The events I am about to relate happened in India fifty years ago. In the ancient city of Banaras, also called Varanasi, or, in the Sanskrit, named Kashi.
Kashi, Maharaja, literally “Great King of Banaras”, can mean either the god of destruction, Shiva, or the living Raja, in his crumbling castle across the river.
Banaras – half a million souls, many of whom will die there, pilgrims to the sacred city of Lord Shiva, god of destruction, dissolution & chaos, within whose blue toxin-swollen throat the river of life is held & transmuted by the dark dance of death. City too of weavers of silk & gold, of traditional & modern learning, of bustling commerce & racing rickshaws and raucous car-horns. Street-sellers & pan-dealers, hustlers and priests and mad fools. And – like a huge lens focusing the city, a girdle of softly flowing water facing the rising sun, Mother Ganga, river of rivers, midway on her long life-giving journey from the high Himalayas to the distant Bay of Bengal. Life and also death – because for the pious traditional hindu, no better place than Banaras to die, credit of heavenly karma, where the fires on the banks of the Ganges burn all day and sometimes busily all night too, where curs scavenge the roasted human flesh and the sacred cows, taboo to hurt, wander fearless, innocent; where the conch shell booms hollow across the wide placid river and the temple bells never seem to stop their deep doleful tolling.
In the mid nineteen-sixties, prior to the hippy invasions of the Haight-Ashbury era, were seven legal drug shops”in Banaras. The Indians, being sensible people, these shops sold alcohol, tobacco, cannabis & opium. In theory a permit to purchase was required. In practice, foreigners, if they spoke a little Hindi, or even if they were just clean & polite, could buy whatever they required (this changed later – forced underground by the abovementioned stream of travellers, and availability suffered!).
Alcohol was cheap, rough liquor, government stamped and guaranteed not to kill, but not for much else, fierce “country” spirit, well left alone; the cannabis was standard North Indian hemp, pressed tight, full of stalks and seeds and usually smoked in a simple conical pipe.
For twopence you could buy enough weed to fill a pipe, including in the price the pipe, its’ little square of smoke-through cloth and some coconut fibre to make charcoal with. Take the grass, clean, and powder in the hand; add a local cigarette, dampen the mixture to cool the smoke and pack into the pipe; ball the strands of coconut, burn to glowing charcoal and put on top; wet the hand-cloth.
You now have a loaded ready blast machine; if you’re feeling religious, go to the nearest Shiva temple, never far away, purchasing some small offering of sweets and flowers along the route; place the smoking weapon and the sweets down beside the Shiva stone, the phallic symbol called the Lingam, ever tumescent, power to create as well as to destroy (note in parenthesis – all hindu deities contain their opposites and Shiva is creator too, just as Brahma the progenitor can also destroy with a terrible anger). Scatter the flowers, ring the temple bells, shout your praise to Shiva. Smoke the pipe, eat the sweets and go forth into the city in peace – now that is how they smoke grass in Banaras.
And I – well, I had consumed many pipes of weed before venturing to the interior narcotic realms of opium, Papaver Somniferum, the all-relieving, all-deceiving smooth dark smoke of the poppy.
I don’t actually remember exactly the moment of first arrival at the den on the outskirts of the city, up North near the steel road and rail bridge. Probably I had first sampled raw opium, unprepared, from the government shop at Dashashwamedh Ghat in the centre of town. As with the other shops they sold both the solid balls of raw opium and also “opium straw” the dried poppy plants after the harvest. You could buy the straw like tea-leaves and indeed, many local people, who would have been horrified by addiction, soaked it in boiling water as a restorative and remedial drink for the arrival of weary travellers or just as a panacea for tiredness or depression. This was a local custom, paralleled by the cannabis infusion called Bhang, made ready by grinding up grass with water into squidgy green balls. These were a food additive; you could buy bhang preparations in several forms – as a yoghurt drink called Bhang Lassi, very cooling & tasty, as Bhang icecream, yummy, & in sweets, delicious cookies made with buffalo cream and sugar, pale green pistachio barfi,
It was easy to take too much when, rarely, I consumed a Bhang product. Oral ingestion is potent but slow in affect, nearly two hours to peak, and the temptation was always to eat or drink a little more on grounds of insufficiency; eventually it would hit in the stomach, giving megamunchy lusts for food or sex, all the senses stretched, elongated, twanging superbly, followed by nausea, indigestion & sleep. The Joy of Bhang – small quantities for the weary traveller, overdoses for hungry hippies.
