My partner often talks about the ‘Last Time’. The last kiss, the last ride on a school bus, the last parting with a friend, the last Rolling Stones concert. In fact the Rolling Stones had a hit song back in the early 1960s on just that very theme. Some ‘Last Times’ can be determined, foreseen, others are beyond forecast. Nevertheless both kinds shut fast like doors, door’s without keys that defy readmittance, tight-locked once closed. Both mark minutiae through the passage of life. Some mark moments of portent and finality, the last word, the final tear, the last breath. Today was my last full day in Varanasi, I knew this, I knew it the very day, when month’s previously, I ‘ticked off’ on the itinerary schedule the tour agency sent me.
It is a Friday, 7.15 am, about 12.30 pm in Hometown. It is cold, unexpectedly more so than is normal this time of year. Last night, as I watched and listened to the distant Ganga ‘aarti’ rituals, two adult monkeys, macaques, for a short time ambled about the grounds of the hotel. One, a female I presume, carried a small baby clutching to its mother’s belly. So far I have seen only a few macaques in Varanasi. Though I was jabbed by many an inoculating syringe before setting off on my road trip I forgot the rabies shots, so I am wary of them. I prefer not to be bitten.
I will revisit the ghats. I will keep my hands in my pockets this time as too many young men want to shake them. I am not that famous. Inevitably they ask for money, so I have acquired skill at walking and balancing with my hands kept safe within the pockets of my vest, straight-faced and unyielding in my confrontation of their urging for physical introduction. I will also undertake a final exploration of Varanasi’s small alleyways, and I will seek out the famous Jantar Mantar observatory. In my explorations of the city’s streetscapes I have yet to encounter anything that resembles the experience of a central business district. I am told the fashionable houses and suburbs of the wealthy are far from the ghats.
Past the Harishchandra Ghat there is an upturned wooden boat, its propped-up hull painted bright red with the word ‘Vodaphone’ in prominent white lettering on both sides. A man diligently scrapes unwanted encrusting black material of some kind from its keel. The boat, set against its ethereal and misty ‘Turnerish’ painting style river backdrop, will make a photograph fit for several minutes of future reflective conversation, the light when I earlier encountered the vessel incorrect for adequate record. Nearby rests another beached boat but this is obviously long discarded, almost devoid of paint, its canopy part caved in, and the superstructure askew in dangerous anticipation of collapse. This, and its riverside grave site, likewise warrant capture as photographic image. I detour to the Lalita Ghat, to the Nepali Temple there, the small temple under the guardianship and upkeep of the Shree Samrajyeshvar Pashupati Nath Mandir and Dharmashala Sanchalak Samiti Trust. I pay Rs15 for temple entry and collect my receipt, No. 65827, which I add to my burgeoning collection of tourist ‘ephemerata’, and engage the fee collector in conversation of interest to us both. He is a young novice monk, and we debate the value of social media networking, the need for yet another indigenously produced Indian car, and the likelihood of the Han Chinese atoning for the destruction of Tibetan monasteries. The officiating temple master returns and our conversation ends in a strategic retreat pretending the exchange of questions and answers concerning the upkeep of the temple and the incidence of vandalism. I query the fate of a pile of weathered wooden temple carvings stacked to one side, the dismantled leftovers from past restoration work. “Oh no”, ventured the novice, in anticipation of my next question, “they are not for sale”. I pressed currency of modest denomination into the temple donation box, and departed.
Further in my wanderings I encounter a man, well dressed in attire of European style collecting river water in bottles. The water at this point is dark and foul. I practice my ‘Namaste’, by this time well-rehearsed, and I politely ask his purpose, thinking maybe it was for some devotional use. But he, equally politely, if not more so, informed me he was from the Sankat Mochan Foundation and these were samples to test water quality. His laboratory was in Varanasi, and the Foundation regularly monitors and reports pollution results. Things were not good. The tributary Assi is now an open drain, and the Bhadaini Ghat, which remains a primary source of the city’s drinking water, is heavily polluted, and faecal coliform bacteria levels which should be 500 or less, downstream at the River Varuna are 5,600,000. Varanasi’s two municipal treatment plants, at Dinapur and Bhagwanpur, together can only treat about 90 million litres of Varanasi’s greater than 300 million litres of sewerage produced daily. Regular power failures reduce the plants capacity to cope. Near spurts of untreated sewerage at the popular Dasawamedh Ghat people are praying, bathing and drinking the water around them. But the faithful, these being pilgrims and city residents, believe the Ganges water is forever pure.
