An Assault on Sense and Sensibility

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February 21st 2012
Published: February 24th 2012
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India is a whirlwind of a travel destination; Varanasi could well be the eye of the storm. The city is thought to be one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the world, a title not lost on the locals. An elderly man asked us rhetorically “How old is your oldest city? Just a few hundred years?” and laughed playfully. Varanasi is of course famed the world over for its burning ghats, a gruesome tourist attraction which isn’t a tourist attraction at all but an ancient custom of massive religious importance. This here is India’s spiritual epicentre but you would be mistaken to conjure images of Zen-like paradise; serene, tranquil. This is India, after all. Pandemonium awaits you in pious Varanasi.

But prior to experiencing this tempestuous culture shock first hand, we would have to get there first. This entailed a steep three hour descent by jeep down the mountains of Darjeeling to NJP train station, where we would then board a train for a further twelve hours. At the station we sat perched atop our backpacks out of the way so as to be inconspicuous as possible. As Europeans we seem to attract a lot of unwanted attention at stations and subsequently pass the hours refusing shoe shines (wearing flip flops), ear cleaning (for some reason they are surprised we don’t want them rooting down our ear canal with a stick that’s well acquainted with some other folk’s lug hole) and relentless begging. There was a lot of activity at the station and we had to keep keen eyes on both our pockets and our bags. We knew already from passing that this area has a high concentration of somewhat feral looking street kids in gangs, no doubt run by gangs. A few days previous I sat in the jeep waiting to depart for Darjeeling and watched as an adolescent girl slapped a much smaller girl of about three years hard across the face. Now as we sat waiting we were given little warning as a beggar woman stood before us peeing down her legs and skirt. Awkward and not knowing what to do otherwise we looked to our feet. “Shoe shine mister?”

Our joy to be off the platform and on the train was short lived. We located our bunks and all was well other than some intense staring and feeling a little intimidated being the only female around, but that hasn’t been uncommon during our time in India so far; where are all the women?! I’ve been developing my technique for dealing with the unwanted attention; firstly, I ignore, give them the opportunity to get it out of their system, but all too often I am required to resort to the next stage; stare back, though this never fails to tie a knot my stomach. For those who are particularly relentless, as were the bunch I was faced with on the train this time, I’ve recently found the courage to say quite loudly “Stop it!” at which point they usually embarrass and turn away. But nothing was deterring these guys, so I was forced into hiding behind a t-shirt. I’m planning on learning to say “stop staring” in Hindi, which might help, but Chris and I have also been working on my “scary face” (imagine an unconvincing tiger), so perhaps I’ll give that a go soon...freak them out a bit.

So, some time before midnight we pulled into a nondescript station as I was tucked away in my top bunk retreat. An alarming commotion started from the platform outside and my heart caught in my throat. Banging on the metal shell of the train, howling and screaming ensued as our carriage was bombarded by at least a hundred men and many more ran madly outside. I couldn’t find an alternative explanation for what was happening and concluded that we were being attacked! My thought process must have been clear from my expression and a Nepalese man occupying the next bunk explained that it was OK, they were soldiers on their way home. They had no tickets and expected those with reserved beds to move for them, which they did to avoid conflict with these outwardly aggressive military personnel. Lucky for us they stayed clear of our beds, other than propping their dirty feet or rudely throwing their bags (which I defiantly kicked away in my “sleep,” woops-a-daisy).

Our small compartment meant for eight people now had more than twice that amount, the entire carriage was fit to burst and the combination of heat, noise and smells made for a very uncomfortable night. A young man close by caught my eye and looked concerned. He asked me was I frightened and I answered him saying “why would I be?!” He assured me that they would be gone by 2.30am and that if I had any problems, just let him know; quite the gentleman.

Dawn came leisurely and I could no longer hope for or feign sleep. The soldiers were still aboard and it transpired that our train was much delayed, six hours by this point. By the time we arrived in Varanasi the train was a total of fourteen hours overdue, turning a standard twelve hour ride into an ungodly twenty-six hour test of endurance. Further, the previous two days I had been laid up in Darjeeling and by the time we arrived in Varanasi I had not eaten for four days. The long, hot, dirty train ride was a proverbial “nail in coffin” with respects to my health.

