An Auspicious Place to Die ... the Holy City of Varanasi (Matt)
Jun 6, 2007
|The water buffaloes laze half-submerged in the Ganges water. One slowly eases itself out of the muddy water and into the scorching sun. It moves closer, closer. A tattered rope runs around its neck, the other end thick with mud. The buffalo lowers its huge head to the ground to pick up a swath of glittering gold material. It looks like plastic but might be cloth. It starts to chew, tugging the gleaming material toward the river. A man half-heartedly shoos the beast away with a stick.
Nearby is a crowd of people. They stand in a loose circle. In the middle, atop a pile of wood, is the body wrapped in white cloth. Until a few moments ago, the gold material was also wrapped around the body; now the buffalo chews on it while the burning begins.
The body has been immersed in the holy Ganges, then carried to a pile of wood no more than a metre high. A few sticks of wood are placed over the body, then the group moves away a short distance. A ceremony is taking place that we cannot see. Minutes later, men appear carrying bundles of flaming grass, circle the body several times, then set the pyre alight.
The orange flames are a fury of heat. Smoke drifts in the heavy hot air. If anything, the body becomes more visible as it burns.
We watch in silence. There are blackened places along the ghat where other bodies have been burned: there are some ashes and dust and bits of unburned wood. It is so simple, I muse as we watch the smoke rise into the haze. In some way or another, it is how we all are in the end: dust and ashes and smoke. I witness no tears, no anguish. Just a crowd of people who watch, then disperse as the flames grow more intense.
The ashes will be placed in the Ganges where they will mingle with the holy waters, drifting amongst swimming children, clothes being washed, sleepy water buffalo, and the myriad boats that line the ghats. Somewhere amidst the glassy Ganges waters, we know, are the bodies of holy men and pregnant women and babies. These people are already pure, so need not be purified by fire before being set to drift in the river.
We pass a group of men standing before a huge weigh scale and haggling, we suppose, over the cost of the cremation wood.
We walk slowly from one ghat to another. At some, laundry is laid out in colourful patterns to dry in the intense midmorning heat. At others, people swim and bathe. A sari-clad woman stares intently at me from the river as we pass. She splashes a few handfuls of water onto her chest, wetting the fabric to partially expose her breasts. Could that have been my first come-on from an Indian woman, I wonder. Laura smacks me and we continue walking past goats sleeping in the shade, dogs with red hairless skin panting breathlessly in the heat, a baby monkey screeching atop a wall.
Men call out to offer boat rides as we pass. Some offer massages, others hold out their hands in surreptitious greeting in order to clasp mine to give a hand massage. Children call out with "five rupees!" Mostly we are ignored.
We stop for water at a small shop near the ghats. A woman screams. She emerges from an alleyway with her face smeared with thick red blood. She refuses help from the crowd around her. She yells and cries. Maybe she was punched in the face. Maybe she fell. She disappears back down the alleyway and we continue on our way, the memory of her blood smeared face carried with us down the ghats.
It is like looking at a hundred little pieces of broken glass, each fragment a moment in time, that together give a glimpse of life here. We return to our hotel room, humbled by the distance between its air conditioned comfort and the world just a few hundred metres away.
* * *
It is 5AM. A young man is sleeping on the tile floor outside our hotel. He wakes as we search the entrance for our boatman. This morning, we will take a boat ride along the Ganges.
The man walks us to the river and introduces us to the young man who is soon guiding the heavy wooden boat into the glassy calm waters of the river.
The sun has just appeared over the horizon, but already the ghats are crowded with people. Children swim and splash around their parents, some with empty oil cans or chunks of styrofoam tied to their backs to help them float. They call to us as we row past, "The Ganges is for swimming! Join us!" The sun casts an orange glow over the river. Boats ferry large groups to the sandy riverbank opposite the city. From the gathered crowd, the sounds of a hundred laughs and yells and cries skim across the Ganges toward us.
A man rows toward us, easing alongside our boat. I buy a candle surrounded with yellow and orange marigolds. Float a flower down the Ganges for me, my mother had requested months ago. So I set it adrift, its light reflected in the stillness of the river, and hope the breeze carries the blessings of the candlelight puja across the world to her.
We row past men washing laundry below the patchwork pattern of multi-coloured clothing drying in the sun. Smoke drifts up into the morning haze from the cremation ghats. A goat chews on flower garlands nearby while a dog gnaws on a fragment of burnt bone at the riverside. Further downstream, a dense crowd fills the water while incense smoke drifts around others standing at the main ghat. Holy men swing a flaming torch to the rhythmic chiming of bells.
When our two hour boat trip is complete, we walk along the ghats in the swelling heat. It is only 7:30, but already I can feel the sun's intense rays on my neck and face. Sweat runs over my back and chest. It will get to 45 degrees again today, I think.
We pass a canal filled with dark brown sewage, a river of waste flowing out of the city. Just meters downstream from where it joins the Ganges, families are swimming and washing in the water. A body floats by -- perhaps a large dog, perhaps a half-submerged cow, its hard to tell.