But I digress yet again from the main downward spiral of narcosis – ah yes, the den. Who the hell took me there first? It must have been “Mataji”. And who was Mataji? Who indeed? Philosophers could have mulled over her for centuries. “Mataji”, a Hindi noun, means simply mother, but with connotations of affection & respect, so let us translate it as “respected or senior mother, the household boss”.
But this was no ordinary hausfrau. This was a fifty year-old hell-raising, ganja-smoking, opium-taking, liquor-consuming Mother of the death, body-burning, Manikarnika ghat. (Note – I was not the first Westerner to visit Mataji; in fact, a retired traveller and ex Naga Baba now living in Oxford, is generally assumed to have made the initial contact). When our small group, 1966, first discovered her, she was living in the open basement of a temple on the river, just above the burning bodies.
It was the time of the Banaras annual music festival, five nights of classical North Indian music & dance, held under a marquee on the open town square, relayed by squawking tannoy horns and audible, though distorted, over the entire city. Each night the great interpreters of the North Indian tradition played to packed, knowlegeable and receptive audiences; Imrat Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi, Alla Rakha, to name but a few; and, of course, the master of the Shehnai, the Indian Oboe so sweet and seductive, Ustad Bhismillah Khan, himself born and bred and living in Banaras and at the height of his powers.
Starting at seven o’clock our group would head for the festival; outside the marquee, delicious smells filled the air as food sizzled and wafted and stall-sellers did a brisk business; we were too poor to afford good tickets and began the evening well to the rear and far from the stage. Past us strolled wealthy Banaras families, out to show themselves as much as to hear the music, the mustachioed men in their immaculate gold-studded silk shirts and intricately tied, starched white cotton cloths, the ladies in expensive saris of red or green or blue silks, interwoven with the finest gold threads, heavy bracelets jangling on their arms, midriffs bare, midnight hair.
Imagine the simple raised dais, white-covered rectangle with a few bolsters, on the larger stage platform used for the dance; the music has not yet begun. The stage is empty; on the dais a single Tambura (stringed drone instrument) lies cloth-covered; the Tablas (twin tuned drum set) sit opposite & light glints from the small silver hammer that tunes the drums & whose characteristic tock-tocking is the initial rythmic counterpoint.
At the very front the seating is luxurious; this for the local dignitaries. University vice-chancellors, senior officials and politicians loll on spacious mats and cushions; behind them, in comfortable seats, very different from our rough benches, the social whirl of well-to-do families, friends, chat and intermingle; among them serious music-lovers, some of whom have saved for months for their tickets, compose themselves. The tent fills up.
The supporting musicians will be ok players; perhaps senior students of a master. Adequate music will be heard for a couple of hours. When this finishes, many of the families and officials leave; after a short intermission there is either dance or, a local tradition, love songs in the Banaras Thumri style by an older, well-known and much loved courtesan of the city.
A longer interval – “round about midnight”. Only the devotees remain, still hundreds strong; after a revitalising pipe and light refreshment, we sidle up towards the front, which everyone else with tickets at the back is doing, and find seats with a good view of the musicians and a natural sound. The masters appear, the main attraction; silence. Ten or fifteen minutes is spent “tuning up”, during which period both the musicians and the audience compose themselves. No clapping – silence. (I remember in contrast the “Concert for Bangla Desh” in Carnegie Hall in New York in the early ’70s. Ravi Shankar & Alla Rakha opened and after their preparations the audience applauded and whistled vociferously; Shankar leant forward into the microphone with a sly smile on his face and said in his lilting voice, “Thank you very much – if you enjoyed the tuning I am sure you will very much like the music”!) – and so the real night begins.
How can we describe the music – impossible; when the silence between the notes is as loud and clear as the notes themselves. Raaga, Taala and Rasa – the tripod foundations of the musical cauldron; melody, rhythm and Rasa usually given as “taste”, but also corresponding to a specific emotion, or feel; a particular Raaga is chosen for the time of day (night in this case), defining the scale or key in use; the corresponding rythmn and feel can vary somewhat, but essentially a complex framework is established, within which the musicians are free to improvise, to push at boundaries, to explore the furthest realms, and always return at the end of each cycle to the structure that supports them and enables them to play so well together.
