This post is about an experience I had in India in 2010.
“Two hundred rupees? You should know better!” a man says to me as I pay the rickshaw driver.
India is filled with touts—men who pretend to want to help you but really want money. Varanasi—the holiest city in India—seems to have more per capita than other places in India. Dad and I ignore him as we start walking.
“My name is Manish. Is this your papa?” he asks, as he saddles up alongside us.
The streets are crowded and untidy. Half naked sadhus wearing nothing but saffron robes walk past us on their way to bathe in the Ganges. Vendors sell everything from prickly melons to brass wares.
“Your papa is my papa” he says, which makes me smile. “Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
“The Golden Temple”
“I will take you there! It’s very difficult to find. You’ll never make it there on your own”
Maybe he isn’t a tout. Maybe he just wants to help. We could certainly use it because have no idea where we are going. Maps of Varanasi are impossible to find and useless. The disorderly streets lead in all directions and even if there were street signs we can’t read Hindi.
“Afterwards, maybe we go to my brother’s silk shop?” he adds.
This was the oldest trick in the book. But I like this guy he seems kind and has a sense of humor. I know we will take care of us, I can tell by is eyes. Dad, never one to talk to strangers, continues to ignore him.
“You can get into the Golden Temple if you go with a Brahmin” he tells me.
Everything I had read about the Golden Temple—Vishvanatha ,one of the most important Shiva temples in India—said that only Hindus could enter. But in India there are many loopholes.
“I can arrange it. No pictures.”
Every good sense in me says no. But I knew I had to say yes.
Many people come to India—a nation of 330 million gods and over a dozen religions—looking for a little bit of spiritual diversion. I had flown here on the night of my grandmother’s funeral—my favorite grandmother—a woman who lived to be 100 and who always had my favorite cookies ready for me when I visited. Varanasi is where people come to die because being cremated on the shores of the Ganges and having your ashes thrown into the river will end the cycle of death and rebirth. It ends your suffering and you attain enlightenment. My Western atheism leaves me empty when it comes to death. What happens to us anyway? Are we merely forgotten and the world moves on? I hadn’t come to India for a religious epiphany. But I wanted to experience religious life. I wanted to see one of those 330 million gods.
“What do you think?” I ask dad.
“Oh I don’t want to go, but you go. I’ll wait for you and watch your camera.”
The alleys were getting narrower and the walls are closing in.
“Ok, I’ll do it” I tell Manish, nervously.
“Papa can wait here for us here.” We leave dad sitting perched on a wall. I hand him my camera. “Have fun!” he says, like I’m going to the mall.
Manish takes me deeper into the labyrinth of alleyways. We stop at a shop where I leave my shoes but keep my passport. A man with a shaven head, younger than me, dressed only in a white robe comes out from behind a curtain—The Brahmin. His cat-like eyes tell me that he is kind and peaceful. I am immediately under his spell.
“Please, a five hundred rupee donation to our temple?” he asks. I pull out some cash and give it to him.
He takes me further into the confusing network of streets, leaving Manish behind. The cobblestones are wet and warm under my bare feet, slick with mud. I maneuver my way around a wandering cow. We pass through a police security check and I am searched.
“We must first talk to the police” the Brahmin tells me. Every alarm in my head goes off but I have already fallen through the rabbit hole. “When they ask if you are a believer in the Hindu faith, you say ‘yes.’ When they ask what you are going to do in the temple you say ‘pray.’” I am very scared.
The Brahmin walks me into what looks like a police interrogation room out of Slumdog Millionaire. There are four cops seated around a table. An ugly cop with bug eyes tells me to sit down. I can barely understand a word he says. The Brahmin kneels next to me and whispers the answers to all of the ugly cop’s questions. In the end I write down my passport number and the name of my hotel and am excused. Ugly cop takes us across the street to the security check at the entryway of the temple. I am searched again. The Brahmin then shoves me ahead through a crush of people going through the door.
Inside there is a larger crowd trying to force its way through another small doorway. The Brahmin presses jasmine flowers and leaves into my hands. “Put these on the altar and come back out” He says as he pushes me through into the crowd making their way into the inner sanctum—the altar of Shiva.
People are chanting, yelling almost. Bells are ringing. The noise is immense. The claustrophobia unbearable. I force my way to the sunken altar. I look at Shiva briefly and then focus on the flowers thrown at his feet. I throw mine down. I am seized by a panic to get out of the chamber.
Outside the Brahmin is waiting for me. This courtyard is mercifully cooler. The people have dispersed.
“There is the golden dome of temple.” He points up. “ Let me show you the shrine of Ganesha”
“No, please, take me out of here.” I blurt out, then feel guilty. “I get nervous around a lot of people. I really need peace and quiet now” I try to explain. He understands completely and without further questions takes me outside and back to my shoes and Manish.
With his forefinger the Brahmin puts an ochre colored dot of dye on my forehead. “This means you have been to the temple today. Please, a thousand rupee donation to the temple for my troubles.” I gladly hand over the cash in exchange for my freedom. Manish takes me back to dad’s perch on the wall.
“Hi, how was it?” He asks.
Concerned that I couldn’t do the experience justice, or that it would sound trivial, I shrugged it off. “I’ll tell you about it later” I said.
“My brother’s silk shop is not far away” says Manish.