As those long, tedious hours on the train passed I mentally checked out but Chris managed to make friends with some particularly lovely fellows from Assam. Together they talked for the duration of the ride. The other men in our compartment were also from India’s North East states and very nice indeed. Together Chris and I have decided that this is the place from which India’s true gentlemen are borne, an opinion we know will greatly please a certain friend of ours, a native of Shilong!

Crawling from one station to another just to wait for an hour before shuffling along again we were presented ample viewing time at the window. The tracks were lined with litter, so much that it seems impossible for this place to ever be clean again. What’s more, we saw more than our fair share of people squatting to use the bathroom besides the rails, which is less than pleasant, but of course we had been forewarned previous to our arrival. If you haven’t seen someone squatting on a trip to India, you didn’t do it right! Buildings along the way were painted with the words “abandoned” and whole families had moved in to squat. From our little window it was plain to see some of the social problems India is facing, less obvious being the available solutions.

Our journey was slowly but surely nearing its end. The train quietened and we were fooled into a false sense of security. We began to relax. In no time at all we were under siege once more. The train filled again and people fought to sit where there was simply no room. A dense looking man moved into our compartment demanding that we should all move from the seats we had reserved and paid for, unlike him, so that his mother could sit. There was never a need for such demonstration; all being well mannered people someone would have moved to make way for his elderly mother. But when a space was freed this man filled it with his own backside leaving his frail mother to stand and us with our mouths agape. Now came the sour faced woman’s turn to speak unkindly, not to her son but the others. This time no one would move, deciding in an unspoken agreement that it was her son’s responsibility to allow his mother to sit - but he sat their sneering. Never before have I encountered a person so obnoxious. We couldn’t get to Varanasi quick enough.

Upon awaking the next morning in a hotel room, the sign for which read falsely “Yes, we are less dirty”, I found myself sick as a pig. Two days more of being unable to eat or get out of bed, growing weaker and causing Chris concern. He located the nearest hospital, which wasn’t too far away and also had a travel clinic. We planned to go the next day should my situation not improve, but in the meantime the antibiotics we were given by a doctor in Korea for such an occasion started to work, much to our combined relief. Always during times of sickness I miss my mum most, desperately in fact. After a long phone call with her my spirits were lifted, and with a little food in my belly so were my energy levels. For two days I’d been restricted to that little bed with dirty sheets, listening to the hustle and bustle of Varanasi and feeling spiteful toward Chris as he returned from a walk along the ghats buzzing with euphoria from experiencing the sights and sounds outside the hotel walls. The first day had not been such an issue for me as little was happening outside due to local elections that day, but the day following I became envious and mean and started to feel sorry for myself. I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony that I had worked so hard to recover from my surgery in England which had so nearly ruined our trip, all the time dreaming of India where I should have been, and now here I was, in India, sick in some way once again.

We extended our stay so that when I was recovered I would have time to fully appreciate the place. When I finally laid my eyes on it, Varanasi as a whole, it stole my breath away! There is little aesthetic beauty here, comparative to the way I had naively imagined Varanasi to be; not attractive in any obvious or conventional way at least, though Chris and I disagree on this point. The old town is a maze of shade-cooled alleyways which can be tricky to pass on account of them being so narrow and foot traffic so dense. You have to be mindful of the occasional reckless motorbikes passing through too quickly and particularly wary of the holy heifers as they fill the path. Some are preposterous in size and sharply horned which makes meeting them, quite literally down a dark alley, a real and daunting prospect. You must also be careful for the mess they leave behind!