I recheck my unopened bottle of drinking water. The bottle is clean without dust, its blue cap is unbroken, the seal showing no sign of being tampered with, and I had carefully chosen its place of purchase – a vendor well-stocked, and with apparent good patronage.
The Man Mahel palace, popularly known as the Man Mandir, located adjacent the Dashashvamedh Ghat, was built around 1600 CE. The Varanasi Jantar Mantar observatory was later added to it. The builder, Sawai Jai Singh II, himself an astronomer, had constructed other masonry observatories at Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain and Malthura. All are popularly known as Jantar Mantar – a collection of architectural astronomical instruments – a corrupt rendition of the words ‘Yantra-Mantra’ (these being diagrams and sacred formulae and verse), meaning thereby ‘the calculation with the help of instruments’. The plan of the observatory was prepared by the astronomer Jagannath, the work executed by the architect Sadar Mohan. The observatory underwent major restoration in 1912, for by the 19th Century it was in a ruined state.
Entry to the Jantar Mantar was Rs5 for citizens of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Thailand and Myanmar. Tiny Sikkim, wedged between Nepal and Bhutan, did not get separate mention, I suspected because it had Indian dependency status; sort of like ‘imperialism’ really. For those races and political entities classed as ‘others’ the fee was Rs100. I was an ‘other’ so I eventually paid the requisite entry charge. I did try to argue that up until about 120 million years ago Australia and India were part of the same super-continent called Gondwana. For millions of years, though an age short by traditional Hindu counting of Earth’s cosmic age, this landmass included what we now call Africa, Madagascar, Australia, South America, Antarctica, New Caledonia, New Zealand and India. India then broke away from what is now north-western Australia, rafted north and eventually collided with northern lands, the impact forming the Himalayas. So technically, we were of the same nationality. My recourse to an argument based on a knowledge of plate tectonics and continental drift fell on deaf ears, conversant as the ticket superintendent seemed on the subject. The gentleman getting obviously impatient, and more mindful of the growing queue behind me than I, took my small change and brushed my disappointment aside.
Samrat Yantra, Digamsa Yantra, Narivalaya Yantra, Chakra Yantra and Dakshinottara Bhitti Yantra are the main observatory instruments to be viewed at the Jantar Mantar, and are used for calculating time, preparing lunar and solar calendars, and for studying movements, distances, angles of inclination of the stars, planets and other heavenly entities. The delicately calibrated incisions of each instrument are perfectly engraved without the slightest imprecision, metal instruments being made from mixtures of different alloys to compensate for the potential of biased measurements owing to effects of seasonal variation in weather temperature. The Dakshinottara Bhitti Yantra is mainly used for observing the different altitudes of heavenly bodies; by observing cast shadows every day the maximum and minimum zenith distance of the sun can be determined. The Digamsa Yantra is used for measuring the azimuth of any celestial body, the Narivalaya Yantra is used for calculating the position of the sun, the Samrat Yantra is a giant sundial, so no further explanation needed, and the Chakra Yantra is used for calculating the Meridian Pass Time of a celestial object. The accompanying explanation sign for this item of wonderment and celestial investigation did not explain what Meridian Pass Time actually was, and the groundsman unfortunately being no wiser than I, I resigned myself to enquiring about its definition on my return home.
The sun is out and there are macaque monkeys in residence here, though these are few in number. They appear healthy and are pre-occupied with their own affairs. Since they were unaffected by my presence, I sit down, footsore from walking. I remove my diary from my backpack and amuse myself for a while with recording the results of the morning’s explorations. Behind me, as I write, a large male macaque approaches. There is no doubting the gender. He is close and he is not happy, baring his teeth and calling loudly. Inadvertently I have entered his territory. I sit quietly and oblivious to his proximity. A guard appears and after some effort scares the monkey off with a large wooden staff. I write calmly, dead pan in my description of the event, for I did not appreciate the gravity of the moment or the closeness of the animal, what with my back turned, the monkey out of sight, and me thinking his belligerent calls were intended for a member of his little troop. Only my ignorance of the event sustained me. Onlookers praised my apparent courage, and my steadfast refusal to acknowledge the monkey’s position in the hierarchy of simian occupation of the observatory. I did not know my place.
