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Ghat 'n' Heaven:
What's a Nice Buddhist Like You Doing in a Mela Like This?

Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.

Oh, I come from Allahabad with a sitar on my knee
I'm gone to Kumbha Mela
All the babas for to see.

There's millions on the bathing ghat
And millions on the road,
I bowed and prayed and chanted, but
Madonna never showed.

Kumbha Mela! I'll dip my head in thee,
Where the Ganga and Yamuna meet
Is where I want to be!

Okay, enough irreverence! I'll get speared by a naga baba's steel trident if I keep it up. Even 128 kilometers away in Varanasi, where I'm sitting in a cramped cybercafe, the babas are present. Varanasi's old name is "Kashi," the City of Spiritual Light. Its name among foreign visitors and expatriates is the City of Music. You can study with master musicians at the many schools in town. If you die here, it's the best place in the country -- barring the Maha Kumbha Mela -- to be cremated and scattered in the Ganga.

Mark Twain called Varanasi, "Older than history, older than legend, older than old, and it looks older than all of them put together." The inner, ancient city near the Ganga River is a medieval tangle of alleys, each barely as wide as a comfortable hallway. Cubbyhole shops like walk-in closets are packed with cabinets and shelves full of silks, perfumes, toys, luggage, and all the contents of your average neighborhood convenience store. The alley walls are decorated with carvings and arches and shrines centuries old. The streets are decorated with cows, dogs and goats and their inevitable byproducts. Somehow the humans squeeze and plow and press through it all. I guess there's a radar that develops around the ankles, to avoid the animal effluvium. Nowhere else in the world, I imagine, do you find such a close juxtaposition of the exquisite and the excrement.

I've been very careful with my picture-taking so far in India, but Varanasi brings out the warring archetypes within me: Mindful Traveler and Bumbling Tourist.

Bumbling Tourist pays way too much for a brightly painted toy, and attracts a crowd of urchins with their hands out. Mindful Traveler just rolls her eyes at a snake charmer who has stopped his show to demand 100 rupees for the picture just taken. Bumbling Tourist blindly follows others who seem to know something. Mindful Traveler gets really lost in a very strange place, but is confident of eventually arriving back at the guest house.

Mindful Traveler stops to really see a place, breathe its air and hear its sounds, before reaching for the camera. Mindful Traveler knows the real picture is within, in her dreams and her body's memory. Bumbling Tourist "grabs a shot," and feels as though the camera has stolen a piece of her soul.

Mindful Traveler is a newly-minted Buddhist, looking for the dharma within Kumbha Mela and the riot of gods in Hindu culture. After all, this sacred masala (spice blend) gave birth to the Buddha just as Judaism launched Christianity. Bumbling Tourist just grips her prayer beads and hopes for the best.

I came to Kumbha Mela knowing that Buddha is considered the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu (world-creator), and so has a place in the Hindu pantheon. Still, the Mela is a Hindu festival, so Ganesh, Shiva, Kali, Krishna and everybody like that are the star attractions. Thus I was surprised to find that in the camp of Pilot Baba, our media group's main contact among the gurus, the welcoming shrine sheltered a statue of the Buddha. I found out that Pilot Baba's teachings weave together the major religions, so that everyone can feel included in his message of peace.

Buddha also smiled at me from the edge of a garden arbor where I lunched with several friends. Across the garden was a cheerful Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good luck. Good luck and liberation, sounds like a fun partnership.

Then, here in Varanasi, I visited Sarnath, the site of Buddha's first sermon and explication of his Middle Path. Besides the ruins of the monastery and stupa that remain, there is a temple and interpretive site that dates from 1931. It left a "very nice feeling," as the guide put it.

But the absolute wow of the day was a visit to a Tibetan temple and monastery, just off a back road and little-visited by tourists. The complex was begun in 1993 and completed in 1999, dedicated in that December by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Big, flaming with colors, brand new, vibrantly alive -- it was a happening scene! Red-robed monks pattered about with their various tasks. This was completely different from the ancient awe and statue overload that burned us out at Khajuraho. We could enter the fore part of the main shrine room to take pictures.

Oh glory, oh amazing -- a huge gold statue of a seated Buddha, in a large room for many monks, decorated and painted and mandala'd up the wazoo ... I dropped and did my prostrations. I vowed to just look, and remember, and not take any pictures.

That may have been Bumbling Tourist talking, so afraid of doing something wrong.

It might have been Mindful Traveler who knew she couldn't hold this sight back from her friends ... and snapped the shutter.


Something Utterly Strange | The Road to Allahabad | The Kumbh and the Covered Casserole
Many Rivers, Choose Your Speed | The Road (ouch!) to Khajuraho | Ghat 'n' Heaven
Duck Three Times in the River for Salvation