Out of the streets and onto the ghats life is fast moving, colourful, bustling, exciting, intense. Sadhus and Babas, Hindu holy men, sit eccentrically decorated; painted and preened. One with long hair piled high on his head, the next possessing his own gimmick of sorts, each giving blessings for a price. Occasionally we paid a small sum to take a photo, because in India nothing is free. The perfect backdrop for any photo; a mass of activity everywhere you look provides un-missable photo opportunities. Your busy eyes tire quickly as they watch pilgrims bathing in the holy river, the mother Ganges, so filthy it’s technically septic, yet these devout Hindus swim, bathe in and even drink it with honour. Snake charmers lull cobras at each corner and at every turn there is a con man wanting to shake your hand; once he latches on to you he won’t let go until you pay him for his kind service, a hand massage. Then he’ll ask to shave you.

Monkeys skip from one rooftop to the next making a nuisance of themselves and giving the mangy street dogs a run for their money. Lime green parakeets fly from tree to tree, a reminder of our exotic location. We watched them from the rooftop of our favoured restaurant, the Lotus Lounge, where the food was clean and reliable (for my sake) and the view along the whole length of the ghats insurmountable. From our table we surveyed how varied the buildings were in size and colour, even in style and elegance as a faded royal palace juts out every once in a while.

Many times we navigated up and down the many steps along the river, visiting each ghat with its own features and unique selling point. The show stopper, however, is the flaming Manikarnika ghat. Here many congregate. Wood is piled high and weighed on balanced scales to calculate the price of cremation, typically 4,000 rupees. The surrounding buildings are blemished, blackened by the continual smouldering of funeral pyres; bodies, as many as ten at a time, burn here all day and night long. There is less pomp and majesty than I’d expected for such a revered practice in such a holy location. It’s a great thing for a Hindu to “expire” in Varanasi as it frees them from the continual life cycle of reincarnation, so they believe. We watch as men carry lifeless bodies wrapped and adorned with flowers. First the corpse is washed in the Ganges. Next it is placed upon the stack of wood and covered with yet more timber. The men circle the body numerous times, the sons’ heads are already shaven and their bodies clothed in white, according to tradition. A fire is started and the family depart. It takes approximately three hours for the body to become ash. Remnants are thrown into the river. Only Sadhu’s and children will not be cremated, as they are free from sin. Instead they are submerged in the holy river.

Unsurprisingly, it is hot at the burning ghats. For this reason we never stayed long, not to mention I am not wholly comfortable watching a live cremation. It’s a flaw in my character, I don’t cope well with death and the dead. Ironic that my mother has made her living up until recently working at a funeral home. Before coming to India I have never bore witness to something I would later wish to repress. I’ve been in this country just shy of three weeks now, and since arriving I have seen things that I have instantly regretted. The first was in Calcutta, turning to see the headless body of a goat writhing despite its obvious cranium deficiency. The following two occasions were right here in Varanasi as I stood at the ghats watching the flesh burn from and blacken a pair of feet. It was bizarre not to be able to stop myself from watching however much I wanted to. The third time, I will tell of shortly.

We spent so much of our time in Varanasi just soaking in the atmosphere and watching people pass by. It must be wedding season in India now. Women wearing red saris, dripping gold, stand by young husbands in elaborate hats and they enter the temples together to the sound of beating drums. On one occasion we watched as a mother threw herself to the ground continually leading the wedding procession in some archaic tradition.

Our final night we spent at Dasaswamedh ghat, where there is a nightly performance, which in itself is not greatly entertaining nor interesting but very atmospheric. The following morning we took a boat along the river for sunrise for a new perspective. It took an hour in total to row up and down, from the small burning Harishchandra ghat to Manikarnika, taking in numerous other ghats between the two. It was a good opportunity to take photographs of first time pilgrims excitedly splashing in the cold water and sadhus preparing themselves for the coming day, but we got so much more than we had bargained for.

