I see dead people

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January 2nd 2010
Published: January 10th 2010
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the supposed "eternal Shiva fire"
In Varanasi, I visited Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, where dead bodies are burned and their ashes dumped into the Gages. I stood near the top and looked down along all the fires. It was a somewhat eerie scene. The sun sets early in winter so it was dark, with old buildings packed tightly behind me, and in front of me the downward slope to the river where several boats were piled high with firewood. At least seven large fires were visible at various places along the river and further up-hill, with hundreds of people milling around everywhere or squatting around smaller fires. There was no crying or wailing. I thought I could make out a few shrouded bodies lying in the water again, but that was a hundred metres or more downhill from me.

An Indian invited me up to a platform just down and to the left of me. My first instinct now after so long in India is to do the opposite of whatever any local person tells me, but it did have a good view and there were a few other foreigners there. I climbed up a small flight of stairs and found it did give
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A funeral pyre. For some reason the photo makes it look smaller than it actually is
a better view down over the entire scene. There was a fire going, but I took it that not much was happening. Immediately below me, in a small courtyard - I have no idea how one gets into it, it seemed completely surrounded by buildings and other such courtyards - a fire was burning out. I saw no body on it and assumed it was for some other purpose. There were probably thirty people, in various groups, standing of squatting around fires or in a corner. There were also a few foreigners standing in one corner.

After leaving me alone for a few minutes, the Indian who’d invited me up started talking to me. I was non-committal, but he persisted. He told me that he worked for a nearby hospice for poor people. He proceeded to tell me all about the burning ghats. The level we were on, he said, was for rich high-caste Indians from outside Varanasi. The level below was for high-caste people from Varanasi, the levels below that (I think he said, although this wasn’t clear) were for middle castes and the lower levels down near the water, where the majority of the action was, are
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looking down onto one of the platforms below. A fairly typical scene. I don't know if there's a body on those fires or not. If you multiple this by about eight, down along a hill sloping into the Ganges river, that's what the wholeplace looks like at night.
for lower castes. As I looked down, there was an almost unbroken procession of pall-bearers carrying bodies, mostly in colourful golden and red shrouds decorated with garlands, hardly recognisable as bodies except sometimes with their feet sticking out (still wrapped in a tighter inner shroud, but not always wrapped in the colourful outer one). Very few had their faces partially visible.

On the level below us, someone lit a pyre with a body on it.

He told me, as I’d heard, that five types of people are not burned: sadhus, children, pregnant women, people who died from snake bite, and people who died of leprosy. People seem to have a different opinion about the last one, but some sort of disease anyway. Fire, he said, is a purifying force, burning all the sins, and of course Varanasi is the holiest place to die. If your ashes get sprinkled into the Ganges, you go straight to nirvana, which he said is the same as moksha, without, I assume, running the risk that you might in fact come back again as a funnel-web spider or whatever. Only married people, he told me, can get burned. “But if the parents know

view out over the old city from the guesthouse
that the body has been sexual, then it can also be burned” he said. This doesn’t make much sense to me, since everyone says only that “children” can’t be burned, and no-one considers 25-year-olds “children”.

He talked for a while, patiently, as if being friendly. Eventually his talk turned to the hospice. There are poor people there, and he asked if I could give them money. I asked where the hospice was, and he pointed vaguely to three buildings. I told him I would come back the next day to see it. He said it was hard to find. Eventually I agreed to go with him to look at it.

He led me right next door, around a corner (nothing is straight forward or at right angles in the old city), past another white man talking fervently with a group of Indians, up a flight of stairs and into a dark concrete floor that is best described as looking very much like an empty floor of a multi-story carpark, only smaller. I looked around. “I don’t see much of a hospice” I said.

“The other parts are shut. Look, over there you can see one old lady,
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a scale used to weigh the wood used for cremation (so they can charge customers for it)
waiting to die” he said. There were indeed two old people sitting on the floor but they looked like they were waiting for something more imminent than death.

A guy dressed as a sadhu came up, speaking clearly enunciated English, rapidly, out of character, I thought, for a holy man. He seemed in a hurry to bless me. I told him that I wasn’t paying. He looked disappointed. He told me he used to work for the government, and that if I looked on the wall (where a small bit of paper was hanging, with writing in, I think, Hindi - it was too dark to see) I could see how he’d donated eighty lakhs to the hospice. I gave him a little spiel about how I didn’t believe spirituality should be for sale and that his putative god and the putative God would probably have something to say about what he was doing. So I didn’t get blessed. If I fail to find long life and happiness I guess I can always look back ruefully and blame that decision.

The guy who’d brought me there was still trying to get money for his "hospice". I pointed out
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this little girl's pet monkey has ran away and is being cheeky
that I didn’t see any dying people. “Look here at this old woman” he said. “She’s been here a long time. Waiting to die”.
“She’s eighty-eight years old!” chimed in the sadhu
She didn’t look much over 65 even for someone who’d had a hard life. “Does she speak English?” I said loudly.
“If you don’t want to give money to the hospice you can give it directly to her” said the guy who’d brought me there. She stuck out her hand quickly and energetically.
“I’m not seeing anything here that makes me want to give you money” I said to the guy who’d brought me there.
“Just give as you feel” he said.
“Yes, just give what you feel in your heart” chimed in the sadhu
“Right.” I said. “And in my heart I feel I should give nothing”
“Nothing”. I walked out, back to the platform I’d been on before. I looked down to the fire below me. The body appeared to be almost gone, although it was hard to see with the bright light of the large fire.

Dogs were sleeping in the sand in the corner near me, in a depression where I assume
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two holy elements in Hinduism - the Ganges and cow urine.
fires are sometimes lit. Five goats - three small nannies, small, stunted things with tiny horns, and two kids - were hanging around. A large Brahmin bull I hadn’t noticed before shuffled down the stairs. Suddenly four or five men rushed up the stairs carrying a body on a wooden stretcher of sorts. One of them chuckled a bit, I think because the group had come around the corner too fast and almost made him trip on the side of the stairs. They laid the body on the pyre. Someone began taking off the outer shroud - a golden and red, colourful, shroud, symbolising, from what the earlier “hospice” man had told me, an old person. A man dressed in white laid timber over the body. Then a group of men ran up and in a slightly comical fashion ran around the pyre five times. Someone dropped a little of some substance, I thought it might have been a raw egg white, onto part of the wood and then someone else threw a couple of litres of brown powder all over the pyre. Soon after, a group of men (was it the same ones who’d danced around the pyre, lead by the man in white?) rushed up the stairs with some kindling with a small flame flickering from the end. They lit the pyre, and in a few seconds it was a large bonfire. I looked at my watch. It was just before 18:00, but everything felt like it was midnight.

I watched it for a while. The body wasn’t really discernible amongst the glowing red wood and the white-hot flames. Below me more shrouded bodies were being carried on their last journey down the cobbled path past the shops, cows, dogs, fires and the barber, down to the fires at the river’s edge. At one point the foremost group of pall-bearers were too slow and caused a minor traffic jam for the group behind them.

Another Indian approached me. He began telling me about the ceremony. He went through much of the same information that the earlier guy had done. I nodded disinterestedly. It added to what I knew though. The substance that had been dripped onto the wood was ghee, which is fortified butter, and the powder had been sandlewood powder, supposedly to control any smells (and, I think, because sandlewood had once been the wood
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the bridge over the river is visible through the haze
of choice but was now too expensive and difficult to source for even the richest corpses). It was the eldest son’s responsibility, he told me, to circle the pyre before it was lit and to light it with a flame taken from the “eternal Shiva fire”.

Then he began to talk about the hospice. I told him sharply that I’d already seen the “hospice” and that I thought it was despicable of people like him hanging around trying to take advantage of foreigners for money. It was bad for India, and so in the long run it was bad for himself, I said.
“So you’ve already seen the hospice?” he asked
“Did you give money?”
He paused for a bit. “Actually I am an artist. My father was an artist. His father was an artist. We have a little shop, we make very good shawls, pashmina, art, very good...”
I cut him off. I told him sharply that it was inappropriate to try to sell trinkets at such a place. What sort of karma was he generating, I asked him.
But it was very good pashmina, he told me.

I pointed at the burning pyre. “And
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this temple was built on dodgy foundations (and well below the annual high-water mark of the river) and so has gone all Leaning Tower of Pisa
you’re here at this holy city, next to the holy Ganga, trying to trick me, to make money? Here ...” I pointed to the burning corpse “... by this family’s funeral? What do you think God thinks about that? What sort of karma are you building up for when you get burned here?”

To my great surprise this seemed to hit home. I pressed on “Perhaps you should pray to Ram and see what the God thinks about this sort of thing”.
“Don’t tell me about that,” he said defensively, “I know what I have to do”
“Then do it” I said
He slunk away.

I don’t mind really poor people trying to scrape out a living. I don’t even mind beggars. You can’t give money to them all but I sometimes do give a 10 rupee note to some. Have you ever noticed how much more frequently you hear people use the sentence “I don’t give money to beggars, I’d prefer instead to give money to a proper charity so I’d know where the money goes” than the sentence “I don’t give money to beggars, I prefer instead to give money to a proper charity so I
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boats crossing the Ganges or goig upstream or downstream. The nearest one seems to be full of tourists
know where the money goes”? But I don’t want to encourage touts whose anti-social behaviour drives away tourists, or gangs who make lots of money out of it.

The other, original, fire burned out and I realised that people had indeed been sitting around watching that fire. It must have been burning for several hours. Someone solemnly pulled out what looked like a video camera and everyone stood around it. Then there was a still photo too. Their backs were mainly towards me but I don’t think anyone smiled. Then they all left. There were still a group of maybe ten men around the other fire, the one I’d seen lit. Most of the other foreigners had left, including the Chinese family which had been watching when the pyre was lit, but over in the far corner I could make out one the shape of John, the old Englishman from the last blog. He didn’t recognise me and was again hanging out with a few teenage boys.

The body took a long time to burn. I could see where the feet had been sticking out, but against the bright white light of the bonfire I could see that
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as well as a place to dump rubbish, sewage and dead bodies, the holy Ganges is also a good place to bathe and do laundry
they were still there but didn’t look like feet. The fires were expertly built, no burning timber rolled off any of them. Occasionally someone prodded where I imagined the body would be with a long pole.

A well-dressed, sophisticated-looking, Indian man probably in his early/mid twenties came up the stairs onto the platform. He said “hello” clearly and cordially. He asked where I was from. I told him, and asked what his role there was. He told me that his family own the entire burning ghat. He was well-dressed and looked like someone with money, so I pretty much believed him. He moved away, looking over the whole scene, particularly the platforms below us.

Then he came back and asked me if anyone had explained the ceremony to me. I explained about the two previous guys who’d tried to trick money out of me with the “hospice”. He asked, as everyone does, how long I’d been in India and in Varanasi. He asked how I liked India.
“Well I like most of it but these people always trying to trick money out of us annoys me,” I said, “specially since it’s holding the country back itself, it’s like they have no pride in their country or their culture”
“Yes,” he conceded, “they’re uneducated they don’t think about the future. But you have to understand, they’re poor, they have to get money somehow.”
“Yeah, I don’t mind people hassling me, ‘come into my shop, whatever you need I have, do you want to buy hash?’ that sort of thing. But people pretending to be sadhus or blatantly lying to me and things like that I don’t like. Especially because it’s holding back India - why do you think there’s so few tourists, even at a place like this?”

He was sympathetic. Then he told me if I had any more questions about the burning process to ask him. I went through what the previous two guys had told me and he agreed with most of it. He talked about the newer, electronic, burning ghat further down the river. People with some specific diseases had to be burned there, and other people chose it because it was cheaper. He explained that when an older man or woman died the oldest son had to shave his head, dress in white, and take charge of lighting the pyre. He gestured towards the group watching the fire, and I could see a young man dressed in white.

He told me, as the others had done, that women aren’t allowed at the burning, and that no crying is allowed because of the belief that this may catch the soul and prevent it from reaching moksha (which is, after all, in a sense about disattachment). He told me that this is why women aren’t allowed to be present (they may cry), but also they're banned, historically, to prevent the sati tradition.

Much of the body had burned up now, which meant that the remaining parts had changed position. Now a blackened torso was clearly visible. Ribs were slowly receding as the fire consumed them, but the backbone, neck and skull, while charred black, weren’t going anywhere fast, as if even a dead body somehow clings to existence long after it's futile. There were still several hours left to go on the fire though. Someone had said that it takes three hours, which seemed correct, since it hadn’t even been an hour yet. The skull was facing down, so there were no features on it, but it had the clear outline of a
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there's plenty of cows here
fleshless cranium. It had struck me earlier that the shroud the bodies are burned in seemed to be quite fire-resistant so that it only burned through when the flames were strong enough to burn the body, but I might be wrong there. One of the workers poked the body with a long stick. The head bobbed a little. He rearranged the burning logs a bit. The fire kept burning, I was sure it would eventually burn up everything.

The workers had doused the other fire, the one where the family had taken a photo. When the fire was completely out they shovelled up the ashes and carried them in big metal dishes on top of their heads down towards the river.

The sophisticated-looking Indian was offering to show me other parts of the ghats. He told me that sometimes the hips of women or the torso of men (“if they do a lot of work, to get a big chest”, which didn’t make sense to me, certainly that’d only increase muscle, not bone) don’t burn, and get thrown into the river. I asked about teeth, he nodded non-committally. He told me that poor people sift through the ashes
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this building looks like it's going to collapse soon
before they get thrown into the river looking for gold from jewellery. One of the little stunted goats was chewing on a filthy garland of flowers, string hanging out of her mouth. Another had found something delicious - even close up I couldn’t work out what it was, it was the husk of some football-shaped, small, fruit. The goat was going crazy over this, pushing at the bricks with her nose to get a better taste, twisting her head to lick the inside of the husk, butting other goats dangerously close to the fire. Eventually the little brown puppy got up, ignoring the goat, and with his more dexterous jaws picked up the whole thing and carried it away.

I accepted the young Indian’s offer to look at other parts of this ghat. “It’s OK,” he said, “no-one will bother you because you’re with me”. That was true. He took me down the cobbled path, past a barber sitting on the edge of a building shaving people, into a small burning area where a body was burning on the pyre but there seemed to be no family around. He told me that I could take photos there. In the
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fairly typical walls of the ghats, above the high-water mark. Below them are usually steps leading down to the water
other areas everyone had said one can’t take photos, and indeed it would have been inappropriate, it just didn’t seem like the sort of place you just snapped away.

“Have you seen the eternal Shiva flame?” he asked me.
I hadn’t. He took me back over the cobblestones, through a dark building, and showed me an ordinary fire burning away on a foot-high wall in a sort of window overlooking the lower parts of the ghat. It looked very inauspicious. “This has been burning for 3500 years” he told me.
“The building doesn’t look 3500 years old” I complained.
“No of course they move it around, every year the floods come and this area is all underwater. But they light it from the same fire. If ever this fire goes out there’ll be no more burning of bodies.”
Bizarrely the thought jumped into my head that I could just about pee it out. Nobody seemed to be guarding it. There wasn’t even a Shiva idol. He encouraged me to take a photo of it.

We talked a bit more. I asked him more about what his role was in the family business. He said that he deals with
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boat builder
visiting photographers and film-makers and charges them $US 300 a day for permission to take photographs, and he leads them around and makes sure people don’t bother them when they’re photographing. He said the number in such a way that I felt he was trying to set expectations.

He asked what work I do. I told him I was in I.T., which as always, I had to follow with “... you know - computers”. As anywhere, I.T. is a good industry to be in because nobody knows if you’re important or not; whereas if you’re at a party and someone tells you that they’re a lawyer, physicist, bricklayer, robber or chicken sexer, you make certain assumptions about their education and socio-economic status, but with I.T. no-one knows out if you spend your day saying “did you try rebooting?” or if you’re a high-flying consultant or CIO. He looked like he was trying to process this. I began to expect that there was going to be some sort of rub after all.

“So you’ve always worked in the family business?” I asked, some time after he had said something about the common poor people, “but you’re educated.”
“Yes. And
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these kids are doing the gold-panning motions. I believe they're panning for gold and and jewellery from the cremated bodies and/or junk that might be worth something
I’ve been out of Varanasi. I’ve been to Bombay, Delhi, Goa.”
“OK, what did you major in?”
“English”. Strange thing to lie about. His English was good but not the first-language type proficiency of an educated middle-class Indian.

Then he told me the story about some tourists who had been arrested for taking photos on the ghats. The “lower castes” he said, had “caught” them and taken them to the police, where they’d gotten 3-6 months in prison.

I gave the non-committal nod you might give if someone tells you about an accountant going to prison for fiddling the books in a far-off land.
“Six months,” he said again, as if I wasn’t grasping the seriousness, “in prison.”
“Uh huh”
“Sometimes the poor people catch them and if they apologise and give a bit of money, a few thousand rupees, then they let them go. But if they don’t apologise then they catch them and take them to the police and they are crying for sure.”
“That seems fair.”
“So you said people talked to you about the hospice?” he said
I explained that as I’d told him some two guys had tried what seemed to be a
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I guess this is a local ferry across the river
con. I lamented, because I was beginning to suspect he’d also ask for money, how annoying it is when people assure you they just want to talk and at the end ask for money. I made the ‘don’t get me wrong’ wave with my hand “Not you, I said, I know you’re a good man, but it’s so common in India. Everyone says ‘I just want to talk’ and then just when you think they’re being friendly they try to extort money from you.”
“Well a lot of them are very poor,” he said, “Did you see the hospice?”
“I saw something they claimed was a hospice, but there wasn’t much there. Just a couple of people sitting on the ground.”
“Yeah that’s it. Of course it’s not like Mother Theresa! There’s four people there, very old.”
“Four people! That’s not many. Anyway, they didn’t look very ill.”
“No, they’re not ill, just very old, and very poor. It costs 150 Rupees per kilogram for the wood, they’re trying to save up money to get burned when they die.” At 300 kg of wood, this would add up to over $1000, which seems like an awful lot of money.
“And there was some guy dressed as a sadhu, he was annoying”
“He’s very good, what he does is you tell him your name, and he will say a blessing over you, and your family.”
“Well if he’s really a holy man he shouldn’t be trying to make money out of it”
“What? He’s not selling anything.”
“He’s selling a blessing.”
“No it’s not selling”
“Yes it is ... I give him money, he gives me a blessing. That’s selling. If he has the power to bless people he should want to help everyone whether they pay or not.”
“It’s not like that, it’s not like ‘you pay otherwise I don’t bless you’. He’s not selling anything.”
“Ah, maybe I misunderstood. So even if I don’t pay him, he’d still bless me?”
“No of course not.” A pause. Then: “So why you not give money to the poor people?”
“Because there’s nothing there that makes me want to give money. I didn’t see any hospice and if it’s as you say just a few old people then you should be using your business skills to make it more sustainable.”
“If you don’t want to give the money to me you can give it direct to the poor people” he said.
I pointed out that I hadn’t seen any poor people, and that it was the same thing because he clearly had the power to take any money off them. He didn’t seem to understand this. By now I was getting annoyed and was just about to walk away.
“Come I show you the hospice.” He turned and walked out of the little area we were standing in, next to the ‘eternal’ fire.
I followed because I was leaving anyway. It was just next door. I said again that I didn’t think it was right to give money to something that’s not sustainable. He didn’t listen and only stopped when he realised I wasn’t following him up the stairs.
“What?” he said impatiently.
“You don’t even understand the concept of sustainable development” I said, walking away.
He followed me. “You give money to the poor people.”
I ignored him.
“You give money to the poor people, otherwise bad things happen to you.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“You take photos. You come with me to the office.”
“I don’t think so.”
He kept following me and another, younger, guy joined him. By now we were in a dark, fairly quiet lane. They blocked my path. I stood with my back to the wall and the conversation went round and round for several minutes, them demanding money “for the poor people”, me refusing. Various threats of violence, on their part.

The younger guy was setting expectations. “You can give money for the poor people”, he said, “or we go to the police and they fine you three thousand dollars.”
I could set expectations too. “Ha, they can try. I don’t have two thousand dollars. Anyway I’m happy to go to the police.” No-one’s seen any police in Varanasi’s old city.
“Not here, at the police station, they take two thousand dollars from you.”
“Ha, they can try, I don’t have two thousand dollars.”

Occasionally a group of men carrying a shrouded body on a stretcher would race past out of nowhere, chanting, or a cow would wander past. There was a tiny little cigarette shop just across from me, with the shop owner watching completely dispassionately.

The original guy was calling people on his mobile phone, or at least pretending to. At one point he jabbed me with a finger. “I want to poke your eyes out” he said. I wasn’t keen to continue any further down the dark lane not knowing who his friends might be. Eventually they realised I wasn’t going to give in and demanded smaller amounts of money. I refused, and countered with a demand for an apology. Eventually, in disgust the original man just stood back shaking his head with an exaggerated air of loathing.
“You fucking man. You very fucking man” he kept muttering.

In the end they told me to delete the photos, and muttering threats about following me, split up and went separate ways. I walked back down towards the more crowded area, and tried to find another way back to the guesthouse.

The old city of Varanasi is extremely crowded, with very tiny laneways in no pattern. There are no vehicles (although some of the residents are able to squeeze a motorbike through). So it’s very hard to find your way around. A group of three boys, probably late teens or early twenties, stopped me and said I was going the wrong way. They offered to guide me to my guesthouse.

I was just keen to get back by now and knew it could save me twenty minutes of wandering around, but out of habit I told them I didn’t need them and wasn’t going to pay them.
“No it’s OK” they said “We’re just being friendly”
I complained that that’s what everybody says.
“Don’t think we’re all the same,” said Vishal, the skinny talkative one, a bit later. “I hate tourists, they think all Indians are trying to get money from them. We’re not all like that.”
“OK” I said
They took me back to the guesthouse, and I felt they’d been so helpful and friendly that I did indeed offer them money. I was surprised that they refused it. I told them a bit about the people at the ghats trying to extort money out of me and said I’d be happier to give them money. “You can give it to a poor person” I said. They still refused.
“You can come and have chai with us” another one said.

I didn’t feel like it but it seemed the right thing to do. Having chai together is of course the friendly thing to do.

They took me to a small local chai place and I had chai in small disposable clay cups. I asked if there really is a hospice by the ghats and they looked alarmed “no! That is a trick!” they said.

“Maybe you can come tomorrow and look at my shop” said Vishal, later. “We can have chai again”.
I told him that I wasn’t wanting to buy anything.
“That’s OK” he said easily, “Who said anything about buying? Just look. Then I can show you around the city.”

I was worried that I’d have to be rude to avoid spending the entire next day with them, but I needn’t have worried. They met me the next morning and took me to a small showroom inside someone’s house.

Two older men were there. “It’s cold”, said one. It was indeed, particularly for someone like me with not much warm clothes nor blankets at the hotel.
“Yes,” I said, “it must have been below seven or eight degrees over night?”
“Even colder,” he said, “I think four or five. The coldest day this winter.”
They began to show me shawls and rugs.
“Oh, I’m not here to buy anything” I said.
He started visibly.
“I told Vishal that. I always
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they seem to be doing laundry here
said I wasn’t going to buy anything. I don’t need anything.”
Vishal looked guilty.
“He said he was just being friendly,” I said, “just showing me stuff.”
“Oh we can still be friendly they said unconvincingly” They made a half-hearted attempt to show me a few different materials. I’d seen all this before and wasn’t particularly interested but made a good show of being interested, but they clearly weren’t into it either. After about two minutes the two older men disappeared as if by magic.

Vishal and his quiet friend (the third one hadn’t turned up this morning) turned to me, “OK then you can go. You go your way and we go our way”. And we did.

Ah India. If you ever feel that you’re not cynical enough, come to India and look white. That’ll fix you.

I walked around the old streets a bit. Like spare extras in a movie, very often there’d appear out of nowhere groups of identically-dressed young men carrying a wooden stretcher of sorts with a body wrapped in golden and red fabric, marching at almost jogging pace along the tiny streets shouting “Rama Nama Satyarai” (I’m not sure if
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monkeys playing about on the boats
I've transcribed that exactly right, but it sounds something like that). “Ram”, a god, or a name of God, depending how you look at it, “Satya...” meaning truth. “The name of God is truth.” They chanted it in unison, as much, I think, to warn people to get out of the way as to speed the soul of the deceased to nirvana.

I found a small shop where I bought a blanket. Everyone, tourists and Indians, wears blankets here wrapped around the shoulders, and I thought it’d make a nice change from wearing my one polyester jumper 24 hours a day, every day. The shop owner invited me in for chai and chatted away for hours, without trying to sell me anything else or offer me dodgy business deals. It was indeed an interesting conversation about Indian culture, western culture, development, and the future of India. He helped restore my faith in humanity just a little bit.

The next day was New Years Eve, and I seemed to have food poisoning again. It was fine a day or two later but felt really weak on New Years Eve. I’d been doing quite well for a while. There
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monkeys getting food
was a party at the place I was staying which was OK, but for me began with a crazy Russian guy having this conversation with me:
After the normal hellos, I said something about an upset stomach.
“Oh I have it bad” he said, almost excitedly. “For weeks. I’ve been bleeding from my asshole!!”
“Urg dude. You should get that checked. Have you at least got any antibiotics, it could be umm, dysentery”.
“No I would rather die than take antibiotics. Varanasi is a nice place to die, no?”
“I guess.”
“I just take brown sugar. Brown sugar ... you know ... heroin. It’s easier to get here. Besides, I know it’s not dysentery. You see what happened is I took too much brown sugar ...”
He then proceeded to explain with graphic hand gestures his proctologic model of both what “brown sugar” had done to cause his symptoms, and why the only possible course of action was in fact to continue his self-medication with “brown sugar”.

Thankfully he left soon after and the night got a bit better.

And so another decade ticked over. Ten years since the Millennium Bug wiped out life on earth as we
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slums, taken from the top of the bridge, probably 100m high
knew it. On the global scale I don't think it we particularly covered ourselves in glory in the past decade. Hopefully the 'teens' will be better but I'm not betting on it. It should be good for India though, I'd imagine.

Additional photos below
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boats, taken from above, on top of the bridge, probably 100 m high
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Varanasi - downtown

these poor people are making cow pat brickettes, like lots of people do
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Varanasi - downtown

two pet monkeys belonging to the poor family from the previous photo
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Varanasi - downtown

pigs rummage through one of the rubbish heaps

Sarnath is about 10 km from Varanasi, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. This monument is to the man who redeveloped it and worked to bring Buddhism back to India

there's a small zoo with an awful lot of chicken mesh and other types of wire on the cages.

crocodiles in the zoo

the concrete moate of the recreated deer park, where 2500 years ago the Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenmet in a deer park with less concrete.

a deer in the deer park

another deer in the deer park

artwork in the main temple, whose name I forget

buddhist artwork in the main temple

the main temple

old ruins, mainly of buddhist monastries

fragments of the most famous Ashoka pillar, erected in the 3rd century BC by the famously peaceful Buddhist emperor Ashoka, and destroyed in a much later Turk invasion

Dhamekh Stupa, supposedly commemorating the exact spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Dates back to at least 6th-7th century AD but probably replaced an earlier stupa

21st December 2012

I\'m in Varanasi now and really appreciated your story about the burning ghat.

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