous and knowledgeable man. He looked at our tonsured heads and said, "Munde, Dundhe aur phir Pinde". He was referring to the well known mantra used to attain salvation:

Prayaga Munde (by tonsure)
Kashi Dundhe (by searching through the by-lanes of Benares)
Gaya Puinde (by offering rice balls to one's ancestors)

Early in the morning, we set off for the Ganga. Outside, swaddled in blankets, smoking beedis, the Rickshaw drivers waited. I'd spent my childhood in Calcutta, now Kolkata, and never did think it right that one man should pull another.

walking to Ganga
a convoy of rickshaws
in tow

Harishchandra Ghat*
under
a pall of smoke

*The great cremation ghat

****************

The Ganga foreshore marked by footprints and crushed marigold flowers...the footprints come back, the marigolds stay. We add more footprints and more marigolds. Down the steps of one of the many Ghats we walk...into the Ganga...three ritual 'dubkis'...I come up for air, and watch the ferry boats disappear into the eye of a great glaring fireball . . . shining through the fog. Towards an invisible shore in boats the colour of old bones, they live here where others come to die!

lining the steps . . .
beggars
hands fluttering like leaves

crossing the Ganga
like
crossing the Stryx

****************

The Benares Priest . . . Death is both his livelihood and addiction. He most often has a nearly irresistible compulsion to fleece the near and dear of the dead. It's the same with the boatmen, and the railway porters, and the agents, touts, rickshaw pullers, hotel owners, and prostitutes. A law of nature: preying on the vulnerable. Death is essential for their life. I had learned just enough of Sanskrit in school to be able to comprehend something of what the Brahmin Priest was chanting.

stones
in Ganges
colour of old bones

On the way up the steps

beggars moaning
an awful
susurration

In the early morning light, above the mist, from out of the water, Benares . . . a great golden crescent of temples, spires, mosques, minarets, and ashrams suspended and fading away in either direction. A few paper kites push up the sky...clouds of pigeons wheel over the temples...I can make out the steep steps of the many ghats leading down to the edge of Ganga. The sun rises.

bathing at panchtirth*
everyday
the sun!

*The five most sacred ghats - Assi, Dasashamedh, Manikarnika, Panchganga and Adi Kesava ghats, bathing at any one of which assures you a place in Heaven! There are more than seventy ghats at Benares - each with its own history.

I discard the wet attire I was in and put on jeans, T-shirt, and suede shoes, which immediately attract attention and an entourage. My brother-in-law, in more traditional dress, smiles knowingly. Climbing up the steps, it occurs to me that the temples, mosques, spires, minarets, dwellings, the university, shops, ghats, rickshaws, and people, all are a backdrop to the enactment of a ritual, incessantly performed...seemingly as necessary as the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Bathing...bathing in Ganga. The river is the faith, and the city the prayer. . . . Easy to touch, difficult to capture.

the Ganga ghats#. . .
mostly decrepit
bathers

# Some of the bathing ghats are centuries old, if not all

Tulsi Ghat**. . .
a piece of wood
as old

**In honour of the poet Tulsi Das - author of Ramayan (story of Rama). In Hindi, the piece of wood is supposedly the one on which he crossed the river Ganges.

A well known French physician, Dr. D. Herelle, observed some of the floating corpses of men who died from dysentery and cholera, and was surprised to find that only a few feet below the bodies, where one would expect to find millions of germs, there were no germs at all. He then grew germs from patients having the disease, and to these cultures, added those from the Ganges. When he incubated the mixture for a period, much to his surprise, the germs were completely destroyed!

Sri Swami Sivananda: Mother Ganges

****************

Back home, Pandit Mishra regales us with some wonderful stories about the miraculous properties of the Ganga's waters. The waters of 'Burhiganga', a tributary which flows into an old bed of the Ganga at Soron, a town in UP, for example, is said to dissolve the bones of the dead within three days of being deposited in it! The great shenai maestro, Pandit Bimillah Khan, lives here, surrounded with servants and a large progeny. He must be over ninety. Something in the waters of Ganga!

According to Hindu legend, it is said that Ganga's descent from the heavens, at the request of king Bhagiratha, to purify the souls of his ancestors, would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by tying it into his ash smeared locks!! Too many legends! Too many stories! Too many Ghats! Too many cows! Too many bodies!

This is Benares. Also known for its Paan, silks, sweets, brass, copperware, and religious objects . . . and in the Narial Bazaar, lights begin to glow behind the curtains on the balconies of the brothels on the upper floor . . .

village women . . .
slapping with gay abandon
cow dung

breathing vapours
lumbering along
the holy cow!