The banks of this great river are lined with sadness and joy. Here, children play in the water beside old men soaking and chatting. Yet, nearby families are grieving the loss of a loved one at the cremation ghat. Alongside it all, washermen clean the cities laundry, its thwack thwack thwack pummelling against stones taking place amid black and grey ashes of the nearby cremation ghat.
Do people not care if they are swimming in sewage? If they brush their teeth in water where bodies float and human remains are left? It is difficult to understand.
* * *
I return to the ghats as the light fades while Laura rests in the air-conditioned comfort of our room. I walk past young men playing cricket while older men gather around paan and tea stalls. Everyone is moving slowly: it is still close to 40 degrees despite the setting sun.
Ahead, the ghat is lit with bright lights and filled with people, music, and colour. People have gathered at the main ghat for the evening candle ceremony. I join them and am soon surrounded by jostling men pushing for a good view. Somehow, I find myself near the front, listening to a singer and tabla played close by while a sea of people move past and around us. I watch the crowd, the nearby boats becoming silhouettes in the fading light, the tabla player as he adeptly taps the surface of the twin drums. It is one of the truths of travel, I suppose, that the simple act of waiting can become a treasured moment. Such are the minutes as I stand there sweating and watch, listen, and allow myself to simply absorb it all.
In time, I walk to the next ghat were the ceremony has already started: men move with synchronized agility as they hold a flaming torch-like candelabra skyward, its smoke drifting heavy in the light breeze. The same prayer-like motions are made facing in each direction, then repeated with a torch topped with a serpent head and piled with flower blossoms. All the while, bells are continually ringing, strings being pulled by designated people from the audience. It was a beautiful, noisy, clattering spectacle. I cannot pretend I understand the significance of the actions that were performed, but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating the beauty of it.
I cautiously walk back along the now-dark ghats. They are still cluttered with people enjoying the relative cool of the evening, however, and there is no cause for concern.
The next day, Laura is still not feeling well so I decide to explore the old city on my own. Back along the ghats I walk, this time in the 45 degree late-morning heat. The old city, when I take a lane extending up from the ghats, is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways. I struggle to keep my bearings. Soon, I am walking along a narrow lane no wider than a few metres. The crowd presses close, parting for the occasional motorcycle or bicycle that somehow manages to make its way through the narrow passage. A long line of worshippers are lined up along one side of the lane. They hold flower garlands, rice puffs, and other offerings. Some men are arguing about their place in line. A group of uniformed soldiers watch from an office. The crowd gets larger and larger as I near a large temple. As I pass the entrance, I notice soldiers with machine guns stationed atop a sandbagged fortification just inside the entry. Conflict between religious groups has always existed in India, it seems, and this place must be at risk.
I continue toward the river through the narrow alleyways. A man greets me and follows me toward the river. He wants me to come to his coffeeshop, he tells me, which is located in his house. I continue walking, confident that he wants more than someone to drink coffee with.
As I walk back along the ghats, I am offered drugs and boat trips, followed by children wanting money, and approached by men with hands outstretched in an offer of handshake (they will clutch an offered hand and force a massage on the unsuspecting tourist, not letting go till a fee is paid). I see how newly-arrived tourists could be preyed upon here, ignorant of the scams and "friendly" offers. They don't bother me much though, but it is the first time I see why others complain about the city.
On our last day, we catch a bus to nearby Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park. The place has been restored after being largely destroyed by Mughal invaders. We visit a temple where a cutting of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment grows. We also walk around the stupa built in the location where the first sermon was given. It is located in a quiet park and surrounded by ruins of ancient monasteries. If not for the heat, we would have lingered longer.
The archaeological museum at Sarnath is almost free to enter and houses beautiful carvings rescued from the ruins left by the Mughal invaders. A pedestal topped by four lions stands at the entrance; it was adopted as the national symbol of India. A massive carved stone umbrella is also displayed, impressive but I certainly would be nervous sitting under it!
We linger awhile in the air-conditioned bliss of the museum before returning to the afternoon heat. We purchase a small Buddha statue as a memento of our visit before catching a bus for the 10 km trip back to Varanasi.
So ends our time in Varanasi. We had arrived expecting this to be the most difficult city in India to visit. Guidebooks and other tourists were wrong: it is a beautiful city, a place where the sacred and the everyday meld, where the visitor can quietly watch fragments of life unfold before him. Even the autorickshaws were fair to us, giving us rates lower than that predicted by our hotel. A cyclerickshaw even gave us money back when we offered him too much for a trip!
I will add this city to the places I will always remember, together with Old Delhi and Amritsar, Varanasi has provided experiences that will always be with me when I think of India ... beautiful, tragic, sad, and happy. Nothing about India can be summed up easily.
By the way, Laura is now feeling just fine.
For more information about the Ganges ... its pollution and religious significance: