I have always had a soft spot for the dying arts. These arts were things people used to devote their whole lives to; things they would spend every waking hour practicing, and would pass on through generations of their families. These arts are slowly fading. The countless hours put into practicing them over thousands of years are evaporating into nothingness, and the people who used to practice them are slowly fading from memory. When we arrived in Varanasi, I began to suspect it was one of the few places left in the world where, while these arts were no longer thriving, they were perhaps dying a bit slower than they were in the rest of the world.
During my time in Varanasi, I chose to study one of these arts, in hopes of gaining even a small trivial understanding of what it was before it was too late. I chose Banethi, an old form of Indian stick fighting that has turned into fire dancing- an art so named because it actually involves lighting both ends of a large stick on fire, and twirling it around the body, in moves reminiscent of the combat it was once used for. Banethi was a challenging thing to study, and I often ended my lessons with self-inflicted bruises and burns as a result of my own clumsiness, and the degree of skill I developed was nothing more than only slightly less ignorance than I had had when I began my studies. As I sit in our beautiful transference sight however, and reflect on the experience I had, I realize that unlike so many things we are made to study today, none of that mattered at all. The beauty of these arts is that they are not about a goal you work to achieve- they are something you never stop practicing as long as you live.
Banethi taught me many things; Kerosine is the best oil to set on fire, clothes do not burn as easily as one may think, and most importantly, that this martial art, as well as all of the dying arts are precious things, that would be tragic to lose. This art taught me not only to twirl a stick, but would occasionally gave me a glimpse into the future, when the moves become not something to plan out, but an automatic, meditative practice, and when the fire is not something to avoid, but is a comforting presence. This complex art touched my life in so many ways in just 4 weeks, just the way that these arts have shaped our societies for thousands of years. They are the reflection of true devotion and the deep development of a skill, something that while from the outside is seemingly one-sided, is in reality an extremely multi-faceted thing that touches every aspect of the lives of the people by whom it is practiced. These incredible, deep, complex practices have lost the respect they once commanded, and have lost their place in our society, however, we may still be able to catch them before they slip through our fingers for good.