Sllluuuurrpppp..... chunky yoghurt slid over my tongue... a slime residue with bits of pulp and leaves. Thick gulp- then down the throat. I licked my lips... rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth... pressed it against my teeth and sucked.
I scanned my body for hint of a buzz, but nothing yet--- just nerves and fear. I stared into the unglazed clay cup.... threw it to the cobblestone... listened to it shatter with a ?pop?.
I was deep in the bowels of the old city.... sitting in a dark alley in the heart of ?medieval? India.... a time traveler. Only a bare bulb above the drink stall suggested the true date. The stone walls and the twisting, narrow, claustrophic, cobblestone passages were of another era.
Against all better judement, I was sitting alone in the old city of Varanasi, India and had just downed the city?s signature drink: a ?bhang lassi?. Bhang is a mixture of yoghurt and marijuana leaves rumored to be extremely powerful. It was first used as an intoxicant in India around 1000 B.C. and soon became an integral part of Hindu culture. In the ancient text Artharvaveda Bhang is described as a beneficial herb that ?releases anxiety?. Bhang preparations were sacred to the gods, particularly Shiva. One of Shiva?s epithets was ?Lord of Bhang?. It was Shiva, in fact, who supposedly discovered the transcendental properties of the mixture.
The center of Shiva worship is Varanasi- which lies on the banks of the Ganges River. It is home to the burning ghats: open air funeral pyres. After cremation, the burnt remains are pushed into the holy river. Hindus who are cremated in Varanasi are believed to gain particularly good karma and a favorable rebirth in the next life. The city is also host to numerous religious festivals, including Holi.
Holi takes place on the full moon between the month of February and March every year. The festival celebrates the legend of the despotic King Hiranyakashipu and his son. The King asked his people to worship him as God, but his young son was defiant, and pledged only to worship the deity Vishnu. The festival therefore marks the triumph of devotion over ambition. It is literally India?s most colorful festival, as it is celebrated by throwing paint. Many devotees imbibe Bhang during the festival, giving it a somewhat pychedelic atmosphere.
In addition to hosting religious festivals, Varanasi is home to a large concentration of sadhus. Sadhus are Hindu monks who renounce most sensual pleasures. Traditionally they live solitary lives, always on the move. They own only what they carry and subsist on alms. They are easily identified by their long beards and dreadlocks which are knotted into huge buns. Some wear robes, while others wear only a loincloth or go completely naked. Shiva sadhus bear the emblems of Shiva: the trident, the two-sided drum, and the necklace of seeds. Some smear their bodies with ash to symbolize Shiva?s role as the Destroyer who reduces everything to dust. On their foreheads, most sadhus paint a tika- which is a symbol that represents their sect affiliation. In imitation of Shiva, many sadhus use Bhang to boost meditation and achieve transcendental states.
Bhang is sold in shops throughout the old city of Varanasi; most are, in fact, nothing more than wooden shacks, though many claim to be official ?government bhang shops?. They can be difficult to find as there are no street signs and no cars in the old city-- the winding passages are far too narrow. Furthermore, these passages are sprinkled with staircases, sharp turns, sudden drops, and a tangle of wooden shacks.
By day the city is less than charming. Filth is on full display. Cow shit, dog shit, goat pellets, and human excrement lie in piles on the footpaths. Urine collects in pools. Garbage, including rotten food, plastic, paper, and table scraps are piled in the alleys as well. Cows and goats feed on the garbage. Rats feed on the garbage. Dogs and cats feed on the rats.
The city has a pungent smell. A combination of shit, urine, decomposing waste, flower garlands, inscence, and smoke from the funeral pyres. The odors have knockdown strength.
The city is far more alluring at night. Filth is hidden in darkness as shadows creep to fill every corner, every alley, every turn. Its a deep den of darkness punctuated by pools of light. Gangly men in silk shirts huddle on the shadows? edges, smoking cigarettes-- murmuring in low voices. Dogs shriek suddenly in the distance, then trail off to lost passageways. Now and then a splash of bells or the drone of chanting whiffs by on the air.... then silence once again. Bhang-drenched sadhus sit crosslegged by the riverside.
Varanasi?s reputation is as dark as its alleys. Every year, a few foreign tourists simply vanish. Fliers hang in guesthouses, the desperate work of relatives searching for lost loved ones. Guidebooks warn against excursions into the old city at night-- especially alone.
The rumors on the backpacker?s trail are just as daunting. I remember a haggard hippy in Rishikesh who warned me off the city: It was horrible. ... dirty and dangerous. His eyes were shifty; his head wobbled left to right. He affected a semi-sahdu look: with a long beard and dreadlocks piled high upon his head. He carried a small cloth sack. Bone thin- his jaws clenched and his eyes shifted manically.
His warning stuck with me. And so it was with a sense of mystery, dread, and excitement that I downed my first Bhang mix. I slurped it, broke the clay cup on the cobblestone, and handed a wad of Indian Rupees to the gaunt man who sold me the mixture. Then I set off into the darkness. For another thirty minutes I explored the alleyways randomly.... and then it hit me. Legs weakened...... head buzzed.
Eventually I popped out of the warrens onto the ghats. Ghats are the walkways and stairs that line the shores of the Ganges River. They are the focal point of religious activity in Varanasi- host to funeral fires, sadhus, merchants, con artists, strolling families, pilgrims, and tourists. Pilgrims come from all over India to visit the ghats of Varanasi, as Hindus believe that bathing in the river washes away bad karma.
The river itself is broad, slow, and dark. By day it varies between clay and coffee color, by night it is chocolate. Small hand-paddled boats ply the river, ferrying tourists and pilgrims. A common pilgrimage practice is to carry a religious statue to the center of the river and sink it as an offering to the gods. Despite its holiness, the Ganges is highly polluted. Human and animal waste flow into it untreated. It is common to see bloated corpses of humans, cows, and other animals. Some classes of people, for example, are not cremated. Rather, they are dumped directly into the river. These include sadhus, pregnant women, children and people
with leprosy-- who are weighted down and dropped in the river.
I had stumbled onto the ?Main ghat?. It was packed with people... sparkling lights,... and the deafening clang of bells. A crowd concentrated on the edge nearest the river.... eyes intent upon a skydance of whirling lights. I wandered closer.
A group of five Hindu priests were aligned along the shores of the river. Hindu priests are not sadhus. Rather, they are functionaries who specialize in the complex religious rites peculiar to their sect. Behind each priest sat a set of candlesticks, bells, and lamps. Each priest held a candleabra with five flames. Overhead, bass-beat chants echoed along the length of the river. I looked up... and caught the source of the chanting... a set of speakers strung along the backside of the ghat: High-tech Hinduism.
Each priest executed, in perfect harmony with the other four, a set of intricate patterns with the oil lamps. They created trace patterns much like children with sparklers on the Fourth of July. In unison they lifted lamps, spun them, turned them, dropped them. In unison not only with each other... but with the chanting from the speakers, the jamboree jingles, the swaying crowd, the flicker of the oil-lights, and the rhythm of my own breathing.
The priests then twirled to face the river.... set down their lamps... and bowed.
I turned and headed back towards my guesthouse-- making my way along the shore. The dark mass of water slid by to my right..... towering stone shadows rose to my left. I passed several sahdus, silent and crosslegged.
Behind me, I heard the clang of tamborines from pious devotees. Ahead, I saw a faint sky glow from the burning ghats.