Monkeys and humans were not alone here. From out the corner of my eye I caught sight of a mongoose. It was my first sighting of one in India, indeed my first mongoose seen anywhere. We do not have any in Australia. Of the many exotic, usually noxious vertebrates, purposefully released onto our continent, the mongoose was not amongst them. Fortunate, as where they have been successfully introduced they have played havoc with endemic wildlife. At first I thought it was a rat come to drink from a small puddle of water, for rats often do such things regardless as to whether people are around or not. Often rats, ‘brown’ or Norwegian rats especially, will emerge from between rocks and hidden crannies, brazen in bright daylight, and steal food right from out open lunch hampers, under the full gaze of onlookers. But this was no rat.
Only a single genus of mongoose, Herpestes, is found in India, this genus being widely distributed from Southern Europe, through Asia Minor, parts of Africa, Arabia, India, and Malaysia and some of its adjacent islands. There are other genera, but one must go to other lands in hope of finding these. All are carnivores, and all are placed, by biologists, in the family Viverridae. This family also includes civets and meerkats; civets in captivity yield their mortality to the perfume trade, meerkats, in captivity, entertain children in zoos. Sadly I am little informed as to the nature and distribution of the several species of mongoose that are said to inhabit India, and I had but little time to observe possible distinguishing characters of colour or form before the creature hurried from view. Thus its specific kind remains unknown to me.
But there were other animals here in the observatory, more common than my solitary mongoose, and ones I had often seen in residence at or near the ghats, even on the balcony of my hotel. Grey-black coloured House crows stood on guard in hope of some morsel being cast their way. These birds were the most prolific of any vertebrate I had seen in Varanasi. There were also bushy-tailed Grey squirrels, these adept at hiding in cracks between masonry and the brickwork of surrounding buildings, often darting along the observatory’s structures calling to comrades. I could not entice them close with the pieces of dry biscuits I offered.
The guard, his staff still in his grip, reappears. There is a twitch to his acknowledgement of me. I look towards the shadow cast by the Samrat Yantra.
My time’s up.
I should not leave the riverside at Varanasi without thought and mention of Shankara, a Brahmin from southern India who lived from 788-820 CE, around the time of the Carolingian Empire in Western Europe. At a time when the Emperor Charlemagne was barely, if at all, able to write his name Shankara was a brilliant exponent of ‘Advaita Vedanta’, the school of Hinduism that many traditional followers consider best at expressing the genius of orthodox Hindu philosophy. Though Shankara was born in the peninsula state of present day Kerala, in later life so as to progress his studies and philosophical teaching, he was advised to go to Varanasi, then as now the spiritual centre of Hinduism. He had earlier renounced the world, and at Varanasi wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Brahma Sutras. Shankara’s commentary on the latter work, the Brahma Sutra Bhashya, is considered his most famous, representing as it does a systematic and clear interpretation of his philosophy.
At the peak of his teaching career Shankara undertook a journey throughout the whole of the Indian subcontinent, to every quarter of it. His intent was to convince his philosophical rivals, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, of the spiritual truth of his system, and secondly, to establish teaching monasteries where his philosophies could be studied and practiced. Shankara saw little purpose in religious rituals, rather, stressing the need for acquiring knowledge that would bring redemption. In this his philosophy followed the Upanishad texts. He argued that rituals were based on the false premise that an outside power can be invoked to bring spiritual improvement, or to intercede at a personal level so as to facilitate liberation by changing the circumstances that impede liberation. For Shankara redemptive powers lay within the individual, not outside. Thus the undertaking of rituals, even yogic techniques potentially, meant to master the outside world were without meaning, and therefore useless. No mental regimen or ritual practice could guarantee a pathway to understanding the truth of one’s eternal place in the scheme of things. Many religious actions might be beneficial for maintaining world order but actions that were directed to the benefit of the self, ego-centric if you will, sit on a false foundation, and therefore will not lead to the discovering of truth.
Shankara died young. It is not known where or exactly how.
It is 1.30 pm and I am sitting in a little restaurant I found in a side street that led from the ghats, through a market, to my hotel. I am not so well. I consume only plain soda water with a little lemon juice and salt. My stomach is on a precipice and at this early stage I am unable to predict which way it will turn. The last customer leaves and I am alone. A very small mouse appears. It scurries, thinking itself unseen, below the tables. I drop small crumbs from an unfinished plate of food behind me, my actions hopefully unseen by the proprietor. The mouse does not hesitate to move to the crumbs scattered on the floor. The mouse is well fed, if only for one day more.
Outside the haze has lifted and returning to my hotel, from the position of my balcony I can see clearly beyond the far bank. There are distant trees, a large metal bridge that spans the Ganges further upriver, and several extensive single storey building complexes. There is a degree of civilization on the other side that previously I could only guess at.