When a Dom is born, it is said that people weep, they weep for the newborn’s impending life of hardship on one of the bottom rungs of Hindu society. As an Untouchable, they’re destined for an almost inescapable life of ‘unclean work’ in the community.
In a culture where death is viewed as contagious and touching the deceased as impure, it is the Dom’s job to burn the dead. They weigh the wood and build the pyre. On the banks of the holy Ganges, they burn over 70 bodies each day. Using scarves as masks, they walk with heat and smoke. They bend and break the bones until only ash is left. After the fire has burned, they sift through the remains for gold teeth and jewellery.
In the early morning, there is a pocket of time, just as the sun rises, before the crowds descend onto the ghats, before the heat sets in, when the eternal river seems deserted – there is a moment of clarity.
Bodies lie sleeping in the morning cool, a barefoot family undress dutifully and walk in silent admiration to the water’s edge, a few men bathe quietly, drifting with the cleansing current, another prays, eyes closed and cross-legged. It is now, in this moment, a moment that passes in seconds that I can fully feel the holiness of this city, the reverence in the devotees and the sacredness of the flowing river.
A sacred feeling, although it is ever-present, in this moment, it is untainted by crowds, pollution, stray animals, heat or hassle. It is these few seconds that I will remember when I recall the holy city of Varanasi.
The mountains are hostile. They are dry and threatening. I am a speck on their trail, they are the vast, foreboding backdrop of the isolated Phuktal Monastery. The barren Himalayas, the cooling winds and the snow resting on mountain tops are constant reminders of the unrelenting winter to come.
Spilling from the mouth of a cave, the Gompa corridors wind up and down the mountain face. The darkness is warm, the shadows repeat mantras in low tones and footsteps echo through the dusty tunnels. The monks lead lives of devoted solitude, there is a calm, contentment in the aloneness, a feeling of inherent peace with the seclusion from the outside world. This stillness is only broken by the young lamas, who playfully interrupt the otherwise disciplined, stoic atmosphere.
My words quickly expire. My mind is quiet. Life becomes simple. The mountain is my clock. The rushing river is my music. The hypnotic gong vibrates through the valley and the black crows circling above call me for meals.
Together, we teach, we learn, we sip tea, we shake hands, we share food, we sway in unison before each meal. We connect, without words.
Location: Phuktal Monastery, Zanskar Valley, India
What is your name? Veer Bahadursingh Narula, but my nickname is Angad
How old are you? 26
Where were you born? Amritsar, India
Where do you call home? Amritsar, India
What is your religion? Sikh
What is your impression so far of this place? Hmmm… I really like the people, they are very clean. It’s my personal view that they should be doing meditation. They are just saying mantras and to me that’s incomplete. It’s the most beautiful and powerful monastery I have ever seen. I see a good scope in the school considering it has only been open for two years. I also feel that the classes have to increase and they need a good Buddhist philosophy teacher and an English teacher and a teacher who doesn’t drink.
What have you learned from this trip? Hmmm…I have learned a lot of things… I’ll start with Rishikesh, where I learned there is an alternate reality. It’s different to the objective reality which is more at the molecular level, that you can see with your eyes closed. This is how my trip started in Rishikesh, but then I went deeper into it in Gangotri.
Then I learned Vipassana, it was a ten day course, where you cannot speak. I didn’t meditate before, it is very difficult but it is very logical.
Also, I learned a lot at Rainbow Gathering. I learned a lot about the value of nature and food and how the material world is bullshit.
After coming here, to Phuktal, I am very sure there are two realities but I also know we need to keep the two balanced. I would say that ahhh…it’s best if you’re living for yourself, even when you’re helping others you should be doing it for yourself, you do not expect anything in return – this is the shortest way to happiness.
What are you most looking forward to? One, for sure is, to go deeper into molecular reality and try to experience God. Others would be to survive in minimal conditions, remove all the fears and be more adventurous. And to make travelling a profession and work a holiday. Finding a soulmate.
What made you leave home? I realised this last year, in December, when I was in Egypt. I just felt it somehow that I had to leave everything and travel. I was in Egypt again this year and had the same feeling but stronger. I had no answer to why, I just knew I wanted to travel.
What do you miss most about home? Food
Would you describe yourself as lost or found? I would say I’m a happy lost guy
When we met, we were polite and awkward like all new friends. I knew I liked you, but I didn’t understand you. You were bright, colourful, full of life. I was hesitant, shy, self-conscious. You were always busy, sometimes it felt like I was in the way, but your smile reassured me. You fed me, food and experiences I had never tasted. Flavours I long to taste again.
You reminded me of a simpler way. You were detached from possessions but dependent on nature. Sometimes you opened up, you spoke of your pain, your loss, your sorrow. I listened. You were hot and cold, sometimes it felt like you were angry, like you were testing me. But I learned, behind that intensity was a calmness, an inner peace, an acceptance of the extreme emotions you feel.
I hope we will meet again, and like old friends we will embrace and reminisce of that time we first met.
Riding my bike in a backstreet in Sri Lanka, I was met at doorways and driveways by curious onlookers, some would smile and wave, others would stare. I came to a dead end where the road wrapped around a school playground. There were three young girls playing and when they saw me, they waved excitedly, one started to shout happily and repeatedly ‘Money please! Money please!’.
In a developing country, being asked for money was always expected. What surprised me in Sri Lanka, was the range of ways this was put forward and from a range of positions in society.
I was trying to find the train station when, despite my resistance, an old, toothless man, followed me and ushered me into a souvenir shop. I declined his offer to show me more stores and he described his family and their struggles in the aftermath of the 2006 tsunami. I walked into a store to buy a drink and he asked me to buy milk sustogen for his sick daughter. The shop was out of stock and as I was leaving the security guard warned me about the man’s ploy to return the milk later for cash. When I returned without the milk, the man pleaded for some money.
After staying in a Sri Lankan hotel for over a month I was talking to the hotel manager about a recent visit to his hometown 150km away. He described his visit with his family and the reason for his trip was to assist his son in his purchase of some land. He then asked if he could borrow 2000rp ‘just for a few days’.
While waiting at a bus station, I got talking to a local who had helped me find the right bus. He assured me that he didn’t want any money. As the conversation went on, he told me all he wanted was a beer, but no money. I was about to leave town, there was no bar nearby, but he kept insisting that all he wanted was a beer, no money.
After ordering home delivered curries from a local, we spent some time talking one afternoon on the beach. He explained that his restaurant was shut down last season because he didn’t have the correct permit and it would cost $5000 to get it up and running again. He asked if I would be his business partner, he said I could go back and forth from Australia, spending the season in Sri Lanka to oversee the restaurant each year.
Who would you give money to?
Despite the different classes of society or different ploys in which to get it, they are all essentially asking for the same thing. They view me, as a tourist, as rich. Which, by their standards is very true. I felt naturally more inclined to give money to some of these people rather than others. On reflection, I realised that I, as a traveller, passing through, am not in a position to judge who will use the money well. We must decide for ourselves, whether we are helping by giving money or teaching a generation and society that tourists are an easy way to make money.