This morning the city of Haridwar seems nearly silent. Of course one can hear all the usual noises of any Indian city: an insistent diversity of horn bleeps, the low rattle of tuk-tuks, engine hums, the odd bird. These never disappear. Yet compared to the cacophony which greeted me on my arrival in town three nights ago today’s soundscape feels positively meditative. Back then the entire town was in the grip of music. Pounding bass surged up from unseen places and rattled windows in their frames, bhajans roared out of loudspeakers. It sounded as though a rave of epic proportions was taking place down every side street. My first night in town was mostly spent searching for a sleeping position which might spare my ears from the incessant dance music pulsing out across the Ganga. Yesterday morning a recording of a woman singing a mantra played over and over again somewhere near my hotel room. The mantra was one I recognized:
Aum tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam urvārukamiva bandhanānmṛtyormukṣīya mā’mṛtā
A rough paraphrase of the meaning could be: “I invoke the three-eyed lord, the fragrant one who nourishes all things, may he sever us from attachment like a cucumber from a creeper and free us from the fear of death.”
The three-eyed lord is Shiva, the god who embodies dissolution and transformation, and the cause of the recent racket which I experienced in Haridwar. Last night was Maha Shivaratri (Great Night of Shiva) an after-dark extravaganza of worship directed toward the blue-throated three-eyed Destroyer. This ancient festival has existed in India since before recorded memory. Unlike other Indian holidays, such as Diwali or the now world-famous Holi, Maha Shivaratri is a celebration with an internal focus. Many will fast all day and spend hours meditating and chanting the name of Shiva. The hardcore devotees traditionally stay up all night singing and doing puja, offering fruits, food, and fragrant substances in Shiva temples. When I arrived in Haridwar I decided that I too would attempt an all night vigil. To spend all the dark hours awake seemed somehow a suitable cap to the six months which I’ve spent in India.
At sunset I packed a small backpack with extra warm layers, water, and a zip-lock bag of candied amla (Indian gooseberry). By day Haridwar is the perfect temperature, the slow encroaching Spring heat moderated by cool breezes, but the nights still retain the chill of winter. Hari Ki Pauri, the city’s central ghat was swarmed with humanity: worshippers, tourists, pilgrims, police, beggars, priests, and hustlers (those last two often synonymous) moved over the stone steps which descend into the swift green water of the Ganga like waves, as if they too were part of the water. Of course, our bodies are all mostly made of water. Whole village populations moved in file, clinging to each other’s arms, down to immerse themselves in the substance of our creation. Flaming lamps, camphor fed, cast glittering orange reflections over the bathers and leaf bowls full of flowers and fire bobbed in the current. The Ganga here is quiet for such a large river. She moves through town constrained by a wide canal, possessed of that same paradox which characterizes all rivers and always fascinates: the substance is constantly changing, yet the shape seems eternal.
This being Shiva’s night I decided to enhance the experience by consuming a portion of bhang, an edible preparation of cannabis, dairy, dried fruits, and spices. I wanted to go out and search for something, to experience a strangeness appropriate for the occasion, so I erred on the side perversity and ate a whole walnut-sized golee. As one can expect with eaten marijuana, the effects of bhang develop slowly in the body, a subtle mounting of sensations which trickle and vibrate through the limbs and eventually arrive in the mind, causing the thoughts to wander in unexpected, original directions. I washed down the golee with water and checked the time. 8 o’clock. I waited for the long night to wash over me.
Shiva is a bit of a pantheon outsider. He lives in the Himalayas on Mount Kailash, close to the roof of the world, and spends his time absorbed in deep meditation. Eschewing gold and silks, he dresses in skins and wears garlands of snakes. His horde of servants is made up of the dregs of the physical and astral worlds: outcasts, robbers, ghosts, lunatics, skeletons, wild men; he gathers them to himself and puts these negativities to use. His favorite place to spend time is in the cremation ground.
Shiva’s wife, his dynamic aspect, is Parvati, the daughter of the mountains. They live with their children Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Subrahmanya, general of the divine armies. However it was not always so. Long ago Shiva was married to Sati, the daughter of Daksha, a powerful priest and descendant of the creator of the universe. Daksha strongly disapproved of the match. He was, after all, a wealthy and influential brahmin, one of the world’s most respected priests. His daughter should have married into a family of equal standing, yet she chose that dirty mountain-dweller Shiva who wore his hair matted, smoked ganja all the time, covered his body with corpse ash and did nothing but meditate all day. Just the thought of Shiva made Daksha livid. He construed his daughter’s matrimonial choice as a personal insult.
Daksha decided to host an enormous yagna (fire sacrifice) to which he invited everyone. Literally everyone. Every god and goddess got an invitation. In India that means 330 million invitations. Not to mention a large cohort of sages, pundits, kings, and princes. The only one who heard nothing of the yagna was, of course, Shiva. This was Daksha’s ostentatiously petty way of dissing his son in law. Shiva didn’t mind in the least. He was too busy meditating to spare a thought for Daksha’s wounded ego. Sati however was enraged. She made up her mind to go to the yagna and give her father a piece of her mind.
