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Published: April 27th 2010
I returned to the UK in mid-February for a friend’s 40th, the penultimate snowfall of what had been, to all accounts, a dreadful winter, and the rueful acknowledgement that I should really be sensible and think about Doing Something to top up the “war chest” of my travel funds.
But I’m a 1970 baby, and this is my generation’s year, so when I was reminded by a Delhi friend’s wife of my promise at his 39th last year to re-materialise in time for his 40th this year, it was a no-brainer. Happily, I postponed progressing the w-o-r-k thing for the time being, and hopped on a plane to Delhi for a week.
With each trip I’ve made to India since I jettisoned the rat-race I have tried to explore another part of this vast, hypnotic, tantalising and addictive country. I kicked myself after I’d booked the Delhi flights this time, though: I hadn’t taken this into account. However, Prateek is a popular guy and Radhi had warned me that the house was going to be so full-to-busting with his relatives that they wouldn’t be able to put me up themselves. Suddenly I realised I had a whole three days
to play with, from the moment I woke up from my jetlag on the Wednesday until I had to report for duty, appropriately scrubbed, for the party on the Saturday night. I took out my atlas: what was both within an easy (and regular) flight of Delhi, and would also satisfy the criteria of being as-yet unexplored by me and a good use of three days? The choice boiled down, a little randomly I admit, to Amritsar or Varanasi. Flight schedules precluded Amritsar: the Golden Temple would have to wait. Varanasi, Benares as was, it would be!
I talked to a number of people about Varanasi before I went. “I didn’t like it… but then maybe we were tired. It was the end of five weeks rushing round India,” one travel-addict friend told me, to my surprise. “It’s pretty intense,” said another, grimacing. “Varanasi is great… Enjoy it - it’s full on India but I know you will be unfazed by it!” an erstwhile expat Brit in India wrote to me. “It’s how I imagine Westerners feel on visiting India for the first time,” said Radhi. “But it’s filthy and dirty, how could you possibly enjoy it?” shuddered another
Varanasi, I concluded, even before the plane touched down, would be India Concentrate. For me, India fascinates, bemuses, enchants and frustrates, much like an errant or wilful child. She can be full of surprises when you’re least expecting them; she can be recalcitrant and determinedly obstreperous. She’s a joy and a heartache. She has a beauty way beyond the best photographer’s abilities, and she is unspeakably filthy. She is growing and developing, yet she is rooted in past that goes back further than Western memory.
Varanasi is, indeed, all of these. A story, a multitude of stories, in every frame, in every view, in every image. I loved it.
Scuttling through the galis - the narrow alleyways - of the old city in pursuit of my suitcase (I had so little luggage for this trip, my backpack would have laughed at me) and my hotel, I gagged on the smells, vowing to find myself a lightweight scarf to mask my face, much as many of the locals do themselves. I wouldn’t be wearing flip-flops here, I thought delicately: I’d rather my feet be protected from whatever was underfoot, solid, liquid or squelch. Yet around me
were blasts of vivid colour, women’s saris, silks for sale; above me, fleeting views of history, an ornate temple tower, a carved mantle, a wrought iron balcony. Smiles of welcome, stares of curiosity. I could feel the familiar excitement at being back on the road, however fleetingly, welling up inside me. I giggled aloud.
After what felt like an age in this maze, we were spat out and I found myself at the top of a flight of steps leading down to Ganga Ma, the great Mother of India. Below me, the cries of people splashing in her waters. Beyond, the floodplains, startlingly denuded of construction and, at first glance, oddly empty of life; a stark and tranquil contrast to the city on this side of the river.
Everything, but everything, happens in and beside the Ganges here, during daylight hours and well into the night. Morning ablutions decorously effected under saris and dhotis; teeth scrubbed with fingers or twigs. Playtime for kids racing each other in splashy swims across the river; childhood doesn’t last long here. A cool dip in the heat of the day, an open air kind of Turkish bath for groups of men relaxing
briefly from the toils of getting by in their lives: Western sensitivities about the quality of the water are an unaffordable luxury here. Bathing and scrubbing the ubiquitous cattle, seemingly here in even greater numbers than in other Indian cites I’ve visited. Dogs patrolling the riverside detritus, barking and fighting over spoils and territory. Games of cricket improbably taking place along the wide steps of the ghats: if the ball lands in the river, the batsman’s out, I was told. (No doubt some poor child then swims in to find it.) Rows of dhobi-wallahs washing and beating the city’s laundry against flat rock “wash-boards”, nauseatingly close to outflow pipes and the burning ghats, and hanging it out to dry in serried ranks of matching items on the steps, slopes and railings above. Everywhere, puja - personal worship - for the faithful, alone in the crowds with their prayers and their offerings. And, at the two dedicated ghats, funeral pyres, the last rites for the physical body meticulously carried out in such a way as to allow the spirit to be released from this world for its journey to heaven.
