Varanasi/Benares Journal Day 1

Varanasi 12.5.13

Arrived in the Sri Barodha Airport Varanasi. The prepaid Taxi driver, wanted an extra 40 rs prior to leaving the airport. When I objected and started to get out; he caved with an "alright I am paid already." I called my contact Amitabha who gave the Taxi driver directions and then called me back and told me the plan was to have me rendezvous with his son's car coming from the airport. He then told the taxi driver of the new plan. He apparently had concluded that the Taxi driver was a crook and wanted to get me out of that cab ASAP, When the driver had stopped at the arranged meeting place by the Jaipur Mandir, he turned back towards me and began eyeing my neelam ring (blue sapphire, an upaya for Shani) and saying that is a very expensive stone. He repeated himself several times. I said it was an old stone and not that valuable. he looked unpersuaeded. Luckily the car arrived 2 minutes later and Chaitan, Amitabha's son, and Guddu picked me up and took me to the private residence where Shree Maa and Swami were staying. I prostrated my greeting to Maa...she initially seemed surprised saying 'Oh my God'...when I walked in. "Why were you so late coming?" Saying that I had missed most of Their tour. But a religious party was planned for that evening. a Bhandara. She then asked how my trip was and how my wife, was. She said i should get Darshan at the Annapurna temple and asked Guddu to take me. After a 30 minute nap, he took me on the back of his motorcycle. We cruised the ring road around the Godowalla old town surrounding the decaying, classic ghats on the river Ganga. Driving such streets in a car is quite a dance of criss crossing currents of traffic, bicycle rickshaws, motorcycles, trucks, and small cars; on a motorcycle is is a furtive stop-n-go race across the endless, interweaving traffic currents punctuated by non-plussed Brahmin bulls and cows lying comfortable in the midlst of traffic circles and crowed narrow alleys (Gallies).

I kept by elbows and knees tight in as we careened through the traffic with ballerina precision. The Temple was down several long gallies. The major entrance did not allow 'foreigners' -- we had to use the back entrance. That required being interviewed by an elderly gentleman who inspected my past port for my Hindu name, and when it wasn't there, he pronounced my given name in the document as my 'old name'. We got in ..

No electronics allowed! or pens!!? We had left our shoes with the thin white haired bureaucrat and padded through the wet grunge, old flowers, and bilva leaves to the main inner sanctum. first one small lingam, more alike a bud of stone sticking up in the middle of an alter...shiva was not excited. Then onto the main lingam a more respectable but not ample monolith with a water pot hanging above and a priest giving tilacks and pani [holy water]. I offered an cup of herbalized milk and a pushpamala [lei] receiving my tilack and holy water. which I feigned to sip and placed on my top of my head. Then we went to the Annapurna Mandir [temple]. Here the entrance was easier...although I already had my tilack and ample ash on my forehead [three stripes on each side].

The Annapurna priests knew Shree Maa quite well as she had installed their main golden idol about 13 years ago in a ceremony which I had missed, having been there 3 months earlier for the millennial New Years. I was invited back into the inner sanctum, garlanded me with a very large pushpamala of dark red roses punctuated with a white and orange blossom every five roses. The aroma was powerful and intoxicating, or maybe it was the vibe [bhava they would say in Benares]. So another tilack, more holy water, a couple of quick prostrations, more like genuflections, and then around to see other versions of Annapurna as Kali, Lakshmi, Parvati, Lalitha-- different forms of the same Divine Mother. Then we circled around the temple and a semi genuflection at the stone on the rear wall and headed back into the galleys with the wish that my hi-tech, Solomon sneakers were still waiting for me...[13 years ago, my shoes had disappeared in the mob crowding the street trying to get into Vishwanath and Annapurna. We walked home barefoot that January 1st of the new millennium through the freshly washed streets of Benares, freshly washed with cow dug--'It's sacred and antiseptic, didn't you know'.] Then we cruised to an ayurvedic pharmacy where the remedies are made the right way, the old way...no machines. Hand picked fresh herbs at the right season and phase of the moon, the right cow matra [cow urine] from the first morning bovine pee, all mixed in stone mortar with pestle and the right bhav [attitude of devotion] and mantras. It really was first quality stuff. I wish I had had a truck to load up with the products.

Then to a nearby pharmacist who had been a classmate of Guddu and who obliged a desire for the twelve hour jet lag sleep medicine, better known as Ambien. We biked home for the party preparations.

The Bhandara was wonderful. Shree Maa rocked the house with driving kirtans and sweet bhajans. Swami Satyananda was lip-synching; he had lost his voice after several weeks of non-stop daily homes, puja, and raucous religious partying [bhandara]

I was allow to sleep on the floor at the family's home, for which I had foresightedly brought an air mattress. It was a wonderful return to Kashi [city of light], the old town of Benares/Varanasi, after a 13 year and 11 month absence.