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Amateur

Forgive me for there being so much descriptive detail in this story. My memory of what happened isn’t totally clear in my mind for reasons that I will reveal, so I have been trying to remember every detail. If you are Hindu (as I consider myself to be), perhaps you shouldn’t read further because some things I saw and did you might find shocking and offensive. Maybe though, you will be able to answer some of my questions about it.

I had been walking for at least an hour. I thought I had a good idea of the general layout of the city. Varanasi, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, stretches along the Northern bank of the river Ganges. I thought as I walked through the narrow lanes of the old city that I would always be either close to the river or close to the main roads though I didn’t realise that the city is on an almost semi-circular bend in the river so walking roughly Westward was taking me further and further away from both. Anyway, I could still hear the incessant sound of truck horns and Vespa buzzes in the distance so I knew that I wasn’t that lost.

The old city is a maze of narrow laneways between windowless houses. They mostly only have doors into inner courtyards that I saw sometimes when people came out. Once I made a mistake and found myself in someone’s home. The division between public laneway and private house entrance wasn’t always obvious to me. The family stopped what they were doing and stared at me.

“Namaste”, I said with palms together and backed out.

The laneways were all paved in stone and worn by centuries of walkers. There was only the occasional Vespa, often being pushed along by its owner. There were shrines built into the ancient stone walls of some of the houses. The god was so encrusted with vermillion paste applied by worshipers that they were usually just unrecognisable blobs of orange-red.

I stopped at a small tea shop and bought a glass of tea. Indian tea is strong, milky, sweet and often spiced with cardamons, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and other spices but this also had a distinct oniony, burnt rubber flavour that I found quite unpleasant. Strangely the two young men who ran the shop seemed to be joking about me as I drank it.

As I kept walking, the buildings became less residential and more cottage industrial. There were shops with one or two men, often wearing more around their heads than around their waists, hammering, angle grinding and blacksmithing, sometimes with sparks or choking fumes hampering my progress. I often took different paths just to avoid them, further confusing my sense of direction. The sky above was white with no sign of the sun.

A came to a large brick building. I’d been so busy trying to find a way around the workshops that hadn’t seen it until I was quite close. The laneway I had been following led to an arched passageway that passed through the building and to an inner courtyard and then I could see it continued on the other side. The sandstone masonry of the arched entry was very fine and the style European. An acanthus leaf motif decorated the keystone of the arch. The building looked like an old factory or warehouse because there were heavy buttresses every few meters supporting the walls and no windows, only round vents with iron grates. I could see through the passageway where there was the green of a garden in the courtyard.

The situation was that I was reluctant to go back even though forward looked like blundering into private property again. I was pretty sure I’d seriously annoyed some guys by getting in the way of a metal box that they were carrying. One of the men had cut his hand on the sheet metal when they’d tried to manoeuvre it to let me past. About a metre into the passage there was an iron frame bolted into the stone and an open iron barred gate confirming my suspicion that this wasn’t a public access way but I was curious about the garden since there hadn’t been anything green for a while as well as intrigued by the British Palladian industrial architecture found in such a place.

The garden turned out to be a collection of potted plants that were arranged around a courtyard surrounded on all four sides by the same large old brick building but one end of the courtyard was completely taken up by a beautiful white-grey marble Hindu temple. A fine bronze statue of a cat sat on a plinth in the middle of the rest of the courtyard, reminiscent of the Egyptian cat god Bastet. I could tell since I’m an architect (a student one then), that the temple had been constructed much more recently than the building that surrounds it.

As you can probably imagine, I was amazed to find such a beautiful and fine temple and courtyard after walking through the toxic industrial area just outside. So amazed that I’d missed a man sitting on a seat with a book in his hands right beside the entrance to the passageway I’d just walked through. I was so surprised when I saw him that I rudely shouted,

“Ah! Oh shit!” but that didn’t change escort izmir his calm smile.