If there’s one thing that almost everyone probably associates with
Varanasi, it’s the burning ghats: Western voyeurism at conducting in public what we prudishly consider a private ritual. Yet for us, it is simply about the disposal of the body, an alternative to burial or donation to science. Here, by contrast, cremation is the means by which the body can achieve the purity necessary for the spirit to leave the body and enter heaven; the act itself is of huge spiritual significance. That said, it’s also a practical matter. Wood is piled high in the galis around the ghat, brought in from across the river and even from across the seas, ready to be weighed on antique scales and carried down to a particular pyre. Different woods for different people, for different castes, for differing wealth. As a rough rule of thumb, I was told by the son of the man who owns one of the burning ghats, Harishchandra Ghat, a funeral pyre takes about 200 kg of wood and costs a minimum of Rs.3,000. Electric cremation is much cheaper - Rs.500 - and quicker, but is not considered as effective at liberating the soul. The body is wrapped in white cloth and covered in glorious reds and golds, before
putting the offering to another use
(though I'm not sure its donor would have intended to feed one of the local goats)
being carried on a bamboo stretcher high on shoulders and through the galis, alleys so narrow you can inadvertently walk straight into a funeral procession on turning a corner too abruptly (and I did, twice). Only the men of the deceased’s family and acquaintance are involved in this final stage of life; a woman’s tears constrain the soul and prevent it leaving the body to ascend to heaven. This restriction also helps guard against the practice of sati - whereby the widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre - which is now officially outlawed. Pyres are carefully constructed by the Dalits (formerly known as the “untouchables” in India’s caste system) who work here, and lit from an eternal flame that is carefully tended at a nearby temple. The body, once immersed a final time in the Ganges, is laid on top. Burning takes three hours, I’m told - not because in that time a human body will have cremated completely, but, I macabrely imagine, because there’s probably a queue for that pyre. The attendant friends and relations stand by while it burns. It is said that a woman’s hips and a man’s chest do not burn, so these are thrown
into the river for the fish to consume; humans eat the fish and so the cycle of life continues. Certain people are not cremated because they are considered inherently pure. They include sadhus (wise men), children under nine and pregnant women, and those who have died from snake bites, leprosy or smallpox, the latter conditions being thought to have caused such levels of suffering as to have generated the requisite degree of purity in the body before death. At Harishchandra Ghat people of any religion may be cremated; the main burning ghat, Manikarnika, is only for Hindus.
And anyone who has spent any time at either of the burning ghats will be able to reel off pretty much the same information. It’s as if the locals are programmed with the same “Top Ten Facts About Cremation For Tourists”. Whether you are then persuaded to part with a few rupees in gratitude for this unsolicited information is up to you. Sunil, an engineering student at Benares University, emphatically did not want to be paid. “In India, many sad, bad, good, kind people,” he told me philosophically. He said he simply enjoyed meeting people and practising his English. After running through
the Top Ten Facts, not all of which seemed to be entirely consistent with what I’d learnt at Harishchandra Ghat earlier in the day, he took me up to the balcony of the nearby temple from which, in the new darkness of the evening, I could count no fewer than fourteen pyres burning, whether already “occupied” or not. He then took me on further, to the upper-most railed-in level where only Brahmins, regarded as the highest caste, are cremated. I kept saying, “Are we not intruding? Do the relatives not mind?” as we skirted a very conspicuously occupied pyre, the body silhouetted against the flames. On the far side, the dozen or so men looked oddly uninterested in the pyre before them. Blank-faced. In grief, in denial, or inured to the process?
There is a curious atmosphere at Manikarnika Ghat. Perhaps it is its more confined area, at a bend in the river, blocked in by surrounding buildings and temples, that makes it the more intense of the two burning ghats to visit. Around me, spectators, tourists, relatives, workers, monks, dogs, cattle, those seeking a commercial opportunity... An urgent cry goes up: a particularly large and determined cow, calf
in tow, is heading down the steps and the crowd scatters. A pyre flares up, flames reaching a couple of metres into the air, and a camera flashes intrusively. (An Indian tourist breaking the no-camera rule, I’m relieved to see, rather than a more typically thoughtless Westerner.) I ask Sunil why he and his friends came down to the burning ghats in the evening. “Because there’s always something going on,” he replies, pragmatically. This for the tourist, though, is the Varanasi conundrum. Are we unwelcome voyeurs? Or accepted, tolerated, even necessary - because of our obvious commercial value - spectators? Are we also participants? Do we slip over from one to another?
