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Published: July 17th 2007
From the outset, I must confess I had a love affair with Varanasi.
Somehow she has touched me deeper than I was prepared for, and perhaps deeper than I am at this stage able to realise. Something has changed, though I know not what. I cannot say whether I am happier or more sad, though I long for her in my thoughts. It was not just her colours and human concotions - she has made me think deeper than I thought I would think about her, for in my world, she did not exist. Now, as I try to pen my memoirs, I realise there are so many questions pending. Not just about Varanasi, but about life itself...
The guidebook spoke of people bathing in the River Ganges; the pictures looked colourful and interesting. Let's check it out, we thought. It was close enough to Agra and we had some time to kill before Gordon needed to be back in Delhi.
When we arrived, we were hit by humanity, plain and simple. Just getting from the train station to our hotel was a feat in itself. After fierce negotiations, the autorickshaw we got into ran out of fuel before we even got out of the railway compound. The second driver, we both agreed, was definitely popping some hardcore drugs, as he raced through the heavy traffic, dodging cows and bikes and people and cars and shops and... At one stage, Gordon called him Michael Schumacher - we both laughed at the impossibility of it.
The hotel we had booked into was right on the river, but I had read that the drivers were not allowed into the old city that stretches along the banks, as the streets were narrow alleyways. Ok, no problem. We were a little confused, nevertheless, when we commenced the walk and there were rickshaws still racing past us at every turn. Onto a cyclo, further down into the city. The cyclo eventually dropped us some way down, and pointed into an alley. We paid, got off, and then realised we had no idea where we were.
We ended up following a local through the mayhem of turns and corners; what I later realised took perhaps 5 minutes seemed to be endless. More corners, more turns. I was feeling giddy from the heat, overwhelmed by the commotion. By some small miracle, we finally reached the hostel, checked in and crashed on the bed. India... it can be hard work.
It wasn't until we sat on the terrace for some overdue lunch that the might of the river and the city became clear. Even now, I struggle to find the words to do it justice.
The mighty Ganges flows strong, wide and fast. It is one of the holiest rivers in the Hindu universe; those who bathe in it are calmed by the knowledge that the Ganga brings salvation and everlasting hope. They come down from the busy, hot city streets to wash away all that has been on the steps of the many ghats that lead down into the river. Every morning, every evening, thousands of Hindus bathe and give offerings to their Gods; flower petals and candles float alongside the rubbish and pollution from upstream. The mood is calm yet crazy, balanced yet mystical. The young splash and scream for hours on end; the old pray quietly on the river's steps, clad in colourful saris and shawls, their best clothes for the occasion. Monkeys climb on the worldly arcitecture of the old Hindu empire - grand temples and buildings rise high into the hot air above, only steps from the water.
Between each ghat, more stairs lead into the narrow alleys of the old city. One weaves past worshippers, cheeky children, beggars, but also buffalos and cows, goats and monkeys. There are old Hindu holymen, their eyes so deep and dark, one cannot but wonder what they have seen and heard in their lifetimes. They, too, bathe in the mighty river to seek renewal and salvation - with no worldly possession, nevertheless, I find myself intrigued as to what they could be seeking repentence for? Or are they giving thanks instead?
Again, the contrasts strike me the most. Dirty, snot-nosed children (to me they look no more than 8 years old, though in reality, they are probably 12 or 13) beg us for money, motioning their grubby little fingers to their mouths and murmuring “chapati, chapati”. Before I realise, the child next to me has copped a staunch smack on the back of the head from the well-groomed man walking up behind us. He scolds the child with his dark eyes; the grubbin looks up fearfully and resentfully all at the same time before moving off swiftly. I cannot decide whether I am grateful to the man or resentful myself.
We are passed by more people coming back from the river, their feet and ankles wet with the sacred Ganga water. Every time, we wonder... The river is one of the most polluted in the world; an NGO has set up a sampling station at one of the falling-down ghats to measure the levels of pollution. Normal drinking water contains around 500 bacteria per litre; the water of the Ganga contains in the vicinity of 1,000,000. It is a mind-blowing figure when one considers all the people who swim in its waters without
The Ganga, along with being a symbol of life and hope, also swallows up its believers' dead. It is an integral part of the everyday life of the people; their day begins with the ritual bathing, then they might scrub their clothes in it, wash their waterbuffalo, play cricket on the walkways above. From young to old, the river to them is like the city to a New Yorker: it is a part of everything, and nothing is without it.
When a person dies, the Ganga takes them away. It washes them clean; this seems to give the Hindu a sort of calm before the storm. They know they are safe in the arms of the holy mother, the river. On death, most people are burnt at one of the burning ghats along the Ganges. Their bodies are carried down with as much haste as possible, where they are massaged and covered in a concotion of butters, milk, sandalwood. The bodies are then wrapped in cloth - white for men, red for women. The corpses are carried down to the banks of the river, and burnt on stacks of wood for three hours until only the hip bone of the female, and the chest bone of the male, remain.
We watched one such burning; as tourists, we were not allowed to go down to the river, and instead were instructed to look on from a balcony above. Curiously, there was no smell. Relatives (only men) stood close by to the fire, and watched on as they loin cloth slowly disintegrated, leaving the feet and head visible in the smoldering stack.
Children, pregnant women and holy priests are not burnt. Instead, their bodies are wrapped in cloth and taken out into the middle of the river. They are thrown overboard, their dead bodies pulled to the base of the Ganga by the rocks weighing them down. As they are pure, they need not be burnt; the Ganga is their passage to the next life. Animals, too, are thrown into the river. We came across a buffalo, black and bloated, lying on the side of the burning ghat, awaiting the men who would propel it into its next life.
As we watched the children jumping precariously into the river's waters, images of floating dead came into my mind. How can they not get sick? They are swimming with thousands of decaying corpses, not the mention the sewage from the city that is pumped, unfiltered, straight into the river.
It is a strange and stark experience; yet I am not disgusted by it. Life and death here go hand in hand. People do not seem to have the same expectations as we do in the West - when their time comes, it comes. All is God willing. Their seem more peaceful, less anxious, about what lies ahead.
Much to think about...
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