A Reluctant Pilgrimage to Varanasi
Story and photos by Camille Cusumano

A traveler to India's holiest city wonders if she is pilgrim or tourist, culture hound or voyeur.

Varanasi, India

Celebrating my birthday with a longtime friend in Varanasi was gift enough. The unexpected bonus was that our visit to this ancient city overlapped with a Kumbh Mela, a monumental religious event that takes place in India certain years, according to auspicious dates on the Hindu lunar-solar calendar.

Pilgrims, including lay and clerical people, arrive in masses for the major Kumbh Mela (last one was 2013), which exceeds even the size of the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Just as Burning Man transforms a serene desert landscape into a swarming village for a weekend, Kumbh Mela, major or half-size, sprouts a buzzing tent city—like wallpaper that can be peeled off when the event ends. Kumbh Mela's centerpiece is the ritual dip in Mother Ganga, whose waters, notwithstanding pollution, have long been regarded as soul-cleansing, sin-absolving, and regenerative.

This year's Kumbh Mela, a so-called "half" one, was centered at Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), some seventy-five miles from Varanasi. Oga and I would watch the Naga Sadhu sect pour into Varanasi, setting up camp along the ghats, or riverbanks, in preparation for the collective dunk. Sadhus, according to the Times of India, comprise "one of the toughest streams of asceticism," that rigorous practice of self-denial that seems to have been perfected in India over the ages. Sadhus renounce the material world. Many shave their hair except for a symbolic tuft, a shikha, at the back of the skull, a sort of divining rod that channels cosmic energy for the purpose of enlightenment. They perform pind-daan, a solemn celebration of their own physical death.

They push the body to and beyond its limits, in their quest to eradicate sexual desire and silence the ego. When not attending Kumbh Mela, many meditate in the Himalayas, perform social work, or retreat to remote caves.

preparing for a party in GeorgiaThis was my first, Oga's fifth, visit to Varanasi—her proclaimed favorite city. I couldn't have had a better guide as Oga's been traveling the huge subcontinent frequently over the past sixteen years. She arranged our lodging at the Azure Guest House, a five-minute stroll to Assi Ghat, one of the eighty-seven riverbanks along the Ganges, including the three designated cremation ghats.

A Varanasi Puja at Dawn

The first morning, spurred by innocent curiosity in a new and exotic city, the bliss of discovery was mine. I ventured out alone at dawn and made my way to Assi Ghat. Amid the phantasmagorical carnivalesque atmosphere one expects in India was a preponderance of red and saffron robes. A Hindu priest near a long altar of ornamental liturgical items was just finishing puja in observance of the rising sun. I fell in line with the faithful to receive what I whimsically called "Holy Communion." When it was my turn to bow to the young priest, I held out my palm, received and savored the anise-flavored pralines. He waved incense smoke over his head. I did so too. I bowed and said Namaste. I felt one with the communicants.

As the morning broke full and bright, a yoga class and jazz musicians on tabla and clarinet ramped up the interactive offerings. I returned to my guest house and joined Oga for chai and porridge. Sona, our hostess, had spoiled us the night before with hand-crafted paratha and aloo gobi, a spicy stew of cauliflower, potatoes, and onions. Before we left, we'd each pack a small container of Sona's secret chai blend. "It's so clean and fragrant," we cooed as we sipped the sweet milky Assam tea.

As I related to Oga the myriad sensory invasions I'd just experienced, a woman's voice interjected, "Don't you just love it!" A declarative sentence requiring only an affirmative.

She was a guest from Vancouver, on her way to Nepal with her husband and she meant to be sociable. But I bristled inwardly. The bliss of discovery drained with a sucking sound heard only in my head. Delusion slapped me in the face like a wet garment just plunged in Mother Ganga.

Her innocent comment sparked the awakening to the fact of my being a tourist, not a pilgrim.