The music builds and builds and builds; the resonant drone of the Tambura never stops, even between Raagas; particular emotional moments or hot licks are rewarded by a slight sideways shaking of heads in the audience and a muttered chorus of “Wah, wah”; a few listeners keep time with the front and back of their hands moving, in the way that rythmns are taught to young children.
The power of this music – apocryphal stories abound. Tansen, court musician to the Great Moghul, was able to create fire; for years the Emperor implored him to demonstrate this; for years he refused, regarding it as beneath him; finally, for some absurd fee such as twice his weight in gold, Tansen gave in; the court assembled – it was very dangerous; a team of musicians stood by; the room became hotter and hotter – finally flames appeared and immediately the musicians played a cooling Raaga and Tansen survived. Some musicians were not so lucky; in a village near Banaras a blackened and charred Sarod (stringed instrument) stands on a small altar in a temple in honour of the player who produced fire – and died in the resulting conflagration. These are the fiery Raagas – but other powers can be invoked too by the really great masters; a love Raaga can produce orgasm among the women in the audience, and so on.
But greater than any of these are the true spiritual Raagas, that speak to us of death and renewal, that whisper in our ears “Maaya, maaya”, the grand illusion, “This – not This”, and so now the first dim rays of light filter through the canvas roof. Will they play Bhairavi, Suddha Bhairavi, the pure dawn Raaga? Because if the audience has not been receptive enough, or if the musicians are not in the mood, they will pack up now and go. But yes – a stern glance from the soloist to the drone player, a look to the drummer who flexes his hands in response, and the first impossible lonely arythmic solo notes of Bhairavi Alap float like clouds across the sky and vanish. We are close enough to see the grimaces on the face of the soloist as he bends the notes further and further, an octave, an octave and a half, listening for the microtones, the notes between the notes; after the Alap solo, the Jhor, joined by the Tabla, transitional, rythmn established; and then finally the Ghat – the flushed face of the drummer as the soloist pushes the speed up and up; then the interplaying, rythmic responses to solo riffs, four bars each, two bars each, a bar, a note, faster and faster, dancing, staring each other in the eyes, impossible to look away for a moment. The last Raaga of the night has greeted the start of a new day. Finish – go home.
But we do not go home; we are off the river to Manikarnika Ghat to see Mataji, as the suns’ red ball rises rosy over the flat landscape of the great Gangetic plain.
The day begins early for most people in the tropics and the river bank is crowded and noisy with life; the morning bath is essential; arrogant high-caste Brahmins with their brass pots and threads, looking for a slightly secluded spot where they can mutter their mantras, facing the rising sun waist deep in the water; bands of chattering ladies bathing in saris, sometimes sexy in the clinging wet cloths; men pumping iron, working out on stone steps, wooden platforms, weights & oils and massages and bulging muscles; holy men under coconut umbrellas, up since 03:30 and greeting devotees; unholy men up all night, bathing away blues; washerwomen slapping work against stone slabs, hammering out dirt and chanting in unison. Mother Ganga, so “dirty” and yet so clean, floating flowers, bodies on biers, dead cows, mixed up; I bathed in you for years, drank your water, cooked with it, never an illness or a day of illhealth. I will make the pilgrimage, promised for decades, to your source at Badrinath Narayan, Gangotri, Himalayas, and I will walk up, even though there is now a road to the full twentythousand foot height and pilgrims clatter up in belching diesel buses.
Now it’s the shorter walk along the Ghats at plain level and Mataji has already had her bath, clean white cloth, hair up in the top-knot, brisk face to the new day, pottering about making tea and sneaking wood off the burning-body fires for her own little encampment. She had what was called a “Staan”,( literally a stand), actually a small fire, two foot by two foot, packed earth sides four inches high and fed intermittently with wood from the smoking fires below. Raffia mats around the fire defined the limits of her personal territory, though it would be a brave man who set up his scene too close to hers and in practise she always had plenty of space for us to sit & rack out in comfort.