****************

Back at Pandit Mishra's house, I bathe once more. The habit must be contagious! In an enormous bath tub with clawed feet and a curling rim . . . the head of the shower curled over it, like a flower drooping on a wilted stem. Back to the Ganga for a boat ride. I haggled with the boatman who operates at an inflation rate of 100%, and finally got onto the river. The boatman was in mid-section, turning from left to right as he dipped his oars alternately on either side of the boat. Even though there was no wind, the water's surface was densely marked with ripples and eddies.

floating along the Ganga
at its pace . . .
a marigold garland#

#The dead bodies are invariably garlanded and due to the rush, half burnt dead bodies are consigned to Ganga. Some of these garlands detach . . .

Dusk . . . the labyrinthine alleys, relatively less crowded. Down here, darkness comes while the sky overhead is still blue. Pigeons cease wheeling over the spires; the kites hauled down, their long, pink streamers stretch over the fading sky. The walls exude dampness. Sewage trickles down between the houses to the river. The smells are more pronounced now. Shops are doing business, and cows! Cows are everywhere, making the ground more slippery than it was, with their dung and urine. Cows in the forecourts of temples, tethered in the yards of houses, free . . . suddenly looming up . . . never hesitating, they seemingly sail on . . . it's for us to get out of the way! Chosen animals, sacred animals . . . and they know it! The cows of Benares will die only of old age or disease, and right beside the holy Ganga! It's time for the daily 'Arti Puja' - offering the light of five branched candelabra.

chilly evening . . .
Holy cows coming at me
full steam!

cruising along the Ganga
the full moon . . .
at its pace

No visit to Benares is complete without an encounter with an Aghori / Tantrik. Some of them claim to be able to suck up liquids with their penis. Some claim a special kiss between the thighs of barren women; still others claim to be masters of 'kumari puja' - i.e., Virgin Puja, with whom he will have intercourse without an orgasm . . . thus she will remain a virgin. Some worship Sarveshwari, the Goddess of the Universe, "Mother", performing certain pujas - Chakra Puja and Gopya Puja (secret worship), as per age old tantrik rituals. Most, if not all, of these Aghoras / Tantriks / Babas / Gurus / Swamis / and Sadhus are fake charlatans, who fleece money from the helpless people in need of help. Benares attracts them all; to live and die by the Ganga Mayya - "mother Ganga", the all forgiving Goddess!

Manikarnika Ghat . . .
cows nibbling
grass ropes**

**It is common practice to tightly tie down the corpse to, for want of a better word, a 'stretcher', with grass ropes. The stretcher is carried by four people - usually the nearest and dearest, who cries, "Ram naam satya hai.," "Rama is the true one."

Paurnami**
Ganga
glowing from within

**the full moon day is called 'paurnami' and the new moon day, 'amavasya'.

What do I remember? The widows, the cows, the sadhus, the steep stairways, the washermen, the 'thandai' (drink made of Canabis indica), and, of course, the Ganga flowing south to north at Benares. It's a place to come back to.

****************

The Ganga has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet, ever the same Ganga.

Ganga has 108 names. A few:
Bindusaras -- River made of water drops
Ramya --- Delightful, beautiful
Jangama --- Moving, alive
Puta --- Pure
Purna -- Full
Ananta -- Eternal
Sughosa -- Melodious
Avyaya -- Imperishable
Sighra-ga ---Swift flowing
Atula -- Peerless
Punya -- Auspicious
Japa -- Muttering, Whispering


Yajushi Yajushi (Vinodh Marella) lives in Hyderabad, India with his wife, daughter and mother. He retired from his job in 1999 - following a near fatal heart attack.

That's when he was introduced to haiku by his brother-in law, Dr. A. Sethuramiah (you can read his haiku in the Mainichi Daily News.) After a few attempts, he sent hisfirst haiku (written on a train at 1a.m with a borrowed pen on the back of a visiting card ) to the Mainichi Daily News. To his surprise, it was published the following month. Since then, two more poems were published and he was awarded an Honourable Mention in the MDN's 9th annual contest.

He was advised to have coronary bypass surgery in 2000, but three surgeons refused to operate citing high risk, due to extensive damage to the heart muscle, mitral valve leakage, and inefficient pumping of the heart. That was when he decided to live life on his terms--i.e; do exactly what he want to do: read, write, drink at night, acupressure, alternate therapy, investing in the stock market, movies, occasional partying, haiku, haibun, renku - everything in moderation.

He's still around, to every body's surprise! He's happier now than at any other time in his life; despite loss of income and poor health.

Yajushi says, "I've discovered the mantra to happiness -- listen to your mind and follow your heart!