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On Sacredness

April 10, 2015

I have a strange love for leaving places. I love the nostalgia. I love the feeling of starting new things and the feeling that the world is bigger than I can imagine. I even have special music that I listen to when I’m getting everything ready to go. Last night, Van Morrison sang “Into The Mystic” from a portable speaker as I stuffed the last shirts into my backpack and searched the instructor flat for anything I might have forgotten. When all my things were packed though, something was still unfinished though. I needed to say goodbye. Not goodbye to the people, but to the place. I leave places so often that I have been forgetting to say goodbye, but that changed when we left Banaras last night.
I didn’t know how to say goodbye, so I walked down to Assi Ghat. Still I didn’t know. After more than two months in Banaras, I still wasn’t sure what the place meant to me. My relationship with Banaras wasn’t personal. I always felt like a visitor and I always felt that there was more to the place than I could ever know.
At Assi Ghat, I looked down the long line of ghats and thought about what this sacred place meant to all the pilgrims bathing in the water. Immediately, I thought of a place on the other side of the earth.
In the heart of the Arizona desert, the Hopi people live on three mesas that rise like islands out of the sandy redrock desert. According to their oral histories, their mesas are the center of the universe, and they have lived there for several thousand years since their emergence into this world. The Hopi are dryland farmers; they grow corn in sandy desert soil relying only on the rain.
Last May, some students and I stayed with a Hopi family in the village of Shungopavi on Second Mesa. The day before a big Kachina dance, we helped our host father, Ed, plant corn in the family fields. We came down from the mesa to the desert floor. At 8 am, the temperature was already in the 90’s. Ed handed us a bag each of colorful corn kernels and a steel rod. The process was simple: we would drive a hole two feet into the sand with the rod, drop in a handful of seeds, then close it back up. That was it. No fertilizer. No irrigation. Modern corn struggles to sprout in an inch of soil sometimes, but Hopi corn sprouts through two feet of sand. It has been that way for thousands of years. Just the corn, the desert, and the dance.
The next morning, I stood on the roof of a thousand-year-old stone building looking down into a plaza the size of a basketball court. Two hundred men in elaborate full costume danced and sang for 48 hours in the blazing desert sun. All weekend, they sang and danced in the plaza with no food or water. They danced for the rain.
Most Hopi dances are closed to non-Hopis. The ones that are open to foreigners have strict rules: no photographs and no drawings. And nobody questions the rules. It’s clear that a photograph of this ceremony could never be understood out of context. When the sun began to set on the second day of the dance, storm clouds started to blow in from the Kachina Peaks in the distance. The clouds grew bigger and closer, taking on the classic desert colors: grey-blue at the bottom fading to brilliant white and yellow at the top where the evening sun hit. From high on the mesa top, the desert sky seemed huge, and my perception of distance was distorted. Slowly, one of the clouds connected to the desert floor with a thin band of rain that glowed orange in the sunset. I stood on the plaza rooftops with the songs of the dancers rising behind me and watched as the next cloud touched the dry earth. Raindrops hit my cheeks, and for the first time, I understood something sacred. I had no choice to believe or not to believe. I was simply witness to something ancient and powerful: a people praying for rain and thanking the sky for what it provides.
I looked out the window on a flight from Banaras to Kathmandu a few months ago and saw where the Himalaya rise abruptly from the Ganges Plains. The pollution had cleared a little, and the view was astounding. Mountains after mountains climbed into the distance, one ridge after another. Little villages perched themselves on terraced green hillsides. As the peaks grew higher, a fresh snow covered everything. There was no sense of scale from the plane. I was looking at the tallest peaks on Earth, over 8000 meters. As I tried to understand the scale of the scene, I pictured how the Indian subcontinent is subducting under the Asian tectonic plate and buckling to form the tallest mountains on Earth. Geologic time is dramatically slow and powerful. I had a vision of Banaras being slowly drawn towards the wall of the Himalaya, a few millimeters each year. I saw the ancient city of Banaras being subducted under the mountains in some distant future.
My first week in Banaras, I told my family that the city was a place you either love or hate. But now I take it back. Looking down the broad bend in the Ganges where the stone ghats line the banks, I ended up not saying goodbye to the place. Instead, I acknowledged it. I acknowledged yesterday, amidst all the people coming and going, praying and playing, living and dying, how sacred Banaras is. I do not love it or hate it. I am in awe of it.
I have the sense that the city has always existed, and that it built that culture here rather than the other way around. You cannot have power over this place; it has complete power over you. As the evening bells started to ring in the temples, I knelt down, touched my forehead to the earth, then turned to leave.

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