What a woman! Five foot nothing, old as sin and dark as time, sometimes she could look like a twelve year old innocent virgin; her voice could caress like a feather but also rasp at a volume that would bring a chorus of muttered complaints from the surrounding Sadhus (“holy” men) congregated with their own fires nearby. An uneducated village lady, literate in her own dialectal Hindi, speaking not a word of English to begin with, a grandmother too, she had given up the world by burying herself in it; a genuine, rip-roaring, shouting, drinking, smoking, singing, holy lady of a classic Hindu type. Masterful in her own environment – lost outside the embrace of Shiva Nataraja.
And this was in the early days, the days before ex-professor Richard Alpert, late of Harvard University, arrived on our houseboat and distributed Owsley acid with careless disdain and Mataji dropped a double trip with us and her life changed for ever. She took one look at Alpert and shouted “LSD Baba, LSD Baba” and though she’d heard about acid from us, this strange Western concoction, I have still no idea how she knew who he was. And he was always LSD Baba to her. But that was months distant and in another story.
In those days, late ’66 I was staying in my room at the Sanskrit University, studying hard in the first year of a three year course, bawling out Stotras (synonymic verses) to memorise and struggling with the intricacies of Patanjali’s grammar; the room was part of a courtyard quadrangle and was surrounded by Tibetan Lamas, Tulkus, Rinpoches, and Singhalese Bhikkus, Northern & Southern buddhists; a little buddhist enclave in a Brahmin university, with a half-dozen Westerns to round off the academic flavours.
Gradually, over many months, there somehow seemed less and less time to spend at the University and more and more of my life began to centre on the river and the cremation ground, and on Mataji, finding a truth of Hinduism in one of its stranger corners.
Some devotee had made a special pipe for her; instead of the small disposable conical clay “chillum”, this one was twelve inches long, turned in some dark hard tropical wood, the outside banded with seven silver rings worked with traditional designs; the metal-lined bowl held an ounce. Preparing it for action was a religious ritual, a festival.
Evening now has come, the heavy dusk, dust hanging in the air, heat refracting off paving stones, the river hazy, the dying sun behind us; when the pipe is ready to smoke Mataji first pours half a cup of spirit liquor on the embers, which flame up with great blue and yellow tongues combusting and lighting up our faces as we squat or sit crosslegged about her fire. She always decides who will have the privilege of the first hit, an accolade for the chosen one, who must praise Shiva first, before putting lips to the clean wet cloth at the bottom of the pipe and – hitting it, deep smoke lung-bursting toke.
Many times I held that pipe, raised it above my head and chanted:
“Guru Brahmaa, guru Vishnu, guru devo Maheshvara,”
“Guru saakshaat, param brahmaa, tasmai shri guruve namaha”.
“Om shanti, shanti, shantihi”.
Which could be translated as, “Teacher and lord Brahma the creator, teacher and lord Vishnu the preserver, and great lord Shiva, teacher of all the Gods. I praise the name of Shiva beyond all sense and meaning and logic. Peace, more peace, peace beyond – Yeah!”. If you wish to hear those lines in a Western context, just play George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” and behind all the “Sweet Lords” you can clearly hear the ancient Hindu chant, only slightly changed by Liverpudlian vocal chords.
On the other hand, one could simply bellow “Boom Shankar” (“Shiva – Blast off”) and go for it – there is room for everyone and every way in India. Too many digressions – I admit I’m avoiding it – Opium is our subject here and damnit for the life of me I cannot remember how I began that dream state.
Since Mataji took her little balls of raw opium twice a day, I probably begged some off her. Do not misunderstand, she did not entice me into it and after all I’d smoked opium in a hotel room in Istanbul and packed a Kif pipe with heroin in Copenhagen with Lotte Dyre Nielsen, didn’t even know it was heroin, which tenorist Dexter Gordon, her boyfriend, thought was funny as hell.
No – I was ready and waiting for my first addiction and if it had not been Mataji I would have searched out somebody else; As the saying goes – “Let me make one thing quite clear!” – ALL addictions are created by their owners, and whether tobacco or heroin or the love of a woman, are hard work to start and even harder to maintain; the addict only has it because he wants it – he makes it an essential part of life. He makes it.