Taking a boat trip up the Ganges at dawn or dusk is a “must-do” here. From the river, the noise and crowds are muted, and you can appreciate the city’s erstwhile grandeur as, seemingly, every maharaja and prince of note at one time or another built ornate palaces along the river’s edge. For me, the morning trip is the more magical, watching the city slowly open its eyes to the coming day, gradually shaking the sleep out of its eyes and warming up in the rising sun.
Even the tourists in their boats are silent, the morning too new for conversation. A lone puja flower offering on a banana leaf floats silently past on the mirror-like surface of the river. Monkeys scamper across rooftops. A pigeon flies heavily past, weighed down by a strand of marigolds rescued from an offering or a funeral pyre, now destined for its nest. The Ganga Supermarket arrives: a boat laden with tourist memorabilia is being paddled towards us, but the enterprising oarsman has no success with us. A fisherman hangs his catch over the side of his boat to keep it fresh. A passing tourist reports a dolphin sighting - incredible to find such life in this river, pollution and all. We stop for a welcome chai: the boatman must have read my mind. The hot sweet milky liquid is disproportionately delicious at this hour of the morning, although the narrow plastic beaker is so flimsy I have to hold it with both hands to stop it crumpling before I finish the contents. The haze never really disperses here, its effect on the chaotic and built-up riverbanks, disappearing in the distance either side of us, is ethereal, magical, emphasising the timelessness
of this heart of India.
In the evening, it’s all colour, noise and light, with the ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat the focus of attention. Tourist boats home in on the ghats here, looking, from the shore, like some kind of water-borne refugee crisis. Candle offerings float flickeringly past. On land, the steps are crowded all the way up the hill with spectators, the women’s saris and shalwar kameez dazzling blasts of colour. Glorious aromas from the priests’ incense and smoke from the lamps waft over us; drums beat rhythmically. The light becomes hazier in the smoke; we get heady on the incense; the drums become more and more insistent; Time takes a break. The priests work in unison on their individual platforms as they ask the gods for blessings on us all at the day’s end. Looking at the timelessness of the ceremonies in front of me, I’m struggling to believe that, only the morning before, I was drinking coffee in my home in the chill of London. In the twenty-first century.
Back in the material world with a bump, I had realised that, unusually, I had capacity both in my suitcase and my luggage allowance
on this trip. I made a mental note to visit my favourite Delhi bookshop but, in the meantime, here I was in the city of silk...
In the Muslim Quarter of Varanasi the rattle of looms housed in the ground floor of people’s houses continues late into the evening. In a small workshop, metal plates are being hammered out. These will then be taped together and used to “instruct” the loom which warp to lift for each weft of the pattern, like punch-cards dictating operations in the early computers. The colours are glorious, and the workmanship exquisite. Further on, young girls, no more than twelve years of age, meticulously sew beads and sequins onto a wedding sari stretched out on a frame in front of them. Their fingers seem to flash in their work, independent of their chattering faces.
On the other side of town, I meet Ashok of Pooja Silk Handicrafts and he takes me through his wares. He has lived in Camden and Manchester (he loves the former and hates the latter where “it fucking rains and is cold all the time”, the profanity almost physically hitting me, the contrast so great from his otherwise gentlemanly
demeanour), and seems prepared to put a lot of effort into selling me anything, telling me extensively about his background, his business model, his family, his thoughts on life and his country (“India is like LSD. You can have a good trip or you can have a bad trip.”). Repeatedly, he assures me that I don’t NEED to buy anything. (Mind you, I don’t tend to feel obliged to make a purchase these days: the realisation a few years’ ago that no-one could rip me off if I didn’t hand over any money in the first place - albeit blindingly obvious when set out like this - was a Damascene moment for me.) Again and again, oceans of silk are expertly shaken out to tumble around me: bedspreads, sheets, tablecloths, runners, cushion covers, scarves… (I joke that his workers must hate him for causing them so much re-folding work after I go.) Even with the odd blinks in the power supply, the effect was dazzling. In the Muslim Quarter the next day, Haruq similarly showers me with rainbows, his young children scampering around to tug at the corners of the bigger pieces so they lie flat. I eventually settle on
the most incredible patchwork silk bedspread… and a runner, a few scarves and a couple of cushion covers…
But I still had plenty of room for books.
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