Like the proverbial monk meditating with the urgency of his hair on fire, I would spend the next five days contemplating my inner dilemma, while also being immersed in the fantasia unique to India. Amid the cultural beauty and historical wonders, there are grit, poverty, indigence, and putrescence, elements to love when you can leave them. Is the detachment I aspire to really indifference? Hence, a knotty sense of separateness arose, the duality that is the root of suffering, the Buddha taught. Pilgrim or tourist, culture hound or voyeur was my constant mantra.

Oga was my saving grace. Our friendship was born in one thunderclap twenty-seven years ago, when our eyes met at Beginners Mind Temple, the San Francisco Zen Center. Although she and her husband now live in Berlin, we rendezvous around the world, including a few times in southern India. I perceived that the same grace and joie-de-vivre that drew me to Oga, was working its magic on the many Sadhus we encountered on the banks of the Ganges. Despite their allegiance to abstemious ways, Oga could spontaneously generate sociable exchanges that transform monastic solemnity into gregarious connection.

Hanging Bells and Birthday Suits

It took me a while to get inured to the casual nakedness of some Sadhus who had smeared their bodies head to toe with ashes and sometimes strung bells on their penises, a form of immolation. Admittedly, I was more voyeur than anything at first. Oga, being more savvy, would wait until after a period of sincerely engaging with them before asking, "May I take your photo?" As curious about us as we were about them, invariably they said yes, and often wanted to know was Oga Chinese? India with OgaJapanese? When she answered, "Korean," they gushed about loving South Korea. And I felt, by association, invited into their graces. Once Oga had me sit among a handsome group of Sadhus, who laughed unrestrained as she coaxed smiles to snap us. I too felt release and recouped some sense of oneness with the fellows.

How could I not lose self-consciousness on our strolls along the ghats, the air on the spectrum from fragrant to putrid, but always alive, festive, electric with human enterprise? We brushed past swaying saris, vendor tables with garlands of fresh flowers, clutches of various religious groups in pure white or saffron who had come together for their spiritual "Woodstock." They cooked on dung fires, smoked hashish, incanted soulfully in front of make-shift altars to any of India's manifold deities.

Women created a neon stream of sari silks and jangling jewelry as they perambulated around a sacred gnarled tree, chanting in Hindi. Like giant prayer flags, laundry washed in the Ganges festooned the sloping banks. Monkeys, goats, pigs, and cows hung with their own. I startled when a dead cow floated down river, but people heedlessly went on bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes.

Ashes to Ashes in India

At the burning ghat we watched a man unwrap and tenderly kiss his elderly father's forehead. The corpse was being readied on sandalwood, to be burned and then consumed by the Ganges. The kiss, one of many steps in Hindu cremation, transported me back to my childhood watching old Sicilian relatives laid out ceremoniously in death. We children were not shielded from the stilled bodies of our kin, respectfully casketed, to be viewed, sat with, grieved over openly—kissing optional.

The details of any funereal rites are fascinating, and I was glad to have Oga explain the whole process here in Varanasi. The son left for some minutes, then returned transporting a torch of sacred fire eternally burning at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. He ignited the pyre and flames began incinerating the mortal remains of a human.

Just two weeks later, another impermanence reminder—that we come from and will return to dust—would be repeated in less dramatic fashion when Catholic priests smudged foreheads with black ash for Ash Wednesday. We watched this Ganges ritual for nearly an hour before leaving the cremation, which would take about three hours to smolder down. Night fell as we headed home to Azure and a light rain started.

Lessons From a Sadhu

A group of Sadhus exchanged pleasantries with us en route and invited us under their tarp for tea. We sat cross-legged on blankets, the glow of candlelight dancing on faces of four westerners and a half-dozen Sadhus. One Sadhu, turbaned with a groomed beard, spoke perfect English and might have been Oxford educated. He held forth on Mother Ganga, his rich voice commanding everyone's attention. He was mesmerizing, interjecting an imperious Okay? after each phrase, along with piercing eye contact.

Sadhus in IndiaHe narrated a long tale of Indian mythology about a god who had sixty sons, Okay?, who were turned into asses by an angry competing god, Okay? My mind drifted and came back when the sons were redeemed and turned back to humans. In his professorial tone, he went on to say how the waters of Mother Ganga are pure, Okay? I audibly gasped and he qualified that he meant the headwaters that flow from the source near Rishikesh in the Himalayas. "Not here in Varanasi," he lamented somewhat sarcastically, "where industry so generously contributes its sewage through twenty-six outlets."

He continued, "No bacteria grow in her waters from the source." He knew an American who carried a bottle of headwaters back to the States and proved that no bacteria would grow in it, even after a few weeks.


We felt a tumult of warmth with our Sadhu hosts and stayed more than an hour intuiting, where language failed, their dedication to their demanding practice. Soon they would be immersed in the confluence of three rivers—the Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati—on the designated bathing day. As we stood to leave, the "Professor" asked the initial of our first names and said, "Return tomorrow at 10 a.m. and I will give you names."

On the Holy River

We rose before sunrise next morning, my birthday. Oga flagged down a man with a small wooden boat. Against its blue trim loomed a red horizon as we pushed offshore and drifted to the middle of the Ganges. We had purchased beforehand small terracotta-ensconced candles wreathed in marigolds and plumeria. We each lit a candle and ceremoniously set afloat our offering to Mother Ganga. Amarjid, our rower, let me row for a spell, my technique awkward under heavy bamboo oars. We loved the perspective from the serene waters (granted, teaming with life and death) of the cacophony and animation gathering onshore.

Varanasi on boat

We were a little late in returning to the Sadhus tent to get our names. I relished the idea of yet another to add to my two baptismal names, confirmation name, and the Buddhist name I received at lay ordination in 1996, Daiko Anshin, meaning Inner Flame, Peaceful Heart. (Even my surname has meaning—"handsewn.") The new name would ameliorate my sense of separateness.

We ducked in and settled on the thick blankets. One of the Sadhus had unraveled what I thought was a turban, but was his ropey dreadlocks, falling Rapunzel-like, a good seven feet. He stood posing for a photo with a pretty blond New Zealander. They related, the way people do who don't share a common tongue—through facial expressions and body language. Our would-be name-giver was quite subdued and unable to get a word in amid the flirtatious banter that seemed, well, un-Sadhu-like.

The spell was broken. Our wise man, though still charming, was very young by daylight. No longer imperious, he seemed to have forgotten about our names. He wiped our foreheads with powdered saffron and we slipped into the thick of tourists and/or pilgrims, alternately being one or the other.

Crossing to the Buddhist Side

There remained one last important side trip. Having sat through hundreds of so-called "dharma" talks over the years of our Buddhist studies, we were eager to set foot on the sacred ground of the Buddha's first post-enlightenment sermon at Deer Park, or Sarnath. We hired a rickshaw to take us the six miles there—it took an hour. The open, airy, groomed park, lush with green meadows and fenced-in deer, was a refreshing break from the crush of crowds at Varanasi. The ruins of ancient monasteries from different eras fanned across the green acres.

Varanasi buddha park

A stupa, a brick dome-shaped tower, seemed the perfect humble shrine to the Buddha, who only reluctantly agreed to teach what he had learned sitting for thirty years under the Bo tree in nearby Bodhgaya. He told his followers that truth is empirical, or experiential. We must all seek our own middle way. As Prince Gautama Siddhartha, he had renounced his royal riches, and at first embraced the extreme asceticism the Naga Sadhus practice, only to declare it as not the way to liberation, or freedom from suffering.

As we spiraled up one of the two stupas, I considered that I could go back to the young Sadhu and tell him that, to return to his mother's home and to moderation. But I would be way out of line. I am just a reluctant pilgrim, one who sometimes looks a lot like a tourist...

Camille Cusumano is the author of the travel memoir Tango, an Argentine Love Story, a novel The Last Cannoli, and editor of Seal Press anthologies on France, Italy, Mexico, and Greece. Her latest book is Wilderness Begins at Home, Travels with my big Sicilian family.

Related Features:
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The Eyeless Blessing of Sangha Tenzin - Marco Ferrarese
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