Boring addictions – back to the opium den; hell, I was never so reluctant to go there as I am to write about it.
Walk from town centre, Mataji leading the way, addressing all and sundry along the route, demotic chattering and we pass the Banaras central temple, Vishvanath Mandir, with its high forbidden walls, citadel of Hinduism, a hidden land. We used to say, in the early days, that the sign outside the gates said, “No Christians & Dogs allowed”. In fact it probably read “Hindus Only”, but it was certainly not an easy place to enter, a sort of brahminical Fort Knox and Pentagon combined, a complex of temples and storerooms and courtyards, all enclosed by a wall pierced with small gates and having at its centre, the vault, the main focal point of hindu Banaras, the central small Shiva temple.
So Mataji is telling me, as we walk past (on our way to the Opium Den for the first time) what arrogant so and so’s the priests are there and how only she could get us in and how real soon now she will. And she did … twice that I remember; the first time was quite peaceful, it must have been a quiet time and perhaps the brahmins were having their siesta; we circumambulated, saw the central temple, paid respects. The second time the confrontation began even as we entered, but there was no way she was going to back down or retreat, quite right too, and the visit continued, a little hurried to be sure, with Mataji screaming imprecations at the following army of Brahmins, all afraid of getting too close to us for fear of pollution, also yelling their heads off.
Banarsi days, Banarsi nights! Let’s give the brahmins their due though, they had a lot to guard, milleniums to preserve intact; they had to rebuild the temple on the current site a few centuries earlier when the Moghuls invaded the previous one and turned it into a mosque and they do not seem to have forgotten.
But there is one day of the year when all may enter and all may leave in peace.
They call it “Shiva’s Night” and though Banaras has many festivals and celebrations, this is the big one. Set by lunar phase, the date varies, late February or early March (after Chinese New Year but before Christian Easter). Following a night of serious attention to personal life, fasting, prayer, song, what seems to be the whole city sets off for Vishvanath temple. A unit of the Indian Army is on standby for crowd control, but their presence is largely symbolic.
Years later my teacher, with his three students, joins the queue at perhaps nine in the morning.
It stretches round several city blocks and movement is a slow intermittent shuffle. After several hours we pass through the main gate; the line to the Shiva stone winds through courtyards, interior gates and secondary temples. Everywhere there are people, Brahmins and cows and flowers.
Finally we approach the central sanctum; entrance is controlled by two large khaki-clad army sergeants with crossed sticks like swords, allowing small groups to go in, see their god, and leave, as otherwise the press would be intolerable. By this time the flowers are a foot thick on the flagstones, walking on petals, barefoot of course; everyone carries offerings of Ganges water and the atmosphere is thick and humid, moist with incense and water and the scent of lilies and frangipani; priests are trying to keep the way clear, sweeping up flowers into piles in corners of ante-rooms and one favoured cow stands there, pure white, waist deep in blossoms, placidly ignoring the multitudes.
At last the sticks are raised and we erupt like corks into …… a small bare room, granite cube, no windows, lit by flickering oil lamps augmented for the occasion with portable electric lights on stands. A very bright dark room, no decorations on the walls, no statues, no paintings, no books, no lesser gods. At first all I can see is the small team of Nambudri Brahmins, the priests’ priests, naked to the waists, shaven heads, white cloths, pure to the point of invisibility, who are chanting the Vedas from memory, tonal precise Sanskrit, in exactly the same way that their forefathers did when they invaded North India and drove the Dravidian culture south, four thousand years before.
Around us the devotees are crying out, throwing flowers and Ganges water over the heads of those in front, into the centre of the room. Somehow we press forward and are given a little space and then I see it; a rectangular hole cut into the floor and, nestling inside, a cosmic egg, one of the smallest, plainest and darkest Shiva stones ever.
Some experiences can not be described; no simile fits them, no metaphor can pin them down; after … time? Probably a few minutes, perhaps hours; we go back into the streets and sit quietly on a park bench overlooking the river; when one of the other students starts talking about the visit our teacher silences him scornfully.
But teacher, father, Damodaran, you were still in Kerala, South India, fighting lonely soul battles with your own master, Nataraja Guru, and Mataji and myself are still now walking through the alleyways, scuttling across intersections, heading for my first Opium Den.