The story of being briefly stranded on the Ganges took precedence over everything in the last blog. It had to, really. But as a result, I had to skim over much of the detail that makes Varanasi such a unique place in the world. I also had to leave out how I was feeling as I arrived in one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities.
Varanasi is the final major stop on my subcontinental adventure. I’ll leave the summing up for a later edition, but I didn’t approach this place with the excitement and vigour that I would have done if I had seen it in the middle of my trip. The reason for this is because a strange feeling often takes over me on my final stop of a trip. Sometimes it’s a desire to go home (New York post-camp); other times it’s a bad experience (Amsterdam on the Eurotrip); it can even be missing the place you have just left, having spent the last year of your life living there (Kuala Lumpur after Korea). Sometimes I have been too drunk to notice (Qingdao in China), but the point is this: in my final location on an adventure, my mind seems to ‘check-out’, and consequently the place I have visited doesn’t seem…well…as good as it could be.
That’s not to say I hated those places. I loved New York, and was surprised at how much I liked KL. Amsterdam…well, I need to go back to brighten my view of that place. But this notion was eating away at my mind as I got off the train and set about finding a rickshaw to take me to the old city; the area of the ghats and the magic.
Varanasi has a reputation of being crammed with as many touts and underhand rickshaw drivers as it has narrow alleys around the ghats. If you’ve never been – that’s a lot. This, unfortunately, is true – I was being offered ridiculous prices for a ride to the old city, and was offered hash too many times to count as I meandered through the alleys. It starts the same way:
Man: ‘Hello my friend which country’
Me: ‘UK (or, if in a bad mood, China)’
Man: ‘Oh very nice place you like Varanasi yaar’
Me: ‘I just arrived’
Man: ‘Varanasi very nice listen my friend (voice quietens) I have good hash good opium’
Me: (Maybe lying) ‘I don’t smoke’
Man: ‘Oh OK…so good hash, come to my shop, very nice relax hash good –‘
That continues for a while until they finally get the point, or if they spot a soldier in their path. One man hilariously offered to take me to his ‘government shop’ for some coke, hash and opium. I know many Indians have a problem with their government, but surely…
This isn’t unique to Varanasi, however, and is something that you just have to accept will happen, to which you respond politely and with a smile, before move on without letting the irritation get to you. Not easy in the heat, but to be overwhelmed by touts and sellers would be a shame. If you surrender yourself to this holy city then you can be overwhelmed in the most positive fashion.
The mystique and magic of this place if difficult to orate. As you walk along the ghats lining the Ganges you see people unrelentingly devoted to their life and their religion. You also see scores of cricket games, which alters the mood somewhat. At the more southern ghats they have actually put holes in the steps to plant the wickets in. But even as you sit silently watching the future Tendulkar’s and Sehwag’s trying to launch a ball into the holy river you cannot escape the spirit of Varanasi. Families washing a lifetime of sin away. Prayers chanted by groups of devout Hindus. Bells being rung and drums being beaten at every turn. This city lives for faith.
This devotion is most noticeable at the ganga aarti ceremony at Desadwamedh ghat. It is an evening ceremony of puja (prayers of respect), fire and chanting. The mood is empowered by the darkness in which it is performed. The ritual itself is mesmeric, full of noise and colour. Smoke drifts from the flames as seven chosen men manoeuvre the fire in a choreographed pattern. Bells and symbols are clanged as thousands on the steps and in the boats clap and chant. It encapsulates the power of religion.
I mentioned last time that this is a place tinged with passing and death. Everything in this city revolves around the Ganges, and if you die here you are liberated from the cycle of birth and death. Religious reasoning also makes Varanasi a place where many Hindus wish to be cremated. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the cremation process is undertaken in full public view, and is graphic in the extreme. I’ll talk you through it quickly, but it’s a horrifying event which abuses most of your senses and is very difficult to stomach.
The body, covered by silky and shiny material, is carried down to the burning ghat on a stretcher by chanting men. It is then splashed with holy water from the Ganges, before being laid down whilst wood is carefully arranged. At this point a cow tried to eat the corpse, which could be funny if it wasn’t so mortifying. Imagine somebody you know, who you want to rest in peace, being devoured by a cow. No, not at all funny, actually.
The body, now removed of the silk but still wrapped in linen so it resembles an Egyptian mummy, is placed and locked into the wood. More wood is added on the top of the body and then straw, lit from an already-burning fire, is placed under the wood and body to initiate a fire which is then increased by white-hot wood from the other fire. The family members and friends then watch as the fire slowly burns away the person they once knew so intimately.
I stayed for a while, silently and respectfully watching the procedure from above, but had to turn away and hold back tears and vomit at one point. The linen is, naturally, the first layer to burn away. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was to then see a human face sticking out of the wood, being licked angrily by flames. Someone with feelings; with stories; with family. The face changed from its natural skin colour to white and then to black. A human being, being cooked like a sausage on a barbecue. A life with so many stories behind it just being burnt away, frittered into the air. The smell is pungent. Ashes float in the air. It’s overwhelming.
It’s difficult to criticise – it is a very important ritual for Hindus, and it’s a process that happens at home; just in private. It adds to the unique feel of Varanasi, just like the dozens of cows who position themselves in the river to cool off from the burning sun. I saw the burning face as I walked along the ghats towards the city’s crumbling fort. This is a long way away, so at the final ghat I had to take a cycle-rickshaw towards the bridge. Let’s just say the road was very bumpy.
The bridge across to the fort isn’t really what we may think of as a bridge. If you have ever played Mario Kart, it’s like the track which is just a wooden boardwalk with the abyss on either side. To call is rickety is a gross understatement, so to be shot across it on the back of a crazy man’s motorbike is tantamount to giving yourself a time slot in the burning ghat. Petrifying. I guess that’s the negative side to hitchhiking.
So how to describe Varanasi? Unique. Haunting. Mesmeric. Graphic. Spiritual. There are things to hate. There are things to love. There are things to sicken. There are things to hearten. There are tasty Rs3 samosas. There are distinctly sub-par parathas. There are magical lassis served by a charming local man who is fluent in Korean. There are offers for all kinds of illegal substances from not-so-charming men who struggle with English. There are alluring boatrides at dawn on a holy river. There are dead dogs in a holy river. But I’m not going to sit on the fence here and say that Varanasi is a marmite city. I really like it here. It is a fascinating place, and one which certainly will not let your mind ‘check-out’ of this fantastic country before it is time to leave.
Love you all