He put his book down on the seat and stood. He was clearly a monk or a priest. His torso was bare except for a mala (string of beads) and the white sacred thread of a Hindu. He wore only a long white cotton lungi around his waist. There were sacred marks painted on his forehead and his black hair looked like his head had been shaved about a month earlier and the regrowth had just become long enough to start to curl. I guessed that he was about the same age as me, mid-twenties. His skin was brown as were his eyes which had long curled lashes. I couldn’t help noticing that he was astonishingly beautiful.

“Namaste” he said with palms together.

“Namaste” I replied in the same way. We stood awkwardly smiling at each other. I felt that I should go but I didn’t want to. It was hard to take my eyes off him. Finally to break the silence I tried out my very poor Hindi.

“Mandir naam kya hai?”

He quickly replied with an animated stream of words, still smiling, his eyes sparkling, though the problem with asking a question in a language you hardly know is that you are unlikely to understand the answer. I didn’t. If I’d asked the question properly it should have been the name of the temple.

I’d actually been in India for more than a month but it had nearly all been in an ashram up at Rishikesh on a yoga and meditation retreat. The guru spoke perfect English and it was part of the practice that we not speak to other participants, only about half of whom where Indian anyway. I’d had no opportunity to improve the little Hindi I’d learned before coming.

“Tumhara naam kya hai?” He asked me.

I worked that out.

“Andrew,” I replied.

“Ah Andrewji!” He repeated flashing beautiful white teeth that matched the whites of his eyes against his brown skin.

“Aap ka naam kya hai? I asked him, using the more formal form of “you” mainly because that’s all that I’d learned.

“Mera naam Karoopana Das hai,” he replied.

“Do you know English?” I asked.

“Chota… little,” he replied.

Again we stood smiling at each other. Finally, reluctantly, I said,

“Namaste,” again and turned to go out through the passageway. There was an identical passageway on the opposite side of the courtyard but the gate was closed and anyway the entrance to it was blocked by part of the collection of plant pots so I had no choice but to leave by the same way as I’d entered.

“Come!” he said desperately and grabbed my arm. I stopped. He left his book on the seat and took a heavy looking pole that was leaning against the wall that I think they call a “lathi”. He then took me by my hand and led me over to the temple. There were steps leading up to doors into the brick building that surrounded the courtyard on either side. The doors were painted dark green and had brass knobs that looked very Victorian and seemed to clash with the architecture of the marble temple. At the bottom of the temple steps he called up into it and another monk, similarly beautiful but with shaved head came out and down to us. They exchanged a few words I didn’t understand though they seemed to think something about me being there was humorous or at least something pleasantly surprising.

Karoopana gave the lathi to the other monk, we took our sandals off and he led me still by the hand up the marble steps into the temple. I looked back and saw that the other monk had gone to sit on the same seat near the entrance and was reading the book that Karoopana had left there. Apparently they were on guard duty but I couldn’t imagine either them hitting anyone with that lathi. The other monk had also put on the sandals that Karoopana had taken off which I thought was strange at the time.

Though the temple exterior was beautifully carved from white marble, it looked to me like it had only been built there recently. Inside there was a kind of curtain made from a thin white material that meant that only when I got into the relative dimness of the interior could I clearly see the statue of the deity. It wasn’t a god I was familiar with though after some research when I got home, I am now. He is called Ayyappan, a god that has become very popular in India, especially in the South, only in the last few decades and is particularly popular with unmarried young men.

The statue was of a young man in an unusual seated posture only about half a metre high and made of gold; gold plated I assume. He had garlands of flowers around his neck. Two antique glass kerosene lamps sat on the corners of the platform reflecting light off the golden statue. Weirdly, above the god’s head on the wall behind was the sculpted head of Queen Victoria. She was carved on the keystone of a grand sandstone arch over a doorway, the main doorway into the original building that surrounds the courtyard that now is contained within the temple. A stylised lettering sculpted into the sandstone wall above read “V escort izmir R I 1889″; that means Victoria Regina et Imperatrix (Queen and Empress) in Latin, though it might have been 1898. The four numerals of the year were sculpted on top of each other in an artistic way but which made the date ambiguous.