At casa de Daksha events speedily proceeded from bad to worse. The priest poured scorn on his daughter, attempting to publicly humiliate her and her husband by proxy. Sati couldn’t bear her father’s bile and threw herself into the sacrificial fire. By the time the assembled guests managed to drag her half-burnt body out of the flames she was long gone.
When Shiva heard of his wife’s death he became enraged. He broke his meditation and yanked out one of his dreadlocks. When he threw it on the ground the hair broke and manifested two huge demons named Virabhadra and Bhadrakali. The demons saluted Shiva and made off toward the yagna site, followed by screaming hordes of ghouls. They turned over the tables, kicked dirt into the sacred fire, and threw the luscious platters of offerings onto the floor. All the guests fled in panic from the swords and staffs of Shiva’s army. Not even the divine guests escaped a good beating. Virabhadra caught Daksha and sliced off his head while the ghouls pulled out the beards of the sages for trophies. Later on Daksha was resurrected, but his head was replaced with that of a sacrificial goat.
The Daksha Mandir temple complex, the purported site of the haughty priest’s decapitation, is located in the town of Kankhal, some four kilometers from the center of Haridwar. I made up my mind that I would walk to Khankal and take darshan of the lingam there. It would be more than a casual stroll, true, but I had all night. I crossed the Ganga by means of a foot bridge and, after stopping to let a few tipsy Indian men take a selfie with the white man, began to make my way along the ghats in the direction of Kankhal. It was darker and quieter on this side of the river. Small tents of tarp, canvas, and blanket scrap clustered around big trees. To my left the Delhi highway hummed and glowed at a comfortable remove. A coughing fit detonated in one of the canvas tents and the loud, ragged sound seemed to pursue me. Somewhere a baby wailed. A creepy feeling was twisting about in my head. The feeling of being observed by everyone I could or couldn’t see, already palpable on account of my height, skin color, and hairstyle, became almost a physical pressure. Dubious premonitions haunted me and the darkness seemed altogether too dark, the quiet too much after the noise and light of Hari Ki Pauri. Probably the bhang was abetting my paranoia.
I heard a muffled hallo from the direction of the river and turned to catch the source. I thin sadhu with a large beard and many spindly dreadlocks was smiling at me and puffing on a bidi. He sat in a rickety hand-crank wheelchair with peeling blue paint. Normally I have blinders on when I walk about in Indian cities. It’s simply a necessity, otherwise my energy becomes immediately dissipated by every other person wanting to strike up a conversation, sell me something, or simply get some money. This time however I thought that I should answer the call and just see what would happen. Om namah shivaya.
The sadhu was an amiable fellow with a ready smile under his bushy mustache. His name was full of syllables which i just could not get my tongue around, but he laughed it off. He had about as much English as I have Hindi, which is to say next to none. However we managed to communicate nonetheless. He explained that his leg had been crushed when part of a temple fell on it and asked me if I was married and how many children I had.
After a long and convoluted attempt to explain something to me, the nature of which I still fail to grasp (though I believe it involved myself as an infant) he produced a small lump of hashish and told me to buy him a cigarette. I quickly located the requested item and delivered it to him. Immediately he set to work on a joint. His fingers were long and incredibly flexible, as is often the case with Indians, and there was something sorcerous and bewitching in the precision of their movements. He expertly emptied the cigarette into his palm, the gripped the hash lump between two matches like a piece of sushi and struck the matches. I was completely enchanted. I remained absolutely silent and watched his fingers at work as he crumbled the hash and prepared the joint. Clearly he was well acquainted with this process.
We smoked together and attempted to chat. I explained that I was on my way to Daksha Mandir and he laughed and nodded sagely but said nothing. Another sadhu arrived and immediately began to loudly pester the wheelchair baba, completely ignoring me. At first I had no idea what was being said, but gradually I began to pick up food words. The new sadhu kept massaging his belly and repeating: roti, dhal, paneer, bhaat etc. The word paisa (cash) also popped up with regularity. It was clear what he wanted from Wheelchair Baba.
Whenever I go out in an Indian city I stick to a strict one beggar policy. That is I give some money to one beggar and one beggar only. I almost never give to children, since one never knows to whom they will hand over the money, and only rarely to male beggars. I figure the best people to give to are old women and mothers. On this occasion I wondered if this hungry sadhu was to be my one for tonight. He seemed to be getting on Wheelchair Baba’s nerves and it would be easy to give him fifty rupees or so and send him on his way. Still, something held me back. Perhaps it was simply that he had not acknowledged my existence. It may seem an awfully petty thought, but I wondered why if I did not exist for him he should exist for me. And there was something beneath that. I intuited somehow that he was not the one tonight.
After a long bout of head-shaking Wheelchair Baba finally lost his patience.