After taking in all the sights we were returning to our hotel on the small wooden vessel. A pack of street dogs gathered by the river and we were sickened to see them eating another dead dog, half submerged. But, that looks too big to be a dog... a cow perhaps?! No, the cows are sacred here, the people would never allow that to happen. Having really studied the pale, bloated shape in the water, trying to determine what animal these dogs where feasting upon it dawned on us suddenly. Like a smack in the face. I couldn’t avert my attention quick enough, but doing so now was redundant as I had been looking for too long already. The boat driver announced casually, “that is a human body.” And there it is, moment of regret number three. I’ll never be able to forget it, try as I might.

A human body, washed up from the river, being eaten by dogs; that was exactly what it was. Somehow the other tourists on their separate boats hadn’t noticed. I felt quite angry at the situation and asked the driver, “why isn’t anyone doing something about it?” to which he replied, “The dogs will only come back.” No, sir, that was not the point I was trying to make. That corpse is someone’s mother or father, surely a sense of empathy dictates that we should not allow the body to be eaten by dogs in the street. Surely it should be returned to the river as it was intended to be, for the sake of decency! For me, there was so much at fault with this situation.

Ten minutes later I found myself back in our hotel room, numb with disbelief. I was upset by what I had seen and I burst into tears but immediately felt ridiculous for my reaction. I’m in India and I must accept everything as a cultural difference. Though I’m sure if I had seen the same thing in my home town I would be afforded my natural reaction for this thing would be absurd, even horrifying. Strange that “place” will so much dictate how we should feel.

With such feelings, we left Varanasi for Agra...

Additional photos below
Photos: 55, Displayed: 34


24th February 2012

So you are experiencing India...
my first experience was at the age of eight. I was in Bombay and witnessed vultures picking at bodies at a Jain temple on Malabar Hill. I never wanted to visit India again; and have only passed through the New Delhi airport since then; which itself was crowded with people who did not need to be there. I just do not need to witness this.
28th February 2012

Hi Bob
That's quite an experience you had at such a young age. I can understand your reluctance to return. India is continually shocking and a challenge at times.
24th February 2012

Culture Shock!
Enjoyed reading that. Fantastic portrayal. Really well done.
28th February 2012

Thank you
We appreciate your comment!
25th February 2012
[quote]Always during times of sickness I miss my mum most[/quote] ...i feel you :) i hope you are keeping well. what an experience you had. I've always wanted to go to India but this scared me a bit, though at the same time made me even curious.
28th February 2012

Don't be scared...
... you'll love it, I'm sure, so long as you know what you're in for. I've had to learn to manage my expectations a lot!
25th February 2012

oh, and i hope you enjoy the next part of the trip ^^ stay safe! x
25th February 2012

Being stared at on the train
I found the best way to stop this when on the train in South Korea Amy .Was to first put on my magic thumb (the plastic one with the magnet in ) then start to spin two coins from my thumb ,then to take a drink from my camelback whilst going cross eyed .Then craning my neck forward with a wide eyed look at them .This worked well and sometimes caused them to move seats ,but I am much uglier than you . Love Dad xxx
28th February 2012

Sound advice! Glad to hear you think I'm "less ugly". Love you too Papa x
26th February 2012

Nice blog
Your photos are simply stunning and the blog made for a great read too. Thanks.
28th February 2012

Thank you!
Thanks Ed! Kind of you to say so. Since recieving your comment both of us have been looking through your blog and were both shocked and amazed, particularly by your experience in Mongolia. We're looking forward to finding time to read more.
28th February 2012

Looks like a stunning locale...a photographer's dream...great story Amy
28th February 2012

Hi Dave!
It was a dream indeed! A bit of a shocker though! Thanks for your continued comments and readership Dave, we both appreciate it :)
28th February 2012

took me back
great account, we found the assault on the senses in varanassi overwhelming - but loved every minute of it - it is what india is about!
29th February 2012

A Triumph in Excelling and Excellence
This must be one of the best blogs ever to have appeared on Travelblog - a masterpiece of both writing and photography.
29th February 2012

Thank you
Very kinds words and very much appreciated. We've both followed and admired your travels, writing and photography for quite some time now. This photo of yours( is probably the most powerful shot I have ever seen, one which we have shown to numerous friends.

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