Karoopana instructed me to ring the bell hanging from the ceiling of the hall before the god and then he pulled a cord that raised the curtain so I could look into the god’s eyes more clearly. He stood beside me before the god and said some words I presume were on my behalf then he lit a stick of incense, gave it to me and showed me how to bow to the god with the incense between my palms then place it in a bowl of sand to burn. I was familiar with the ritual already because we had performed it daily in the ashram.

After that, he took me to the side of the shrine. I knew next he would put a mark of vermillion on my forehead as is the tradition but we sat on a mat on the floor facing each other and he painted a symbol there. I assumed it was the same as the one on his forehead. I thought that was strange since he was a monk and I was just a visitor, not even a member of his sect. I never saw it because it got washed off before I had a chance to see myself in a mirror.

As I guessed, the temple interior was very modern and completely unlike any Hindu temple I’d previously visited. The floors and walls were tiled with large panels of grey veined white marble but except for the part before the statue, the floor was also covered with large white cotton pads. Since it was built right against the walls of the older sandstone building surrounding it on three sides, there were no windows but there were panels of dark red glass set into the sloped ceiling that admitted enough light but I suppose kept the heat out. Karoopana looked even more beautiful in the red light. The doors into the Victorian brick building on left and right as well as the grand doorway on the back wall had been preserved and surrounded by the marble panels of the temple.

When he was finished applying the sacred marks to my forehead he got up and took some sweets from a plastic box, put them on a gold tray and offered them to me. That was also part of the familiar ritual. I took them and ate them. At the ashram, we did a special meditation after puja. It’s hard to explain fully here and it’s kind of esoteric but I was surprised when Karoopana sat in a posture of meditation facing the deity and gestured for me to join him. I didn’t think it was usual when casually visiting a Hindu temple but it clearly was there.

Just a few minutes into my meditation I realised that I was feeling very strange. I was fully aware, in fact hyper-aware. My feet had been a bit sore. I’d done a lot of walking that day but now, the sensation in my feet was extreme pleasure. All over my body seemed to be tingling. When I visualised the deity in my Ajna Chakra, I saw him in reality. A photorealistic hallucination. I guessed that the Prasadam, the sweets Karoopana had given me contained some drug but I felt completely relaxed about it.

It isn’t unusual for some kinds of sweets and some drinks such as Bhang Lassis to have cannabis as an ingredient in India but this wasn’t the mellow high of cannabis. It was more. Yes it released inhibitions but it was euphoric. I held the deity in my heart. I looked into his eyes. I saw him smile at me. I felt his love for me. I fell in love with him.

I don’t know for how long I meditated there but the feeling didn’t fade. I was pulled out of my meditation by the sound of a bell. I opened my eyes and Karoopana was kneeling in front of me smiling and looking into my eyes curiously. I leant forward and tried to kiss him almost involuntarily but he pulled away smiling. He pranamed to me. I pranamed to him and then we both got up.

He led me over to an offering box against the wall behind the entrance. Yes I know what you are thinking. I was drugged to get money out of me. Well, no. It was my second last day in India and I had a lot of rupees left that I would have to go through the hassle of changing, and thinking that it had been an amazing experience, I put most of what I had in the box.

I expected that to be it. Though I was still feeling high from whatever he’d given me in the sweets I’d have to try to find my way back to my hotel but as I went to leave he took me by my hand. I turned back to look at him. He smiled looking into by eyes and said softly,

“Come.”

He led me by my hand behind the shrine and through the door on the right into the older building. I followed him up a long timber staircase against the old brick wall. There were round vents with caste iron screens across them admitting light and air from the outside. It was when ascending the stairs that I became aware of my erection. I was wearing loose white Indian style pajama pants and cotton boxers underneath so it was fairly obvious. I didn’t feel embarrassed about it.

At the top of the stairs Karoopana looked at me and placed his finger on his lips in the universal symbol asking me to be quiet. We entered what seemed like an old factory building. The outside walls were brick but there were huge timber posts supporting solid beams above. There were no windows except for those round vents but there was a clerestory, a raised section of the roof with windows on the sides letting in ample light. I’m an architect, I was a student then, and I knew this was very old British factory architecture before they brought in the more familiar sawtooth roof design. It is an architectural idea coming back into fashion.

There were ropes strung everywhere from which hung colourful Indian woodblock pattern cotton sheets. As we walked along the corridor, him still holding my hand, I saw that the sheets created rooms. In most of them there was another monk, meditating, sleeping on the white cotton padded floors, reading or studying. They were all about the same age, late teens to mid-twenties. I guessed that the older monks lived somewhere else. Some looked up. They smiled but didn’t seem surprised to see me and they didn’t speak.

There was a beautiful and subtle smell of incense and beams of light streamed through the light smoke from the windows high on the clerestory and through the round vents. It was strangely cool considering how hot it had been outside but I didn’t see any sign of electric power let alone an air conditioner. It seemed dream like and although I was still high, I knew I was high. I was fully aware of what was happening.

I could go on about the architecture. Converting disused factories and warehouses into living spaces is my special interest as an architect. I thought it was a new idea but this place had obviously been converted into a monastery some time ago because the staircase, floors and partitions though not original were solid and old.

When we reached the far wall he led me around a corner along a corridor and then through a curtain covered doorway on the left into a room. The walls of the room were actually partitions. They didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling and the same clerestory windows that extended the length of the building were above. The walls were covered in dozens if not hundreds of small paintings in rows that I presumed to be scenes from myths about the god. He could be recognised in nearly every scene by his golden skin. The effect was psychedelic. At the end of the room was another shrine with a statue of the same god but now in marble and with facial features painted in. On the wall on the left and right behind the statue were beautiful large paintings of the major Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva. I thought most Hindus were in one camp or the other. I’d never seen them together like that. We both lit a stick of incense and placed it before the statue of the god.

Karoopana took the string of beads from around his neck and put them around the neck of the god. He turned to me and spoke softly. I don’t know exactly what he said but it was clear that he wanted me to do the same. I know that in some temples, placing your mala in the hands of the god or in the close presence of the god for a period of time makes the mala sacred.

I was wearing a long sleeve fine cotton Indian style collarless shirt and white pajama (not pyjama) pants that I’d bought in Rishikesh after the retreat. I unbuttoned my shirt far enough to get to my mala. He said something I didn’t understand.

“What?” I said.

He repeated what he’d said but made a gesture that made it clear that he wanted me to take my shirt off. He then came forward and started unbuttoning my shirt. I kind of assumed that being shirtless it was part of whatever ritual or meditation he had brought me here for. After all, he was already shirtless but I couldn’t help being turned on by him being so close to me and undoing my buttons. I finished taking my shirt off by myself. All the time he was looking at my face and smiling. I took my mala off and put it around the neck of the god with his and we both pranamed.

The floor, like the monk’s rooms and the meditation space in the temple was covered in white cotton padded mats. He sat and gestured for me to sit with him. I sat cross legged on the floor beside him strangely with our backs to the deity. I thought he might begin meditation but he laid back onto his back and looked up at the ceiling.

“See?” He asked pointing upwards.

I looked up and saw that high above, hanging from wires or strings were hundreds of polished metal discs made of copper, brass or tin. There were also some made of coloured glass. The discs where reflecting the light from the windows up there. Some slight breeze was causing them to move around.

I was still sitting but he reached up and pulled on my shoulder prompting me to lay down beside him and look up at the moving sea of disks. The effect of the drug in the sweets never seemed to wear off. Looking up at all those disks moving at random, reflecting the light, I saw patterns, I saw life. It was a simple thing but it amazed me. It sounds stupid but the beauty of it brought tears to my eyes.

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