“Chelo babbaji,” he said, shooing the hungry sadhu off. “Chelo gurudev maharaj!”
Wheelchair Baba then turned and continued the trend by asking me for some money. He wanted a thousand rupees to spend the night in a tent. Something about this story didn’t ring true. I should mention that at this point I had already given him an orange shawl which I had brought along to keep myself warm. He began requesting alcohol and money. I could feel our interaction, or at least my perception of our interaction, quickly souring. It was probably the bhang acting in my guts, but the sensation of dread which I had thought dealt with began to rise again inside me.
“Chelo,” said Wheelchair Baba and began to roll himself along the ghat, gesturing for me to follow. Since he was going my direction I saw no alternative and set off with him. What was going on? Did he mean to accompany me all the way to Daksha Mandir?
No. A short distance on we came upon a cube-shaped single room sitting on the ghat steps. Inside sat a sadhu with a matted yellow beard, his black limbs marked all over with white ash. His place was full of cloths and folded blankets for sitting and at his feet a fire flickered. Near the fire pit he had an array of small linga, as well as images of Hanuman, Kali, Durga, Dattatreya, and many other devatas and avatars. He even possessed an image of Virabhadra preparing to sever Daksha’s head with an ax. I took off my shoes and sent into his room. Unsure of what was proper I bowed before his fire and spoke a Shiva mantra.
“Om Namah Shivaya.”
“Om Namo Narayanaya!” exclaimed the sadhu.
Very well then, Om Namo Narayanaya. Salutations to Lord Vishnu.
I sat on the blankets near the fire and the sadhu began to chant. Meanwhile Wheelchair Baba gradually clambered out of his chair and lifted himself into the room next to me. Soon a young sadhu with glittering eyes and thick black hair joined us.
I noticed that the sadhu whose room this clearly was had on an expensive-looking watch. His fingers bore many gold rings and his neck was weighed down with necklaces of crystal, pearl, and rudraksha beads. He would sometimes chant bhajans which I recognized, but his pronunciation was wildly different from what I’d learned. When I tried to chant along he fixed me with a dark stare from underneath his ash-smeared brows and did not look away as I fumbled the Sanksrit. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
As the puja went on my mind, fueled by bhang and paranoid conjecture, began to leap in all kinds of fearful directions. Who are these sadhus? Can they tell how stoned I am? Do they want to take advantage of me? Do they have powers? Have I become involved in some kind of ritual? I tried to focus on the image of Hanuman, but doubt and fear were cascading over my brain like two black rivers. I was shivering as well, for the night had grown cold and Wheelchair Baba had my shawl. A haze of incense and woodsmoke clouded the air in the little room.
I felt as if I was on the edge of a panic attack. The sadhu began to intone the names of various deities, following each with a loud “ki jay!”
“Aum Durga-mata ki jay! Aum Lakshmi-mata ki jay!”
Then I heard the words.
“Aum Meenakshi-mata ki jay!”
Meenakshi! The name of a goddess, of course, but also the name of my mother. I felt a sudden overpowering surge of love and bowed my head. Immediately I placed my trust in the situation. Nothing was going to happen to me.
The chanting continued and several groups of men in normal clothes showed up to sit and touch the sadhu’s feet. I wondered just what this guy’s racket was. Was he some kind of guru? He even had gemstones tied into his beard.
Three women appeared out of the darkness and approached the room. The first two were very old, bent and thin as sticks. They wore shabby dark-colored sarees. The third was much younger, perhaps only fifteen or sixteen, and was dressed in Western style. In her arms she carried a screaming baby.
One of the old women held her hand out toward the assembled sadhus and devotees, thrusting forward her open palm and repeating a word which I could not identify. Was she asking for money?
The top sadhu made shushing gestures and flapped his hand at her as he continued his recitation. The three women stood outside watching us darkly. The baby wailed, and clenched its tiny fists. For some reason I felt annoyed with the top sadhu. Perhaps it was simply because he had on so much jewelry. The whole situation confused me. Again, the bhang was making me intensely self-critical. What if I completely misinterpreted everything?
Still, there was a young woman out there holding a screaming child. There was a mother out there. An only minutes (or was it hours?) before I had been saved from fear by hearing the name of my mother. I realized that this was it. This was the one. I stepped out of the room, laced up my shoes, and gave the young woman some money. She seemed surprised. Had I done the wrong thing? But she took the bills and touched them to her forehead. I turned to the sadhus, said “Om Namo Narayanaya,” and then walked briskly away without looking back. That was the only way I could think of to deal with the situation. Maybe I was wrong, maybe not. I can’t say. In a situation where I understood only a tenth of the words and social cues I had to go with my gut.
When I reached the next bridge I decided to check the time. So much has happened, I thought, it must be almost past midnight by now. Quarter of eleven. And I had only set off from Hari Ki Pauri at nine o’clock. Apparently the bhang was altering my sense of time. My world had slowed and stretched. Many hours and many steps remained ahead.